How a Child Becomes a Reader: Birth through Preschool (page 3)
When does a child learn to read? Many people might say, "in kindergarten or first grade." But researchers have told us something very important. Learning to read and write can start at home, long before children go to school. Children can start down the road to becoming readers from the day they are born.
Very early, children begin to learn about spoken language when they hear their family members talking, laughing, and singing, and when they respond to all of the sounds that fill their world. They begin to understand written language when they hear adults read stories to them and see adults reading newspapers, magazines, and books for themselves. These early experiences with spoken and written language set the stage for children to become successful readers and writers.
Mothers, fathers, grandparents, and caregivers, this booklet is for you. It gives ideas for playing, talking, and reading with your child that will help him* become a good reader and writer later in life. You don't need special training or expensive materials. For your baby or toddler, you can just include some simple, fun language games and activities into the things you already do together every day. For your preschooler, you can keep in touch with your child's teachers so that you know what he is learning in school and support that learning at home.
The building blocks of reading and writing
From several decades of research, we have learned a lot about how children learn to read and write. This research tells us that to become skilled and confident readers over time, young children need lots of opportunities to:
- build spoken language by talking and listening
- learn about print and books
- learn about the sounds of spoken language (this is called phonological awareness)
- learn about the letters of the alphabet
- listen to books read aloud
Talking and listening
Remember the old saying "children should be seen and not heard"? Research tells us that for children to become readers, they should listen and talk a lot.
By the time children are one year old, they already know a lot about spoken language--talking and listening. They recognize some speech sounds. They know which sounds make the words that are important to them. They begin to imitate those sounds. Children learn all of this by listening to family members talk. Even "baby talk," which exaggerates the sounds and rhythms of words, makes a contribution to children's ability to understand language. Children who do not hear a lot of talk and who are not encouraged to talk themselves often have problems learning to read.
The information in this booklet comes from many research studies that examined early literacy development. The reports and books listed at the back of this booklet offer more research-based information about how children learn to read and write.
Print and books
Even though books don't come with operating instructions, we use them in certain ways. We hold them right side-up. We turn the pages one at a time. We read lines of words starting at the left and moving to the right. Knowing about print and books and how they are used is called print awareness.
Print awareness is an important part of knowing how to read and write. Children who know about print understand that the words they see in print and the words they speak and hear are related. They will use and see print a lot, even when they're young--on signs and billboards, in alphabet books and storybooks, and in labels, magazines, and newspapers. They see family members use print, and they learn that print is all around them and that it is used for different purposes.
Sounds in spoken language
Some words rhyme. Sentences are made up of separate words. Words have parts called syllables. The words bag, ball, and bug all begin with the same sound. When a child begins to notice and understand these things about spoken language, he is developing phonological awareness--the ability to hear and work with the sounds of spoken language.
When a child also begins to understand that spoken words are made up of separate, small sounds, he is developing phonemic awareness. These individual sounds in spoken language are called phonemes. For example, the word big has three phonemes, /b/, /i/, and /g/.*
Children who have phonemic awareness can take spoken words apart sound by sound (the name for this is segmentation) and put together sounds to make words (the name for this is blending). Research shows that how easily children learn to read can depend on how much phonological and phonemic awareness they have.
* A letter between slash marks, /b/, shows the phoneme, or sound, that the letter represents, and not the name of the letter. For example, the letter b represents the sound /b/.
Singing the alphabet song is more than just a fun activity. Children who go to kindergarten already knowing the shapes and names of the letters of the alphabet, and how to write them, have an easier time learning to read. Knowing the names and shapes of letters is sometimes called alphabetic knowledge.
Reading aloud to children has been called the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for success in reading. Reading aloud, with children participating actively, helps children learn new words, learn more about the world, learn about written language, and see the connection between words that are spoken and words that are written.
Birth to Age 2: What to do at home
Talking to and reading to infants and toddlers are two good ways to prepare them for later success in reading.
