Helping Families Facilitate Language and Literacy Development
Collin (1992, p. 2) refers to the parents’ nurturing role in their child’s literacy development as “planting the seeds of literacy.” Almost all parents want to plant these seeds, but many are unsure of the best way to begin. Similarly, most parents and other primary caregivers vastly underestimate the importance of their role in helping children become competent language users (McNeal, 1999). In this article, we discuss strategies teachers can use to inform parents of all cultures and other primary caregivers about the critical role they play in their child’s language and literacy development, and how parents and teachers can work together to enhance language and reading and writing opportunities in the home.
Parents play a critical role in helping children learn about print. Many children learn about literacy very early. This task is accomplished quite naturally as children sit on the laps of parents, other family members, or caregivers sharing a storybook. Surrounded by love, these children easily learn about the functions of print and the joys of reading. Being read to at home facilitates the onset of reading, reading fluency, and reading enjoyment. Unfortunately, a growing number of studies have documented a lack of parent–child reading opportunities, especially in low-income homes (Christian, Morrison, & Bryant, 1998; Griffin & Morrison, 1997). Lesley Morrow (1988) surveyed parents of children in three preschools serving poor families (incomes of less than $10,000, 40 percent minority, 75 percent single-parent headed). Ninety percent of these parents indicated that they read to their children only once a month or less! This lack of parental involvement may have a significant effect on the children’s learning throughout their schooling. For example, Billie Enz’s (1992) study of 400 high school sophomores revealed that 70 percent of the remedial readers could not recall being read to by their parents as children, while 96 percent of the students in advanced placement courses reported that their parents had read to them regularly. In essence, it appears that a child’s future literacy and subsequent success in school depend on parents’ ability and willingness to provide the child with thousands of planned and spontaneous encounters with print (Enz & Searfoss, 1995).
Parental involvement also has an important effect on children’s writing development. In the following example, notice how four-year-old Timeka’s early attempts at writing are subtly supported by her mother:
Sitting at a table with crayon in hand, Timeka is engrossed in making squiggly lines across a large paper. Timeka’s mother, sitting across from her, is busy writing checks. After Timeka finishes her writing, she folds her paper and asks her mother for an envelope so she can “pay the bank, too.” As mother smiles and gives Timeka the envelope, she remarks, “Good, our bank needs your money.”
This brief example illustrates how Timeka is taking her first steps to becoming literate. While most children need formal instruction to learn to read and write conventionally, children who have parents who guide and support their beginning literacy efforts learn to read and write more quickly. As Timeka observes her parents and other adults writing, she discovers that these marks have purpose and meaning. Timeka then imitates, to the best of her ability, this process. Since the adults in Timeka’s life also regard her efforts as meaningful, Timeka is encouraged to refine both her understanding of the functions of print and her writing skills. In that regard, Timeka’s scribbles are to writing as her babbling was to talking. Because her parents approve and support her attempts instead of criticizing or correcting them, Timeka practices both talking and writing. This dual effort also simultaneously develops her understanding that words and thoughts can be expressed both orally and in print (Fields, Spangler, & Lee, 1991). Parents who value their children’s growing literacy abilities also encourage their development.
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