NOTE FROM THE EDITOR (Jen): In light of the fact that all of us with little children are navigating a strange return to the school year, today, I have invited my sister Elizabeth, an expert in early childhood literacy, to share some thoughts on supporting your little one’s reading skills during coronavirus. If you like this post, let me know — I will invite other guests to share expertise, too. And if you like hearing from my sister, you can follow here on Twitter for more literacy insights @lizsiteswriting.
Everyone has been affected by this terrible pandemic in some way, and my heart goes out to those who have suffered tremendously. One impact of the coronavirus has been a re-examination of how we educate our children. Many families have made hard choices or changes regarding how their children will learn this year.
Several friends who know my background in early childhood literacy have asked what they can do to support their children’s literacy during this time. I reached out to Jen to ask whether some of the insights I have been sharing would be helpful to this community. Perhaps you or someone in your family is trying to homeschool, or is spending a lot of time supporting virtual learning. Perhaps you are simply concerned that the many distracting factors in schools will result in a less-than-ideal learning situation. This post is intended to support your child’s literacy development, in conjunction with whatever other educational supports you may have.
If you have a young baby, you might revisit this post I wrote for Jen on the best books for babies, which includes tips like reading frequently and widely and performing other language-building activities.
If you have a toddler, you can continue to follow the same advice and make your home a print-rich environment. You can also expose your child to the alphabet and promote oral language development via the alphabet song and active participation in nursery rhymes/songs (you can stream them from Alexa, for example).
If you have a preschooler/kindergartener/first grader*: According to Donald Bear et al’s Words Their Way, 7th Ed., an Emergent/Pre-Reader is a child who is learning the alphabet and the letter sounds, and may write letters, their name, or letter-like forms. A Beginning Reader is a child who has “concept of word” (see below) and is focused on making reading “happen” via practice in appropriately leveled-texts. A Beginning Reader might sound out words phonetically, even if they leave out letters, or make mistakes with vowels, for example. They might try to write the word Lego “LACO,” for example.
“Concept of word” is a critical piece for an Emergent/Pre-Reader. It refers to the child’s ability to accurately track print, such as in a familiar, memorized nursery rhyme. The reason this is important is that it indicates the child’s understanding of many oral language concepts: that sentences are groups of words that mean one complete idea; that words are a collection of letters in syllabic chunks that have meaning; that letters match the phonetic sounds we hear and say.
There are many ways children have learned to read throughout history and in the world. Some children pick up on these concepts subconsciously fairly quickly and may even appear to “learn to read on their own” through significant time examining and listening to books. However, most children will need or benefit from fairly explicit and on-going instruction, especially to learn to read at the age that our society desires currently (generally by first grade).
Last month, I decided to offer a weekly virtual literacy session for several friends’ children, aged 3-5. Here are my weekly instructional plans to hopefully inspire you, if you have an Emergent/Pre-Reader:
- Oral language: play a rhyming or syllabic game for children (such as clapping the syllables in their names and family members’ names)
- Alphabet: introduce a new letter (or two) and the sound. I encourage parents to make (or buy) cards with each UPPER and LOWER case letter as well as perhaps a picture reflecting the sound. In my sessions, I use a stuffed animal beginning with that sound to introduce the letter.
- Alphabet: I encourage families to go on a letter hunt around the house. Do you have alphabet blocks that you can use to designate a letter of the week? Magnetic letters? Where can you find the letter around the house? I also suggest a fun snack that begins with the letter of the week – make sure your child finds the letter on the packaging, where applicable!
- Writing: Model writing the letter, and help your child to write it in the air. If you have a sand, rice, or other sensory bin (or these shallow trays, which Jen loves for setting up activities) to help your child form the letter, great. A baking pan makes a great sensory bin. Dry erase markers or truly any writing utensil will be great practice as well.
- Concept of word: Provide a nursery rhyme that hopefully also has many examples of the letter(s) of the week. For example, for Hh, I had parents practice playfully reciting Humpty Dumpty at home with their child, in the bath, or other various calm, fun moments. It is great for oral language development if a child learns to memorize the rhyme. Then, in my session, parents print out copies of the rhyme for their child and the child points along as we “read” together.
- Concept of word: After reading together, I have children highlight or circle all the ‘Letters of the Week’ they can find in the rhyme. Going on a letter hunt like this helps bring awareness to the sounds in words. With time, you can encourage your child to find words, such as “Humpty” and your child will begin to identify it by the beginning sound.
