Tag Archives: early literacy

Finding the Sweet Spot for Early Literacy

It seems the older I get, the more I realize the importance of moderation.  Over and over again, I find that answers lie in between dogmatic extremes.  Perhaps nowhere is this realization more important than when considering approaches to early literacy.

When looking at the extremes of this discussion, you’ll find champions of developmentally appropriate practice who shy away from any intentional literacy experiences in the early years, relying on maturation alone to prepare young readers.  On the other extreme are those who recognize and capitalize on the young brain’s amazing ability to acquire new skills by promoting and using programs designed to churn out “readers” at astonishingly young ages.

I am a big proponent of early literacy.  I’m also a big proponent of developmentally appropriate practice.  So how can the two possibly go together? 

 Here are a few things I have considered as I form my (ever-evolving) personal philosophy of developmentally appropriate approaches to early literacy.

First of all, I defer to the experts!  Drs Carol Copple and Sue Bredekemp are recognized as experts on the topic of DAP,  and Susan Neuman is a well-known literacy expert.  Representing the IRA (International Reading Association) and NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) the three came together beginning in 1997 and crafted a joint position statement: Learning to Read and Write – Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children.   After that came even more in the form of a book by the same name (the intro is very informative and can be read here). 

Within the position statement is a careful balance between the two extremes.  In one point, the statement warns against holding to the extremes of maturationist view of reading development.  It notes that withholding literacy experiences until formal schooling puts children at a disadvantage and slows their progress.

Following right on the heels of this point, however, the next statement in the paper warns that research showing the early years to be a valuable time for acquisition of literacy skills, too often leads to the implementation of teaching strategies that are inappropriate  for young children.  These practices (the statement specifies extensive whole-group instruction and intensive drilling on isolated skills) are not only inappropriate for young children, but also less effective in building readers than is teaching a broad range of early literacy skills within the context of meaningful experiences, creating connections, and building upon prior knowledge.

The statement recognizes that literacy does not begin when a child reads his first word.  It doesn’t even begin when a child is introduced to his first letter.  The foundations for reading begin long before.  Early literacy skills include language and vocabulary, symbolic representation (think dramatic play), concepts of print, and phonological awareness.  (Read more about promoting early literacy.) 

 These skills aren’t hurried by drilling toddlers with flashcards, expensive videos, or computer programs. 

 These foundational skills are best built through rich conversation, print-rich environments, imaginative play, reading and discussing books together, singing songs, and playing with sounds.  Young children learn best in a culture of literacy, which may include snippets of direct instruction or very brief mini-lessons, but is largely based on emergent literacy, and those early literacy skills that provide the foundation for formal literacy and formal literacy instruction that will come later.

When I hear someone suggest that “formal instruction” of reading should wait until 6 or 7, I assume they don’t mean literacy shouldn’t intentionally be taught and developed in those younger children (that wouldn’t be in keeping with the position statement I cited above). I assume that they are referring to the need for children to develop these earlier foundational skills through an intentional but emergent curriculum, in order to be prepared for the more formal instructional found in the later grades.

 I think much of the driving force behind the joint statement was the discussion between the two extreme schools of thought –– those that suggested learning to read was entirely developmental and who believed adults should take a hands-off maturationist approach, and those who believed that reading is an adult-driven, learned skill that requires formal, direct instruction.

It is my personal philosophy, and I believe it is the philosophy put forth in that position statement, that there is a “sweet spot” that lies between the two. There are developmental aspects that need to be honored, natural and meaningful understandings that need to be constructed, environments and experiences that add richness, self-learning that can be encouraged and promoted, and appropriate and responsive amounts of direct instruction depending upon age and developmental levels.

Sometimes finding the sweet spot is more work than is sliding to the extremes, but experts, research, and my own experience testify that that is where young readers thrive.

What is your personal philosophy about early literacy?

