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Improving Reading Skills Through Everyday Experiences

by Joan Lessen-Firestone, Ph.D. | August 16, 2011 | Early Education & Literacy

What do children need to know as preschoolers to set them on the path toward high academic achievement? Do the children who know the most letters and letter sounds when they start kindergarten excel in reading later on, or are other kinds of early knowledge more important? Newly published findings from the first nationally representative study reveal some surprising answers.

The study, which followed more than 4,000 children from the time they started kindergarten until they completed middle school, found that young children who had more early reading knowledge were slightly better readers when they entered middle school, but preschoolers’ general knowledge of the world was found to be a much stronger predictor of their later success in reading. So while we don’t want to forget about helping our young children learn letter sounds and rhymes, we know these early reading skills aren’t enough for our children to succeed in school. Ensuring that our children learn and understand more about the world around them is vitally important for their later academic success.

Young children’s knowledge of the world is focused on a simple understanding of those beginning science and social studies concepts found naturally in their everyday lives. As they watch plants grow, mix ingredients to bake muffins and roll cars down ramps, preschoolers are learning basic biological, chemical and physical science.

Similarly, celebrating holidays, following rules and saving up pennies help our children begin to learn about history, government, economics and other aspects of social studies. Children who experience many such opportunities, and are encouraged to talk about them with interested adults, develop the world knowledge that allows them to excel in school.

Researchers think that a foundation of world knowledge becomes especially important to school success at the point when teachers expect children to learn new concepts independently by reading textbooks. We know that children’s ability to understand the new, often abstract material they read is greater when they have previously had real-life experiences with the concepts involved. Children who have been to the ocean will more easily understand the concept of tides, while those who have been outside in a rural area on a clear night will have a better conception of the Milky Way.

While no parent can provide his or her child with every possible experience, there are some simple things you can do that will expand your child’s knowledge of the world.

  • Make use of your everyday experiences. As adults, we tend to ignore many commonplace things routinely happening around us. But these same things are novel and enlightening to our children. So try to point out a few things each day that are tied to basic science and social studies concepts. Things like the buds forming on the rosebush, the toys that float (and those that sink) in the bathtub and the help provided by a mail carrier are just a few examples.
  • Expose your child to a variety of easily available experiences. Wherever you live, it is likely that there is a hiking path, a body of water, a downtown, a rural area and other such things within a short distance. The more different types of environments your child experiences and discusses with you, the more he or she will learn about the world. If there are farms, zoos, orchards, museums and the like available, these are also wonderful places for visits.
  • Use specific vocabulary to enrich your experiences. Talk about the “evaporation” of a rain puddle, the many “grains” of sand at the beach or the “crunch” of the leaves in the fall so your child develops a vocabulary to match his or her expanding knowledge. This will help children share their experiences with others and prepare them for the language of books.

Joan Firestone, Ph.D.

Joan is a leading educational expert on brain development, early care and education and emerging literacy. A past president of the Michigan Early Childhood Education Consortium and the Michigan Association for the Education of Young Children and a recent Governing Board member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, she has written and spoken extensively on the development and education of young children and their families. Read more from Joan on our blog.