- Concept of print: I end by reading a book that either correlates with the concept of word lesson or Letter of the Week, or hopefully both. I choose authors that are appropriate for early readers and usually have many books or a series to get the child excited to read even more!
Here are a few (by no means all) of my favorite book picks that might interest your young child:
- Mo Willems – Famous for his Elephant and Piggie series, as well as Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus!, Mo Willems is a brilliant, hilarious author who children just adore.
- Donald Crews – I LOVE the talented Donald Crews, not the least because he is a diverse voice in a market overpopulated with white authors. Ten Black Dots, Truck, Rain, and Sail Away are just a few examples of his terrific work for an early reader.
- Brown Bear, Brown Bear (Bill Martin, Jr. and Eric Carle) – I used this for both the concept of word session and the read-aloud related to the letter B/b. This predictable, familiar book is famous in preschool classrooms because it is a perfect practice for tracking print. Bill Martin, Jr. also wrote Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (fun alphabet book), and Eric Carle wrote and illustrated numerous other lovely, classic preschool books such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
- The Quiet Book (Deborah Underwood and Renata Liwaska) – Deborah Underwood is one of my favorite authors, who has a wide range of books, including the hilarious Here Comes Teacher Cat series.
- A Big Bed For Little Snow or A Big Mooncake for Little Star (Grace Lin) – I love this author/illustrator who also has a wide range of books and represents diversity in the market.
- Dr. Seuss – A word of caution: his books range very widely in terms of level. Some are very long and complex. Others are perfect for learning rhyme and language play. Hop On Pop, Green Eggs & Ham, The Foot Book, and Dr. Seuss’ ABC are some of my children’s favorites.
- If You Give A Mouse A Cookie series (Laura Numeroff and Felicia Bond)
- Sheep in a Jeep series (Nancy Shaw and Margot Apple)
- Llama Llama, Red Pajama series (Anna Dewdney)
- Goodnight Moon (Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd)
- Leo Lionni – His stories are often a bit more intricate than the others on this list, but his works are classic. I love Little Blue and Little Yellow, A Color of His Own, and Alexander and The Wind-Up Mouse.
- And Then It’s Spring (Julie Fogliano and Erin E. Stead) – just had to add this lovely, quiet picture book.
- Richard Scarry’s Cars And Trucks From A to Z — I was compelled to include the silly and wonderful Richard Scarry, and also wanted to point you toward alphabet books in general. There are so many kinds of alphabet books, and the more opportunities for letter identification, the better!
Lastly, I didn’t want to leave out second-graders and beyond: Once children have moved beyond the “Learning to Read” stage, they have entered the “Reading to Learn” stage. However, they still fall on a developmental curve and continue to need explicit phonetic/word pattern instruction as well as vocabulary and comprehension strategy, fluency, and writing instruction.
One last tip: figure out what you like to read, and model enjoying reading. Then support your child in pursuing their reading interests as well. Best of luck on your journey to support your little one’s literacy during these difficult times.
*Note that grade level expectations are approximate and every child is on a slightly different path. Using assessment data will be the best way to determine your child’s needs. Some are available on www.readinga-z.com, a partially-free, wonderful series of web sites/apps that might be worth the investment if you are homeschooling.
Post-Script: Notes on Supporting Literacy If Homeschooling.
If you are homeschooling (or if you want an in-depth understanding of your child’s learning), the first step is to conduct an assessment of what your child can truly do without any assistance, hints, or prompting. You might think your child knows the entire alphabet, but often times a 4 year old might still get b/d confused, for example (which is totally normal). One place to look for good assessment tools is www.readinga-z.com.*
For an Emergent/Pre-Reader, instruction should have a balance of activities:
- Oral language (such as rhyme, sentence/word/syllable games, initial and final sounds)
- Alphabet games
- Writing (such as letter formation and letter-sound associations)
- Concept of word (such as supported finger-pointing to memorized rhymes/songs, repeated rereadings of familiar books with only a word or few words on each page)
- Concept of print (such as listening to stories, retelling/acting out stories)
For a Beginning Reader, instruction should also have a balance:
- Fluency (such as repeated reading of familiar texts, on-level-texts, building automatic word recognition)
- Word work (such as sorting by beginning sounds, rhyme/word families, and short vowels, sight word practice)
- Comprehension (such as listening to stories, predicting, retelling, cross-checking, vocab building)
- Writing for sounds (such as supporting your child in sounding out words the best he or she can and writing the letters that match the sounds he or she hears, even if there are mistakes)
P.P.S. The sun still rises.