Talk to your child
- Begin talking and singing to your child from birth. Your baby loves hearing your voice. Play peek-a-boo and pat-a-cake. Recite nursery rhymes or other verses that have strong rhythms and repeated sounds. Sing lullabies and other songs.
- Let your baby know that you hear her babbles, coos, and gurgles. Repeat the sounds she makes. Smile back. When you respond to her sounds, she learns that what she "says" means something and is important to you. Sometimes, you can supply the language for her.
When your baby stretches her arm toward her bottle and says,
"ga-ga-ga," say, "Oh, you're ready for some more milk?
Here's your milk. Isn't it good!"
- Play simple touching and talking games together. These games help a child learn what different parts of the body are called.
Ask "Where are your toes?"
Then touch your child's toes and say, "Here are your toes!"
Repeat several times, then switch to fingers or ears or eyes or the nose.
- Point to familiar objects and name them. When a child hears an object called the same name over and over, he learns to connect the spoken word with its meaning.
"Here's your blanket. Your very favorite blanket.
What a nice, soft blanket!"
- When your child begins to speak, build his language. A child starts talking by using single words and short sentences. You can help by filling in missing words and using complete sentences.
Parent: "Oh, you want another cookie?
OK, you can have just one more."
Child: "Go car."
Parent: "Yes, we're all going to go in the car.
But first, you have to put on your coat."
- Encourage your child to talk with you. Ask questions that show you are interested in what she thinks and says. Ask her to share ideas and events that are important to her. Ask her questions that require her to talk, rather than just to give yes or no answers. Listen carefully to what she says.
"What would you like to do next?"
"What do you suppose made that big noise?"
- Answer your child's questions. Listen to your child's questions and answer them patiently. Take time to explain things to him as completely as you can. Keep answering questions that your child asks again and again, because children learn from hearing things over and over.
Read to your child
- Make reading a pleasure. Read to your child in a comfortable place. Have her sit on your lap or next to you so that she can see and point to the print and the pictures. Show her that reading is fun and rewarding.
- Show enthusiasm as you read with your child. Read the story with expression. Make it more interesting by talking as the characters would talk, making sound effects, and making expressions with your face and hands. When children enjoy being read to, they will grow to love books and be eager to learn to read them.
- Read to your child often. Set aside special times for reading each day, maybe after lunch and at bedtime. The more you can read to him, the better--as long as he is willing to listen. Reading times can be brief, about 5 to 10 minutes.
- Talk with your child as you read together. Comment about what's happening in the story. Point to pictures and talk about what's happening in them. When your child is ready, have him tell you about the pictures.
"See the cat under the tree?"
"Look, the family is getting into a car. I wonder where they're going?"
"What's happening on this page?"
- Encourage your child to explore books. Give your baby sturdy books to look at, touch, and hold. Allow her to turn the pages, look through the holes, or lift the flaps. As your child grows older, keep books on low shelves or in baskets where she can see them and get them herself. Encourage her to look through the books and talk about them. She may talk about the pictures. She may "pretend" to read a book that she has heard many times. Or, she may pretend read based only on the pictures.
- Read favorite books again and again. Your child will probably ask you to read favorite books many times. You might get tired of reading the same books, but children love hearing the same stories again. And it helps them learn to read by hearing familiar words and seeing what they look like in print.
Even six-week-old babies like the feeling of closeness when a parent, grandparent, or other caretaker reads to them. When children find out that reading with a loving adult can be a warm, happy experience, they begin to build a lifelong love of reading.
Reading aloud also helps children learn specific things about reading and words.
- About books...how to hold them. How to turn the pages one at a time. How books have words and pictures to help tell the story.
- About print...there is a difference between words and the pictures. You read words and look at pictures.
- About words...every word has a meaning. There are always new words to learn.
- About book language...sometimes book language sounds different from everyday conversation.
- About the world...there are objects, places, events, and situations that they have not heard about before.
Reprinted with the permission of the National Institute for Literacy.
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