Fostering a love of language and literacy from an early age is an important step in children’s cognitive development and supports them to become proficient readers. When my son James was little, he loved listening to nursery rhymes and poems over and over. Before I knew it, he had memorized the catchy phrases and songs and he delighted in entertaining our family and friends with performances of Old MacDonald Had a Farm and Itsy Bitsy Spider. Hearing and repeating these rhymes stimulated the speech-language part of James’ brain and helped him to develop phonemic awareness. Believe it or not, this type of enjoyable activity is aligned with the principles of the science of reading and supports the overall development of literacy skills.
Learning to read is a complex and multifaceted process that unlocks the doors to a world of knowledge, imagination, and lifelong learning. Historically, methodologies of teaching reading have swung back and forth between two major approaches: whole language and phonics-based instruction. These shifts have been influenced by research findings, educational trends, and debates among educators and policymakers. Whole language is an approach to reading instruction that focuses on teaching reading in a holistic way that emphasizes meaning and comprehension. Phonics-based instruction is a methodology for teaching young children to apply phonetics (how letter combinations sound out loud) to decode words based on their spelling. Educators are now moving towards the most current research grounded in cognitive science and linguistics known as the Science of Reading.
The Science of Reading is an evidence-based approach that is effective in helping children learn to read. Key principles include:
- Recognizing that reading is not a natural process like speaking and requires explicit teaching of decoding skills.
- Explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics (letter-sound relationships), fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
- Structuring time to implement both phonics and comprehension instructional strategies.
Teaching both language comprehension (background knowledge, vocabulary, verbal reading, literacy knowledge) and word recognition (phonological awareness, decoding, sight recognition) is important. When all of these components are in place, the result is skilled and fluent reading with strong comprehension.
There are benchmarks parents can look for to monitor their child’s early literacy development.
- Oral Language Skills: Strong oral language skills such as vocabulary and comprehension, are foundational for literacy. Children should be able to express themselves verbally, ask questions, and engage in conversations with others.
- Interest in Books: Young children enjoy looking at the pictures in books, turning pages, and exploring books independently.
- Letter Recognition: Around age 3-4, children may begin to recognize and name some of the letters of the alphabet. They may point out familiar letters in environmental print like street signs or food boxes.
- Rhyming and alliteration: Recognizing rhyming words or words that begin with the same sound (alliteration) is an indicator of phonemic awareness and early literacy development.
- Narrative skills: Retelling a familiar story in their own words, demonstrating an understanding of story structure (beginning, middle, end) and sequencing.
There are also some simple steps parents can take to ensure their student is on track for success in reading and writing.
- Read Aloud: Reading to your child is one of the most effective ways to promote early literacy development. You can start this as early as infancy using age-appropriate books with colorful illustrations and engaging stories.
- Nursery Rhymes: Hearing, singing, and repeating nursery rhymes plays a significant role in developing phonemic awareness and oral fluency.
- Letter Recognition: Point our letters in everyday life, such as street signs or food labels. Teach your child to recognize and name letters they see in environmental print.
- Writing Practice: Encourage your child to draw and write, even if it is just scribbles and letters. Provide materials like colored pencils, crayons, markers, and paper to foster creativity.
- Literacy in the Community: Look for literacy-related events in your community such as book fairs and storytime at your local library or bookstore.
Nurturing this foundational stage of my son’s literacy development was a joyful and enriching time filled with creativity, wonder, and curiosity. Engaging in a variety of rich language and literacy activities has served as the bedrock for James’ future academic success and his lifelong love of learning. Investing in your child’s early literacy development with simple strategies grounded in the science of reading paves the way for a positive educational journey.
Click here to register for Ready to Read featuring story time with Children’s Author Julie Danneberg on October 21, 2023 to learn more about best practices in early childhood literacy.