Two Children Writing

Early learners in PLNU’s Early Childhood Learning Center (ECLC) have participated in a themed dramatic play project with the children’s book, This is the Stable, by Cynthia Cotten. They’ve practiced it, dressed up as the characters, acted out the story line, and said the words over and over—and they aren’t in kindergarten yet. Because the teachers have spent intentional time reading the story in engaging ways and helping children make connections with its words, the children now know the book from all angles.

At the ECLC, the teachers understand the importance of early literacy development, which current research stresses. According to a study by the National Early Literacy Panel, children who develop more literacy skills in the preschool years perform better in the primary grades.

But this isn’t just a nice idea.

With research showing that more than a third of all American fourth graders lack the reading skills necessary to complete their coursework successfully, it’s crucial children begin literacy development at an early age.

Dr. Conni Campbell, associate dean in the School of Education, shared insight into this problem by explaining that the gap between language-advanced and language-delayed children entering kindergarten grows throughout the elementary school years.

And according to Dr. Susan Rogers, academic director of the ECLC and chair of the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, this gap can cause a lack of confidence for those who struggle. Without the necessary tools, children’s future literacy success can be hindered.

It’s best to not leave it up to chance. Both Campbell and Rogers believe you can provide the kids in your life with foundational literacy skills for future achievement. Each professor’s research further explains the value early literacy can have from a development perspective, and from a social and emotional one.

“Let’s go to the side and regroup.”

Campbell and Rogers have some advice on how to prepare “language-rich” children for their school years and beyond, and it starts with oral language fluency. A child’s future ability to read, write, and think more deeply depends on this important foundation. And the child’s caregivers play crucial roles—modeling the use of words, expressions, and voice and face tone; providing background information; and building vocabulary and language structure.

What you say and how you say it is what the kids in your life will learn is customary and acceptable.

Consider a couple of 3- or 4-year-old girls overheard playing at the public pool. “After some time arguing over what seemed to be the decision of what game they would play next,” Campbell said, “one little girl suddenly said to the other, ‘Let’s go to the side and regroup.’”

Caregivers should model the types of words, types of facial expressions, and characteristics of listening they hope their children will pick up. This includes pointing out as many “sight words” as possible in everyday life. The more words a child can see and recognize without having to think or sound them out, the better they will be able to read. According to Rogers, there are 220 words used most commonly, called Dolch words. Knowing these words will better prepare young children for success.

But what do the words they’re learning and recognizing actually mean? Context, background information, and a foundation for learning word meanings can come from intentional interactions with a child’s caregiver.

“Reading books to your child on a variety of topics is one of the best and most convenient ways to develop background knowledge prior to and during the school-age years,” Campbell said.

The same goes for adults. You might get a lot more from an evening lecture on aeronautics if you recognize some of the lingo and context from prior experiences and reading beforehand. You’ll be set up to absorb and maybe even use more complex concepts you hear that evening.

“So would it be with a kindergartner sitting in a circle on the rug while his teacher reads an expository text about mammals,” Campbell said. “Some students may have gone on a family excursion to the zoo and learned about mammals and the difference between a mammal and a reptile, and others had not.”

Some kids will need to concentrate just on the basic concepts of that lesson, while those with the mammal knowledge can spend their thinking time discovering new details they hadn’t previously heard about and noticing new vocabulary they can use when writing. Formal reading training in school can be much more effective when a child is starting from a base of prior experience and oral language.

“They’ve got to touch it and feel it in order to make lasting connections.”

How children experience reading is important, too. If you only use flashcards, children are not going to absorb as much information as they can, and this type of learning will be boring. Take the word “apple.” If children learn it in ways beyond just the print word—by holding one, tasting it, smelling it, and seeing all different kinds—they will have a much easier time remembering the meaning of the word.

Rogers recommends getting all of a child’s senses involved and asserts that saturation, or full immersion in language, is key. This can be through repetition, patterned language books, singing, reading aloud from left to right, and dramatic play, for example.

Recall the children who have learned the book, This is the Stable. At the ECLC, the caregivers design their lessons around the concept of emergent literacy, a development philosophy focused on beginning the process of learning language from the moment of birth and allowing young children to learn through their surroundings, which better prepares them for reading and writing.

“They’ve got to touch it and feel it in order to make lasting connections,” said Rogers. “It definitely shouldn’t be something that is started in kindergarten. It should start much earlier.”

Caregivers should be planting seeds and exposing children to language early on—at a time when children are trying to make sense of the world. And it’s important that children learn through relational means.

“We need to make reading exciting.”

“The single most important activity for building the necessary understanding and skills essential for reading success appears to be reading aloud to children,” Campbell said.

Children’s books are designed to be lap books—when reading to a child you should hold them. The love for reading is created through a warm connection between child and caregiver, and research states that children need to feel safe when gaining literacy skills. When you provide children with a safe environment while exposing them to reading, it builds a sense of trust that will allow them to take risks, such as reading in front of others.

“It takes a lot of confidence for children to stand up in front of their peers and read, and that confidence can start by exposing them to literacy early and naturally,” said Rogers.

If children know more words prior to kindergarten, they will feel more confident. It makes it easier for them to feel and be successful.

“We need to make reading exciting,” said Rogers. “If we take the joy out of it, then we can negatively impact the child’s relationship with reading.”

Thus, as you care for the little ones in your life, make sure to take time preparing them by using these techniques and providing these essential skills. Enjoy a book every day with them and do it as long as they will let you. Childhood is a very precious and uninterrupted time that goes by fast, and it has lasting effects.

Wendy is a former editor of the Viewpoint magazine and contributing freelance writer.