Top photo by Jose A. Warletta
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Five Ways to Make Literacy Learning Meaningful

I was just re-reading this old article  from a 2005 issue NAEYC’s Young Child magazine, written by Susan Neuman and Kathleen Roskos, leading researchers in the field of early literacy.  The emphasis of the article was on the importance of creating meaningful experiences through which children can truly engage in the process of acquiring early literacy skills.  In reference to the 1998 joint position statement created by NAEYC and the International Reading Association outlining developmentally appropriate practice in literacy instruction, the authors write: 

“The research-based statement stresses that for children to become skilled readers, they need to develop a rich language and conceptual knowledge base, a broad and deep vocabulary, and verbal reasoning abilities to understand messages conveyed through print.  At the same time, it recognizes that children also must develop code-related skills” (phonological awareness, the alphabetic principle, etc.).  “But to attain a high level of skill, young children need many opportunities to develop these strands interactively, not in isolation.  Meaning, not sounds or letters, drives children’s earliest experiences with print. Therefore, the position statement points out that although specific skills like alphabet knowledge are important to literacy development, children must acquire these skills in coordination and interaction with meaningful experiences (Neuman, Bredekamp, & Copple 2000).”

How do you promote a culture of literacy, ensuring that children are learning elements of literacy within the context of meaningful experiences?  Here are some ideas I had.  I’d like to hear about yours in the comments as well.

  • Read, read, read.  Read books together, taking time to talk about what the words mean, how the characters feel, and what might happen next.  Point out words or letters that are particularly meaningful.  (“Can you find a ‘W’ like the one at the beginning of your name?”  “It says ‘stop’ four times on this page!  Here’s one.  Can you find another?”)
  • Play with words.  Incorporate words — spoken and written — into play.  Have print-rich props (menus, phone books, signs) and encourage writing with paper, pencils, typewriters, chalk boards, and clipboards.  In addition to incorporating literacy into your dramatic play, try playing games with the sounds in the words you use as well.  For example, stretch out the sounds in words (phonemes) and see if your children can put the words back together to discover the mystery word.  (“Put your hand on your h-ea-d.”)
  • Find it all around.  Find letters on your cereal boxes, words on signs, and rhymes that fall into place in a a book or in your regular conversations.  Involve children in the many ways we interact with words each day.  Cut words or letters from packaging and create a word wall or letter file.
  • Write it down.  Let children see you writing words.  Dictate their stories, label your room, send them notes, create lists, write out recipes, and post the words to songs.  Even if you think your children don’t read, they are building connections between what they see, hear, and experience.
  • Talk, talk, talk.  A child’s vocabulary is the key to finding meaning in their experiences with words.  Invite genuine conversations with your children.  Use new words and talk about their meanings or illustrate their meanings within your conversation by using synonyms.  Talk with children instead of at them.  Develop ideas and explore new possibilities.  Quality conversations mean you speak up instead of talking down to kids.

How do you create meaningful experiences while building literacy in the children you love and teach?

You may also enjoy reading the series: Why Don’t You Teach Reading: A Look at Emergent Literacy

Top photo by Aline Dassel.

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Book Activity: Max’s Words

Max's Words

It’s no secret: I love to discover a great new children’s book.  While Max’s Words by Katie Banks is not actually a “new” book (it was published in 2006), it is “new to me” and I’m so glad I found it!

In this story, Max’s brothers have huge, wonderful collections of coins and stamps, from which they certainly aren’t willing to share with Max.  So, Max decides to start his own collection.  He struggles with what he should collect before finally deciding he will collect words!  Max cuts words out of magazines and writes them on slips of paper.  The illustrations are just great in this book, with the words coming to life and taking shape to show their meanings.  “Hungry” has a bite taken out of it, and “Park” is surrounded by trees.

Max’s brothers slowly become curious, particularly when Max begins to use his words to create stories.  Eventually, the brothers realize how cool Max’s word collection is and agree to trade a stamp and a coin for a pile of words.

I love this story for the way it calls children’s attention to the power of words, and the way these individual groups of letters on a page carry so much meaning.  It’s done effectively and naturally within a fantastic story!

