Thursday, August 24, 2017

Raising Readers

There are many well known benefits of high quality early childhood education, and parents enroll their children with high hopes.  Among these benefits is the opportunity to develop strong foundational skills in reading. Building literacy skills is an important educational goal of the early years.  However, parents' understanding of the reading process is often dramatically at odds with what early childhood educators hold to be best practice. And this difference in understanding can lead to stress and anxiety in teachers of young children and misunderstanding on the part of parents. 

Most parents look at reading at its face value, simple decoding of words.  Many believe that acquiring this skill as early as possible means that a child is smarter, or more advanced than his/her peers.  At the beginning of one school year, the mother of a 2 year old came to my office (I was the Early Childhood Director) and told me that her child knew the alphabet.  "What can you do for him?", she asked.  I should have taken more time to think, but my immediate response was, "I can teach a parakeet the alphabet.  It doesn't mean anything."

Reading is a process that begins at birth and continues through the college years.  It is one of the four components of fluency in any language:  listening, speaking, reading, and writing.  If you think about it, reading is directly related to listening.  We receive the communicative expressions from a partner, and make meaning from those words to understand his/her message.  In the same way, writing is similar to speaking.  We encode our thoughts into words so that our communicative partner can understand what we mean to say.  In every case, the core value of language is using words to make meaning.

When you look at the reading process in this way, you can see that the first important step in learning to read is to acquire a rich vocabulary; to soak up as many life experiences as possible in order to build a repertoire of meaningful words.   So for example, when it comes time for a child to decode the word "a-p-p-l-e", he or she has already had direct experience with apple trees; with sorting apples by color; with tasting a variety of apples and enjoying the juice and crunch; with cutting apples in different shapes, removing the seeds and planting them; drying apple slices; making applesauce, apple pie, etc. When this child reads the word "a-p-p-l-e" , it is so much more than a mere collection of letters to sound out.  The word apple comes with a world of meaning.

Another equally important component of learning to read is to develop a disposition for reading.  In becoming proficient readers, children learn that reading is pleasurable.  We want them to turn to reading for fun, relaxation, and information.  There are a couple of ways to encourage this disposition.  One is something I mentioned in my last post, "Look Ma No Hands".  That is to remember that the trusted adults in our children's lives are very real role models.  If they see us using books for fun and information, they are more likely to want to do the same.  And most effective is to join our children in reading.  To my mind, there is no better way for a child to end the day than being wrapped in a fluffy towel after a warm bath, dressing in cozy pj's, and sitting with mom or dad for a book or two before bed.  The words and images procured from books are the stuff dreams are made of.

A powerful way to build reading skills in young children is to appeal to the the way they learn best:  play.  Nursery rhymes, fingerplays, circle games, chants, tongue twisters.  There are many fun ways for children to play with words and sounds and in so doing to develop phonological awareness and a love of words.

The driving literacy goal of early childhood education is to provide rich, meaningful experiences, relevant to our children's lives, putting those experiences into words.  Reading to them, playing with them, enveloping them in a love of words and language. Long before they begin to decode letters into words, young readers will have a natural sense of the sounds of language and a rich context of meaning to draw from.

Do you enjoy reading with your children?  Do you worry about them gaining academic skills?  Was this helpful?  Share your thoughts!


  1. Reading together before bed is a sacred ritual in our house. I love the visual description you gave of reading with mom and dad before bed, (fluffy towel, cozy pj's) because in my work screening young children for possible delays in development I have found parents often have misconceptions about the purpose of this shared reading. Often when I mention or ask parents about reading with their child the response is, "oh, we know reading is super important! That's why we got him a tablet and he has this great reading app that reads to him." I think you made it clear in this post that a good reading disposition can be established from the parent showing a love for their child and for reading by sharing a book together; that the parent-child-book connection is a powerful component in building a lifelong reader.

  2. Absolutely Shira, thank you. Children learn tons about reading when parents read to them. (Thoughts for next post 😉)

  3. I love reading with my kids and thank goodness they love it too!! It gives us special time together every day and often what we read about leads to a lot of interesting discussions. Not to mention it's probably the only time of day that they're all sitting quietly at the same time ;) !

  4. Loved the post!!! Sitting with my kids and reading with them is one of my favorite things to do. Mang parents I've come in contact with "complain" that their child prefers to be read to than to read independently- I alsways answer them by saying "that's great! Being read to is an amazing learning experience".
    It also allows for parents to spend more quality calm time with their kids- which I'm always looking for :)