My favorite Grow a Reader practice in the whole world is (drumroll please!) . . . PLAYING! Goofing off. Clowning around. Kicking up your heels.
But shouldn’t a pre-literacy practice require, oh I dunno—something like . . . practice?
Of course, playing comes very easily to most children. But don’t be fooled into thinking that because it comes naturally, playing doesn’t have value. Playing gives kids practice at thinking symbolically and using their imaginations. And, since words are basically just symbols for objects, actions, and ideas, learning to think symbolically is a priceless pre-literacy skill.*
Some of the best stories come from young children just when their words start to catch up to their imaginations. All we have to do is sit back and listen. Well, maybe not quite. There are things we can do to help along these narrative skills, and they are an important part of learning to read.
Narrative skills refer to the ability to describe things and events and tell stories. Research shows that using expressive language to retell stories helps children understand what they hear and read. This later helps them when they are reading. You can find more information and evidence supporting early literacy and early learning at the Books Build Connections site of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“That’s not what you do with a saw!” the preschooler said, giggling, as he looked at a page from Oliver Jeffers’ picture book Stuck. Soon enough, the rest of the Grow a Reader class joined him in laughter as luckless character Floyd threw increasingly unrealistic objects into a tree, all in the effort to get his kite unstuck.
Such an interaction between book and children is a rewarding thing to witness. It’s also a perfect example of print motivation, one of the six early literacy skills that are important for setting your children on a successful reading path. Print motivation is an interest in and the enjoyment of books and reading. It’s an important practice that needs to be reinforced throughout childhood because, according to research by Sharon Rosenkoetter and Lauren R. Barton in the journal Zero to Three, “Reading together is more significant than targeting any specific content or skills.” Luckily, print motivation is also one of the easiest literacy skills to tackle.
Talking with young children is so important! When you talk with your baby, your baby is hearing the sounds of the languages you speak and learning what words mean as you point to and label things. When you add new words and information to conversations with your children, you are developing their vocabularies and knowledge of their world.
There tend to be two kinds of “talk”—“business talk” and “play talk.” Business talk is directive, short, and to the point. Play talk, on the other hand, is responsive to the child, imaginative and often silly, while being open-ended and encouraging. It also offers choices and asks questions. Research has shown that the amount of "play talk" that children receive prior to 3 years of age predicts their intellectual accomplishments at age 9 and beyond. Amazing!
“Willoughby wallaby wee, an elephant sat on me.
Willoughby wallaby woo, an elephant sat on you.
Willoughby wallaby Wustin, an elephant sat on Justin.
Willoughby wallaby Wania, an elephant sat on Tania.”
Raffi may sound like he’s singing nonsense (well, I suppose he really is!), but there’s a method to his silliness. What he is playfully introducing and emphasizing is a pre-reading skill called Phonological Awareness. In other words, the rhyming and alliteration he so wonderfully uses helps a child hear and play with the smaller sounds of words, which, in turn, lays the foundation for sounding out words when beginning to read.
As adults, we often take the vocabulary we read in our books for granted, but, for a child, that vocabulary is like a treasure, waiting to be discovered through the sands of all the other words in a story. Children are still building a base of words, and often times it’s not until they ask for a definition that we adults realize that children don’t always know what we’re saying.
For me, the realization came during one of my Mother Goose Time Grow a Reader classes. I was reading Oh My Oh My Oh, Dinosaurs by Sandra Boynton (a favorite author of mine). At one point she tells of the dinosaurs of being crammed in an elevator. A child quickly interrupted me and asked me what crammed meant . . . and I had to think about it! It’s one of those words we adults just know, but how to define it in a way that a young child would understand? I think I ended up defining it by example. I asked her if she had ever put all of her stuffed animals into a small space where they didn’t really fit. She said yes, and I told her that means she crammed them into a location—just like the dinosaurs were crammed in the elevator!
One of my favorite things to do when reading with young children is to pretend that I’ve forgotten how to hold a book. Do we start in the middle? No, that’s funny! Can we read the book backwards or upside down? Of course, not!
Children love to make connections between written language and the words that they hear spoken aloud, especially while having fun and enjoying books together. Understanding how books work and that the text on a page has meaning is called print awareness, an important early literacy skill for children to develop on their way to reading.
Gone are the libraries with librarians shushing children for the slightest noise. Now we have libraries that encourage play and having fun, all while getting children ready to read.