As just one more endearing point of note, both the author and the illustrator each have a son named Max, to whom the book is dedicated (“To my Max- KB”  “No, to MY Max- BK”).  In fact, the two have another, more recent Max book called Max’s Dragon, which I think I may have to track down as well!

After the story, join your children in searching for words and letters in magazines.  Cut the words out together and create your own word collection like Max.  You may want to create stories together or simply glue the words onto another piece of paper.  Your children may want to cut out pictures of objects they like as well, and that’s OK too!  Point out any words on the picture, find the word describing the picture on the page to cut out as well, or simply write the word on a slip of paper like Max did.

This type of activity not only gets children excited about words, but makes them more aware of environmental print and helps to reinforce print awareness– the understanding that print carries meaning, that words are constructed from letters and arranged and read in particular ways.  But perhaps most importantly, this is just a fun read that your children will enjoy sharing with you!  And that alone will go a long way in building young readers!
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The Write Way to Read

 Often, when we think of writing, we think of penmanship.  We give children handwriting guides and workbooks and think we’re teaching writing.  But truly writing in the context of developmental literacy is so much more.  In my view, writing is a display of a composite of skills:

  1. Fine Motor Skills
  2. An Understanding that Print Carries Meaning (Concepts of Print)
  3. Letter Form (Alphabet Knowledge)
  4. Breaking Words Down into Sounds and Connecting Them to Letters (Phonological Awareness/Phonics)

If you look at writing as an exercise in penmanship, you are prepared to emphasize component 1, and possibly 3.  If you are aware of the broader goal of using writing in its proper context — that of meaningful literacy — then you open up the possibility to emphasize all four aspects of early literacy on the list.

Fine Motor Skills

The act of writing requires a lot of muscle control and strength out of those tiny hands.  Provide some relief by encouraging children to write with their fingers in a cookie sheet full of cornmeal, colored sand, or salt; with fingerpaint; or in bags of goo like these (I realize they’re numbers here, but you can imagine the possibilties!).

Meanwhile, build fine motor skills by encouraging tasks that use those tiny muscles.  Use tweezers and basters in the sensory table, provide lacing boards and small legos at your working tables, and provide small collage items for picking up and plenty of playdough for kneading at the art table.  As children develop strength and dexterity in their hands and fingers, the physical act of writing becomes a bit easier.

Print Carries Meaning

As a child writes — truly writes now, not just doing handwriting exercises— that child is showing that she knows that those lines and curves tell a story or send an important message.  No matter the level of developmental progression, if a child puts marks on a page and gives them meaning, she is writing! 

Letter Form

As a child progresses through the developmental stages of writing, it becomes clear that the child’s concepts of letter shape and form are becoming more conventional.  When we allow children the opportunity to generate meaningful writing, we can (to some degree) analyze their alphabet awareness.

Words Become Sounds, Become Letters

As children are given opportunities to write, they go through the task of thinking of words, segmenting words into sounds, and then connecting those sounds with the appropriate letters to convert into print, which will later recombine into the words they were seeking to write.  That’s a very complicated process!  It essentially shows an element of competency in every aspect of early literacy. 

Even when the end result is a jagged note reading:  “i wot moR toz” (invented spelling) for “I want more toys” (conventional spelling), we can see that that child is building upon each of those fundamental literacy skills.  Encouraging children to write independently using invented spelling causes young children to go through that involved process, further strengthening essential literacy skills.  Additionally, those writing experiences tend to be more genuine, more meaningful, and as a result, more salient.

So how do you encourage more child-generated writing?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Create a writing area with basic writing supplies, which children can access at any time.
  • Rotate novel writing tools such as typewriters, envelopes, clipboards, dry erase tools, overheads, and letter magnets in and out of your writing area.
  • Designate personal journals for children to really “own” and write in their own way.
  • Create systems that encourage functional writing like lists, sign-ups, sign- ins, creating signs (great in dramatic play), and “internal mail”.
  • Do shared writing where you take turns holding the pencil, but go through the writing process together.  You can do more writing together without the early writers becoming fatigued.
  • Used shared writings to write thank you cards, letters to friends and family, record stories, and label charts.
  • “Think out loud” and model good skills as you write in front of or with your children.

