Tag Archives: emergent literacy

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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Next Time Won’t You Sing With Me? Sharing Alphabet Knowledge with Preschoolers

If you were to ask anyone on the street where you should start “teaching” children to read, I’d be willing to bet the most common answer would be “the alphabet”.  True, the alphabet is a pretty basic part of reading, and certainly important, but it’s just a small piece of a much larger puzzle.  Nonetheless, let’s start there!

As we talk about emergent literacy, we are focusing on the importance of building fundamental literacy skills before children are even ready your basic primer.  These basic skills are critical to future reading success, and are often taught through play, songs, interactive discussions, and other “covert operations”. 

That said, I do believe in mixing in some direct instruction to ensure that you cover them all (it would be a shame to leave old Q out of the mix by happenstance).  These instruction sessions should be very brief and dynamic.  I like to use The Amazing Action Alphabet by Esther Kehl (you can see a sample page from this link) because the lessons are very short, and incorporate seeing, hearing, and doing.  (Note: This is not a compensated endorsement,  it’s just what I’m familiar with.)  I like the interactive storytelling approach to the mini-lesson, but I don’t build my literacy program around it.  I use it as a reference point, to make sure each letter has been introduced.

Including the emergent element to your literacy program adds interest and context, which provides for greater learning because the experience is more meaningful.  Literacy is all about meaning!  So it only makes sense that we must teach literacy with meaning!  Here are some activities to encourage alphabet knowledge:

Letters Everywhere

Provide a multiplicity of opportunities for children to manipulate, examine, and utilize letters.  You can provide alphabet magnets, puzzles, texture cards, beads, and tiles, just to name a few examples.  Manipulating and “playing” with these items, while you interact, helps the child become familiar with the shapes, names, and some of the sounds of the letters (as well as the distinction between letters and numbers, which shouldn’t be overlooked as a task in its own right!)

Letter Hunters

Challenge children to go on letter hunts whenever you find the opportunity.  This might be while you’re reading a book, driving down the street, or killing time waiting in line somewhere.  Challenge them to find a specific letter, or just to find their favorites and point them out to you. 

Make it exciting by giving them props like magnifiers, magic wands, silly glasses, fly-swatters, or pointer sticks as they go about “hunting for letters”.

Laminate song charts and use dry-erase markers to circle letters, identifying them as parts of the words.  “Hey, there’s a W in this song– in the word, Willoughby!”  You can also use overhead sheets to lay over books to circle letters in a letter hunt (just be sure to clarify to the little ones that you can only write on the plastic page).

Letter Families (High Scope)

I read in this book about the concept of letter families.  That is, sorting 2 different letters in a variety of fonts into the two letter families (say, D and S for example).  This type of activity helps a child recognize the salient aspects of each letter form, so that they learn that a “Flowy Scripted D” is the same letter as a “Times New Roman D”.  You can create letter family cards with your computer, or combine activities, and have your children help you create the cards by hunting out the letters in magazines.

It Takes Shape

Encourage children to get familiar with the letter forms by creating them!  Rather than having children burn out in frustration as they repetitiously print letters on a worksheet (many youngsters don’t have the patience or the fine motor skills), allow them to create letters using different materials.  Consider using yarn, licorice string, wikki stix, playdough, cookie cutters, soft pretzel dough,  typewriters, stamps, even their own bodies!

Mystery Letter

I’m not sure where I learned about this activity…it may have been in the book I mentioned above.  (Just trying to give credit!)  Have children try to guess what mystery letter you’re writing as you slowly print one part at a time.  For example:  l (L? B? H?)-> P (P? B? R?) -> R (Ta-Da!  It’s an R!)  This type of activity, again, gets children familiar with the salient features of each letter, while also exercising their critical thinking skills!

In a nutshell, you want to get children familiar with the letters—their shapes, their names, some of their sounds, and their purpose in building words.  Do this by surrounding them with print, talking about it, and playing with it!

How do you get kids excited about learning the letters of the alphabet?

Photo by Thad Zajdowicz.
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You may also be interested in: Does Your Alphabet Chart Need to Be Recalled?

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Why Don’t You Teach Reading? A Look at Emergent Literacy

Many developmentally appropriate preschool teachers have been asked, “Why don’t you teach reading?”  The question is innocent.  But teachers often come away frustrated, as most of what they do is focused on building successful readers.  Often, outside observers are looking for reading worksheets and primers and long stretches of direct phonics instruction.  The trick is, in these early years, so much is being done to build successful readers, but it is in the form of emergent or early literacy skills, which are much less visible to the untrained eye. 

Seeing is Believing

Part of why these early literacy skills are difficult to spot in a developmentally appropriate classroom is the fact that they are often integrated into a larger culture of literacy.  They come up in songs and games and spontaneous conversations.  They are reinforced as children play restaurant and bake cookies and share silly stories.  There is a lot of overlap with these skills, and they can be taught both in planned and unforseen contexts. 

Once you recognize the elements of early literacy, you will see opportunities to teach them all around you!  As I’ve stated before, when you recognize your learning objectives, you can emphasize them in meaningful and even serendipitous contexts, thereby maximizing the learning outcomes.

A Solid Foundation

The elements of emergent literacy that I will be focusing on for the next few posts are:

Alphabet Knowledge

Phonological Awareness

Writing

Oral Language Skills, and

Print Concepts

Knowledge of these concepts begins developing from birth and encompasses critical skills a child must master before ever approaching any of the more conventional literacy skills like decoding and spelling.  Trying to jump straight to the conventional skills without a strong base of early skills would be like trying to build the walls of a house without a strong foundation to attach them to.  In truth, many children who struggle with conventional literacy skills in the primary grades need remedial help in building these foundational understandings taught and acquired as early literacy skills. 

As logic would suggest, early literacy skills predict primary grade literacy skills which then predict later school success.  It’s one long chain of dominoes.  Getting a solid start will help to ensure those dominoes all fall the right way.  So for the next several posts, I hope to share some insights on each of these elements of early literacy and some fun and effective ways to foster these skills in the children you love and teach!

Chime in !  What are some of your biggest concerns about supporting early literacy?

Photo by Antoni Ruggiero.
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