Early Reading Concepts (page 2)
What Reading and Writing Are For
Imagine you are visiting in a kindergarten classroom. You have a chance to talk with several children and ask them, "Why are you learning to read and write?" Some children answer, "You have to learn to read and write." When pushed, they can name all kinds of "real-world" things as reasons for reading and writing—books, newspapers, magazines, recipes, and maps. Other children respond to the why-learn-to-read-and-write question with answers such as "to do your workbook," "to read in reading group," and "to go to second grade." Children who give "school-world" answers to this critical question demonstrate that they don't see reading and writing as part of their real world. Children who don't know what reading is for in the real world do not have the same drive and motivation as children for whom reading and writing, like eating and sleeping, are things everyone does. In addition, children who pretend-read a memorized book and "write" a letter to Grandma are confident they can read and write!
Print is what you read and write. Print includes all the funny little marks—letters, punctuation, space between words and paragraphs—that translate into familiar spoken language. In English, we read across the page in a left-to-right fashion. Because our eyes can see only a few words during each stop (called a fixation), we must actually move our eyes several times to read one line of print. When we finish that line, we make a return sweep and start all over again, left to right. If there are sentences at the top of a page and a picture in the middle and more sentences at the bottom, we read the top first and then the bottom. We start at the front of a book and go toward the back. These arbitrary rules about how we proceed through print are called conventions.
Jargon refers to all the words we use to talk about reading and writing. Jargon includes such terms as word, letter, sentence, and sound. We use this jargon constantly as we try to teach beginners to read:
"Look at the first word in the second sentence. How does that word begin? What letter has that sound?"
Using some jargon is essential to talking with children about reading and writing, but children who don't come from rich literacy backgrounds are often very confused by this jargon. Although all children speak in words, they don't know words exist as separate entities until they are put in the presence of reading and writing. To many children, letters are what you get in the mailbox, sounds are horns and bells and doors slamming, and sentences are what you have to serve if you get caught committing a crime! These children are unable to follow our "simple" instructions because we are using words for which they have no meaning or an entirely different meaning.
Many children come to school knowing these print concepts. From being read to in the lap position, they have noticed how the eyes "jump" across the lines of print as someone is reading. They have watched people write grocery lists and thank-you notes to Grandma and have observed the top–bottom, left–right movement. Often, they have typed on the computer and observed these print conventions. Because they have had someone to talk with them about reading and writing, they have learned much of the jargon.
While writing down a dictated thank-you note to Grandma, Dad may say, "Say your sentence one word at a time if you want me to write it. I can't write as fast as you can talk." When the child asks how to spell birthday, he may be told, "It starts with the letter b, just like your dog Buddy's name. Birthday and Buddy start with the same sound and the same letter."
Children with reading and writing experiences know how to look at print and what teachers are talking about as they give them information about print. All children need to develop these critical understandings in order to learn to read and write.
Phonological and Phonemic Awareness
Phonological awareness and phonemic awareness are terms that refer to children's understandings about words and sounds in words. Phonological awareness is the broader term and includes the ability to separate sentences into words and words into syllables. Phonemic awareness includes the ability to recognize that words are made up of a discrete set of sounds and to manipulate sounds. Phonemic awareness is important because children's levels of phonemic awareness are highly correlated with their success in beginning reading (Ehri & Nunes, 2002; National Reading Panel, 2000). Phonological awareness develops through a series of stages during which children first become aware that language is made up of individual words, that words are made up of syllables, and that syllables are made up of phonemes. It is important to note here that it is not the "jargon" children learn. Five-year-olds cannot tell you there are three syllables in dinosaur and one syllable in Rex. What they can do is clap out the three beats in dinosaur and the one beat in Rex. Likewise, they cannot tell you that the first phoneme in mice is "mmm," but they can tell you what you would have if you took the mmm off mice—ice. Children develop this phonemic awareness as a result of the oral and written language they are exposed to. Nursery rhymes, chants, and Dr. Seuss books usually play a large role in this development.
Phonemic awareness is an oral ability. You hear the words that rhyme. You hear that baby and book begin the same. You hear the three sounds in bat and can say these sounds separately. Only when children realize that words can be changed and how changing a sound changes the word are they able to profit from instruction in letter–sound relationships.
Children also develop a sense of sounds and words as they try to write. In the beginning, many children let a single letter stand for an entire word. Later, they put more letters and often say the word they want to write, dragging out its sounds to hear what letters they might use. Children who are allowed and encouraged to "invent-spell" develop an early and strong sense of phonemic awareness.
If you sit down with kindergarteners on the first day of school and try to determine if they can read by giving them a new book to read or testing them on some common words such as the, and, of, or with, you would probably conclude that most kindergarteners can't read yet. But many kindergarteners can read and write some words. Here are some words a boy named David could read when he went to kindergarten:
Bear Bear (his favorite stuffed animal)
Carolina (his favorite basketball team)
I love you (written on notes on good days)
I hate you (written on notes on bad days)
Most children who have had reading and writing experiences will have learned 10 to 15 words before entering first grade. The words they learn are usually concrete words that are important to them. Being able to read these words is important, not because they can read much with these few words, but because children who come to school already able to read or write some concrete words have accomplished an important and difficult task. They have learned how to learn words.
Letter Names and Sounds
Finally, many children have learned some letter names and sounds. They may not be able to recognize all 26 letters in both upper- and lowercase and they often don't know the sounds of w or v, but they have learned the names and sounds for the most common letters. Usually, the letter names and sounds children know are based on those concrete words they can read and write.
From the research on emergent literacy, we understand what we mean when we say a child is "not ready." We know that many preschoolers have hundreds of hours of literacy interactions during which they develop understandings critical to their success in beginning reading. We must now structure our school programs to try to provide for all children what some children have had. This will not be an easy task. We don't have 1,000 hours, and we don't have the luxury of doing it with one child at a time, and when the child is interested in doing it! But we must do all we can, and we must do it in ways that are as close to the home experiences as possible. In the remainder of this chapter, I describe activities successfully used by kindergarten and first-grade teachers who are committed to putting all children in the presence of reading and writing and allowing all children to learn:
What reading and writing are for
Phonological and phonemic awareness
Letter names and sounds
For older children just acquiring English, these understandings are also critical for them to develop the foundation on which reading and writing can grow.
© ______ 2009, Allyn & Bacon, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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