How do you encourage young children to become writers?

Top photo by Weliton Slima.

Read more at Do the Write Thing.
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Say What? How a Preschooler’s Verbal Ability Influences Literacy.

Just over a month ago, I wrote Why We Should Use Big Words with Little Kids.  I would strongly recommend reading that if you haven’t already.  Today is simply an extension of that post, connecting the concepts I wrote about there, with early literacy .

Connecting the two is not hard at all when you think about it.  Oral language is the foundation for literacy!  In many cultures, stories and records began with oral traditions, which later evolved into written records.  We read and write because we are a verbal society, not the other way around.  Without a firm grasp of language and a strong vocabulary, reading becomes a series of nonsensical sounds.  It is the meaning derived from those sounds that makes it magical. 

Having a strong vocabulary also fast-tracks the decoding process and facilitates comprehension.  Think about your own reading habits.  Have you ever come across a word in print that you had never heard before?  In case you haven’t, here’s one to try: sgiomlaireached.  Did you suddenly sound like a struggling reader?  As you decoded that word, how certain were you that you had done so correctly?  It’s much harder to read words we don’t have in our own vocabulary.  (By the way, if your curiosity has gotten to you, you can find the definition–as well as several other strange words here.)

Be Language Rich

So here are a few ways to enhance oral language skills with those you love and teach:

  • Read and discuss a variety of genres.
  • Engage in dialogic reading. (using “WH” questions during shared reading — “Why did he hide in the tree?”  “Who is he talking about?”)
  • Use rare words around children.  Not necessarily those on the list I mentioned above, but  words adults often “dumb down” for kids.   I often dangle out a new word and wait for children to ask what it means — showing me they’re thinking about words.  Or I’ll use a new word, followed by simpler words that clarify the meaning.
  • Be expressive, narrative, and engaging as you speak or read.
  • Engage in (and encourage) original story-telling as well as story-acting.
  • Use decontextualized speech (talking about the “there” and “then” rather than the “here” and “now”).  This helps make that mental connection to the abstract.
  • Support dramatic play.
  • Encourage conversation.  Children obviously build more verbal skills by being verbal than by passively listening to lectures. 
  • Provide puppets for children to use.  This is particularly useful for children who may be too shy to speak up on their own.
  • Let children be heard!  Use PVC phones (which are quite easy to create yourselves from run-of-the-mill pipes at Home Depot) to help children hear themselves (which also encourages fluency and phonological awareness).  Provide  microphones.  Whether pretend, connected to an amplifier, or the echo type found in dollar stores,  these props encourage children to speak and can create a system for taking turns speaking.
  • Create a word journal where children can write (or have you write) new and interesting words which they can then illustrate to convey personal meaning.

How do you encourage verbal growth in the children you love and teach?

Top photo by Tim & Annette.
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Do You Hear That? Why Phonological Awareness is So Important for Preschoolers

Phonological Awareness is quite possibly my favorite early literacy  skill to discuss.  Partly because many people are already implementing it to some degree without recognizing it (remember: recognize, emphasize, maximize), but also because many resources and studies suggest that it is the #1 predictor of reading success.  Which is often surprising to people, since it has nothing to do with letters on a page.

I wrote about phonological awareness a while back , but this is a topic that could be written on for days!   Here are a few more insights to phonological awareness, what it is, why it’s important, and how it is learned.

A Few Definitions

Phonological Awareness vs. Phonemic Awareness.  Phonological awareness has to do with the child’s ability to hear and manipulate the sounds within words.  This includes phonemes, syllables, rhyming, blending, segmenting, and even recognizing the number of words within a sentence.  Phonemic awareness has to do more specifically with the individual phonemes in words, and is therefore sort of a subheading under the larger, overarching term phonological awareness.  The two, however, are quite similar and are used interchangeably in most of the literature on the subject, and are often abbreviated as simply PA

What’s a phoneme?  Phonemes are the smallest unit of sound in words.  The word “cat”, for example, has three letters, one syllable, but three phonemes, /k/ /a/ /t/.    The word “tree” is also one syllable, has four letters, but has only three phonemes as well, /t/ /r/ /ē/.  There are only 26 letters in the alphabet, but there are 44 phonemes in the English language.  (You can download a chart of the phonemes from docstoc here.)

