By Lori J. Skurka, M. Ed.
As an educator I have always recognized the importance and benefit of building a solid literacy foundation for our young children. In my years as a classroom teacher I was responsible for many 4th,5th, and 6th graders who came into my class woefully lacking a proper foundation in literacy skills. In order to set the right path for our kids, I encourage all parents to recognize the primacy of developing reading, speaking, and listening literacy skills in our kids from the earliest ages possible.
Although I no longer teach in the classroom, I have been vigilant in transferring my literacy development techniques to my own children. There is not a day that goes by that my husband and I do not read at least one book—and usually quite a few more than just one—to our children. Their rooms are filled with scores of books, as is the rest of our home. The books are kept in cubbies and on shelves at the kids’ eye level, where they will feel encouraged to grab one as they roam the house looking for mischief.
As a rule, my husband and I read aloud with our kids at nap time and at bed time. Our kids know to expect this as part of their routine, and they almost always look forward to it. Sometimes they choose the books, sometimes we choose the books. As I used to tell the parents of my 5th grade students, “It really doesn’t matter what book it is, as long as they or you are reading something.”
It is unfortunate that as children age parents often let the bedtime reading ritual fall by the wayside. They often sense that their children are too old, too busy, or too disinterested. Parents should be adamant that their kids make time for reading, no matter their age. To stop reading is to stop learning, so even if the child is swamped with schoolwork there should still be a commitment to reading for pleasure and personal pursuits too. I think the author Jim Trelease said it best in his book The Read Aloud Handbook:
"Reading aloud is a commercial for reading. ...Think of it this way: McDonald's doesn't stop advertising just because the vast majority of Americans know about its restaurants. Each year it spends more money on ads to remind people how good its products taste. Don't cut your reading advertising budget as children grow older."
Some of the methods I have found effective for developing literacy skills in children are:
- Turn on a “book on tape” while in the car, whether it is a short or long ride. This helps kids learn new vocabulary, use listening skills, and gain an understanding of an author’s voice while listening to the audio book. The books by Roald Dahl, E.B. White, Judy Blume, Louis Sachar, and Paula Danzinger are good choices. Books and CDs on tape are available by the hundreds at our wonderful Naperville Public Libraries.
- Pick up books that have no text, also available in droves at the library. These books allow kids to use the pictures as context clues and orally tell the story themselves. The books by Raymond Briggs, Donald Crews, and Anno Mitsumasa are good selections. (This is not just for young kids. I used to have my 5th graders write their own text to accompany the illustrations in these books as a language arts project!)
- Orally tell stories to your children. Our kids love this! The stories can be personal (“Mom, tell me about your wedding day…”), factual (“Dad, tell me about how cars are made…”), or just downright silly (“Did I ever tell you about the time Snow White and the Seven Dwarves took on Scooby Doo and his friends in a soccer game?”). If you want outside help with this, both the your local Children’s Museum as well as the Public Libraries offer live storytellers at various times. Give them a call to find out more! Oral storytelling is not only beneficial for vocabulary development and recognition of language patterns, but it is also an excellent way for your kids to hone their listening skills.
- Expose your children to as much non-fiction as possible. It was alarming to see how many 5th graders coming into my classroom could not read and comprehend factual material in a text because they had rarely been exposed to it prior to school. Reading non-fiction helps kids understand that the process of reading for enjoyment and reading to glean new factual information need not be two separate and distinct concepts. If you encourage your kids to derive enjoyment out of reading non-fiction, then that will serve them well with their schoolbooks later. Good factual magazines that we enjoy with our own preschool age kids are Animal Baby, Your Big Backyard, Humpty Dumpty, and Time for Kids.
- Help your children develop vocabulary and the drive to continually use new words and improve their speaking proficiency. Ruth Heller writes a collection of books that are excellent for introducing kids to these concepts. These books are picture books primarily geared towards younger children but are just as applicable to the middle grades too.
In summary, the process of developing reading, speaking, and listening literacy is like a seed that must be continuously watered. We have access to some of the finest schools in the state to help us with this process, but ultimate accountability for our children’s journey resides in the home. Devote as much time as you can to spending constructive literacy time with your kids, and you will both be richly rewarded.
Lori J. Skurka, M. Ed., spent more than a decade as an elementary classroom teacher. She now operates a private tutoring company. Learn more about EleMental Learning Tutoring at www.elemental-learning.com