Literacy: A Parent’s Role
Literacy is an amazing thing. It helps us read the instructions on a shampoo bottle (wet, lather, rinse, repeat) and make sense of the latest e-mail “good luck” chain (send this to 10 people, or else). As I have discussed in previous posts, oral language, reading and writing all come together in this idea of literacy. As your child’s first and most important teacher, you can do a lot to support literacy development.
For young children, adults should focus on two primary literacy goals. The first is to help them fall in love with the amazing world of stories and words. The first post in this series provided ideas on how families can support children’s oral language development. Families also support this goal by reading or telling stories with children. Even 10 minutes of reading aloud a day has a remarkable impact on children’s views of literature and future literacy attainment. Some of my best memories of my children’s childhood are of us curled up together reading stories. From Taxi Dog to the tales of Narnia, all of our lives were enriched in so many ways by our nightly literary adventures.
The second goal is to help them build a foundational understanding of literacy. For parents of young children, there are six ways they can incorporate literacy in real ways into their homes.
- Immersion means that you sprinkle your house with examples of meaningful print. This does not mean that you fill every blank space with a label or word; in this case the words become like white noise. Instead, label items that have meaning for your child (dresser drawers, containers of snack foods). Make a list with pictures and words to show how you brush your teeth or pack your bag for school.
- Engagement means showing children the many ways that literacy can be useful in life. When a children see that writing a certain word on a grocery list reminds you to get their favorite cereal, they learn that reading and writing can be useful tools, and they are more likely to want to learn how to do it.
- Demonstration means that you model for children how reading and writing work. When you trail your finger along the words you are reading or talk your way through writing (“This is a new sentence, so I will start with a big letter”), you are revealing the mysteries of reading and writing. You are making it more accessible to your child.
- Expectation means helping children see themselves (and behave) as literate human beings. Inviting your children to sign their name on a birthday card or read a familiar story (and accepting what they do or say) sends the message that you believe in their literary abilities.
- Approximation means creating an environment in which children know it is okay to make mistakes. Young children are going to write some letters backwards or confuse some letters. When the adults in their lives are supportive and reflect correct usage, instead of being overly corrective, we help build the confidence children need to take on new challenges.
- Response means taking advantage of teachable moments—for example, looking for familiar words and letters as you drive home from school together, or saying, “Let’s write a note so that we remember to take your bear into school tomorrow.” Both of these turn everyday interactions into teaching opportunities.
Once children develop the foundational understanding of literacy, the other stuff (identifying letters, matching sounds and letters, putting letters together to make words) comes more easily. For young children, we want literacy to be fun and engaging. We want them to aspire to the day when they can read stories on their own or write their own messages to friends, to reap the fruits of being fully literate human beings.