Phonics vs Phonological Awareness.  Phonological awareness is a skill based solely on hearing and manipulating sounds.  It is not a written task and is not dependent upon meaning.  (So Zax and tracks do rhyme.  Just one more reason why Dr. Seuss is so great!)  Phonological awareness focuses on isolating the task of hearing the subtle sounds in words.  Phonics begins to connect those individual sounds to the written letters that create them.  It is necessary to have a solid foundation in phonological awareness to truly benefit from phonics training.

The Tasks

While there are many ways to categorize the skills involved in phonological awareness, Marilyn Jager Adams, a highly regarded literacy expert, outlined five tasks in relation to PA.  The progression of skill mastery projects through first grade, so don’t expect your preschoolers to do them all right now!  They are also not listed in a progressive order, but varying levels of mastery may be accomplished across each of the skills as individual children move towards proficiency.  And competency continues to develop, even after children have begun to read.  I’ll briefly outline those five tasks here, along with examples for each.

Rhythm, Rhyme, and Alliteration

  • Utilize a variety of poems, fingerplays,songs, nursery rhymes, and rhyming stories.
  • Encourage nonsense words in rhymes.
  • Clap, pat, and drum rhythms in songs and rhymes.
  • Substitute rhyming words in directions and transitions (“Pally can go to snack” –instead of “Sally”.)

Oddity Tasks

  • In a set, identify the object that differs phonemically in a specified position.  For example, in the set cat, can, and mouse, which word starts with a different sound?
  • Identify the word that does not rhyme in a given set.  For example: rock, pig, sock.
  •  Use a puppet or picture cut out to “eat” the object that doesn’t belong.
  • Use a giant felt X to X-out the picture of the “trickster”.

Orally Blend and Divide Words

  • Use visuals like a rubber band, slinky, or hands to “stretch” out the sounds in a word and then quickly and smoothly blend them together.  Break words up phonetically or by onset and rime.  (l-a-dd-er or l-adder, respectively)  Use it as a “sneaky word” activity, with you dividing and the children blending to guess the word!
  • Have children talk like a robot – they naturally divide along syllables.
  • Use rhythm sticks , drums, or simply clap to beat out syllables in names and words.  (I love to use a pumpkin as a drum for this task in the fall.)

Orally Segmenting Words

  • Have children use counters or Elkonin boxes to count the number of sounds in a word.
  • Have children sort pictures according to the number of sounds in the words.  (3= pot, cat, dad; 4= water, dance, jump)
  • Encourage children to talk like a turtle, slowing down to divide into phonemes.

Manipulation of Sounds

  • Children develop the ability to delete and substitute phonemes within words.
  • Give clues for a “mystery word.” (It rhymes with rose, but starts with /n/.)
  • If I said “book” without the /b/, what would it sound like?  (“ook”)

Two Tips

There are two things I feel are necessary to point out before you jump into more PA training.  First, it is very important to model correct pronunciation, especially when doing PA exercises.  For example, if you (as many around here do) pronounce “mountain” as “mou’en”, a child will not be able to correctly identify the phonemes in that word.  Secondly, since PA activities often rely on pictures rather than written words, it is important to clarify with your children, exactly what word each picture represents.  Children will have a hard time matching “bug” and “rug” if they are looking at them as a “beetle” and a “place mat”.

Great Activities!

Part of what makes phonological awareness so great is the fact that it really can be fun!  It’s all about playing with the sounds in words.  There are three books that I use, which are full of great activities as well as more information on the topic of PA.  You might want to check one out for yourself! 

How do you encourage the children you love and teach to get ready to read by playing with the sounds in words?

 Photo by Charlie Balch.
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Words, Words, Words. Building Print Concepts with Preschoolers

Before a child can begin to put the sounds together to read about Sam and his green eggs, he must have mastered the concepts of print.  In large part, this means that he understands that letters can combine to make words and that written words convey meaning.  It requires some abstract thinking, as a child comes to realize that these organized symbols represent spoken words, which in turn, represent actual objects and ideas.  Concepts of print also includes directionality (left to right, top to bottom) and function.  So how do you go about instilling children with an understanding of the concepts of print?  Here are a few ideas:

Hit the Books

Sharing books with children is one of the best ways to help them learn that print carries meaning.  We don’t often think about it as a learned skill, but children do need to learn how books “work”.  Point out the title as well as the author and illustrator names.  Use those terms and talk about how the children are authors and illustrators too!  As you read, children are learning how to hold a book, where the text is, that print flows from left to right and top to bottom(if you are following along with your finger or a pointer), and which direction the pages turn.  So many concepts in one enjoyable experience!  Now, don’t bore your children with these concepts; there’s no need to belabor the point.  Simply be aware of them so that you know when and how to emphasize them, and also recognize when children are beginning to master some of these concepts.

Environmental Print

The term, “environmental print” does not refer to the Sierra Club’s latest newsletter.  Environmental print includes the printed words that children see and interact with on a regular basis.  These are often the first words children can “read” by sight, because they become meaningful and familiar.  Environmental print can consist of signs, labels, charts, and branding.  Yes, as much as we may not like the barrage of marketing towards children, the fact that your child can “read” the word Cars on any Pixar packaging, means he is building concepts of print.

 A World of Words.  One way to draw attention to environmental print is to create a word wall.  There are many ways to use a word wall, but one great way is for collecting environmental print.  This means that the children cut out words (and some accompanying pictures) from cereal boxes, magazines, and even fast food take-out containers.  Each word is then discussed and analyzed and attached to the wall near the letter of the alphabet that is at the beginning of the word.  So, near the letter P, you may have labels for pizza, popsicles, popcorn, and princesses.  This not only emphasizes the meaning of the words, the similar beginning sounds, but also the salient features of letter formation in spite of different fonts and scripts. 

If you don’t have a wall to devote to the activity, create a binder divided by the letters of the alphabet and insert the words in the appropriate sections.  It’s amazing how this type of ongoing, child-driven activity can make children more aware of the words around them.  You’ll be amazed at how many words your children can already “read”.

What’s Your Function?  Utilizing functional print is another great way to fill the child’s environment with print.  Your OCD persona can rejoice as you label shelves, bins, and cupboards with their contents.  Create schedules that combine written words with pictures.  Put up signs to label rooms, exits, pet cages and aquariums, even doors and windows.  Teach children to use functional print like this to communicate with other children, as well as sign-ups to organize turn-taking.  Point out the written recipes during cooking activities and written lyrics during singing time– even when they already know the song by heart.  Anything that uses print to perform a function.  (That’s where that catchy term comes from.)  Connecting theses printed words to the words they use and the objects and ideas they are familiar with creates powerful connections.

By Any Other Name

One of the most powerful words to teach a child to recognize in print is his or her own name.  Help children to recognize their own names by using nametags, sign-in activities (even if they can’t write their own names conventionally), and cubby labels.  Label their artwork in front of them, post their names on job charts, and use their names in mystery word activities (where you write or reveal one letter at a time, causing them to recognize the difference between Ashley and Ainsley, while again seeing that words begin on the left and add on to the right).  Names are a source of pride and belonging, and children are usually highly motivated to learn to “read” them.

As you surround children with meaningful print, and engage them with it in useful ways, pointing out how words are constructed and the way print flows, children begin to learn information essential to their reading success.  When you recognize what these concepts are and how children can learn them, you can emphasize these aspects during child-centered, playful activities.  When you have prepared yourself and your environment, you can maximize the learning that can take place all around you in natural ways.

What do you do to encourage children to learn about the concepts of print?

Top photo by Terri-Ann Hanlon.

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Begin reading this series on Emergent Literacy HERE.


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