10 Ways to Encourage Literacy
There is no question that in today’s information age, literacy is one of the most important skills for a person to acquire.
That said, there is a staunch debate going on now about when we should start teaching reading. Some believe that it is best to first encourage ‘play’ (in order to build social and psychological skills, among other reasons). Others believe that the earlier, the better.
However, regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, most would agree that there are ways to build literacy skills (think alphabet awareness, phonological awareness, etc.) from a very early age – long before a child is independently reading and writing.
Which leaves many parents wondering what types of activities they should be encouraging at home (and looking for in daycares/preschools) in order to foster these literacy skills at every age and level. In response to this demand, there are, in fact, literacy task forces doling out answers.
In our home currently, we have a 5-year-old who has just started reading and a 3-year-old beginning to make sense of the alphabet (not to mention a two year old trying to tag along!). As an educator myself, I have always been very aware of the need to introduce and enforce literacy awareness, knowledge and skills and started to do this, well, from day one, when our kids were born. That’s not to say that we have been pushing our kids to read from a young age – far from it. But it has meant we have worked hard to instill in them a desire to read and a real passion for books and the written word.
So far, I’m very happy to say, it has worked. On any given day, in any given situation, our kids will readily choose a word-related activity over any other. What do I mean by that? Of course reading books, telling stories, playing games that deal with the alphabet and listening to songs that include alphabet knowledge. But these are only a few of the ways we have introduced and encouraged literacy in our household.
Read on to get more ideas and ways you can develop literacy in your home!
1. Read, read, read!
The number one way to get kids to love books and reading is to develop a book culture in your home. What do I mean? Surround your kids by books, read to them and model the behavior yourself by allowing them to see you reading on your own for pleasure. And start early. Recent research has provided some very compelling evidence in regards to the linguistic benefits bestowed upon children read to in infancy. Not to mention the striking difference between the linguistic abilities and capabilities of kids who are spoken to more as opposed to kids who have less input from their care givers.
But while it’s great to read a lot, experts suggest that it isn’t enough to simply read the words of a book. It’s important that reading activities are made as exciting and relevant as possible: use different voices for different characters, ask questions, make the stories relatable and think of the words in a book as diving boards to delve into a whole big world of ideas. And don’t forget to talk about the illustrations or photographs! Books can be a child’s first encounter with so many objects, places, animals and kinds of people, not to mention ideas. Constantly check that they understand what they see or hear. Ask children to describe what they see. Ask questions about what happened before and after what is happening in the story or on the page. Talk about shapes, colors and sizes. Count with them. Talk about things they like and dislike that they see on the pages. Ask them to guess about what will happen or to explain why something is happening.
All these types of activities should actually start way before children can even answer the questions. Ask them and give answers. Describe the pictures to them. Remind kids of things they’ve seen or experienced in real life that might relate. By the times children have the verbal skills to ask questions themselves and engage on a deeper level of thought, they will be practiced and ready for it!
Another way to get kids interested is by introducing books on CD. Some of our favorites currently are The Cat in the Hat and Other Dr. Seuss Favorites and the Frog and Toad Audio Collection. I think these were more successful with our kids than, say, Winnie-The-Pooh, because we’ve read the books with them so many times that they have a visual point of reference when listening. With Winnie-The-Pooh, which we have read some adapted stories of, the kids were quite lost, despite the magnificent cast and storytelling involved.
Remember, the more that books become a part of a child’s daily life, the more they will stay a part of his daily life.
2. Question Everything
As mentioned above, kids are more likely to be interested in something if you are willing to engage yourself in the activity – and not just hand them a task. (Keep that in mind as you read all of the suggestions below – any one of them will be ten times more likely to impact your child if you do the activity with them).
If you really want to create linguistic awareness in your child, start conversations and ask questions about letters and sounds, not just content and illustrations.
Again, there’s no need to force a 3-year-old to learn the alphabet. But there’s no harm (and only possible benefits) from asking your child if she can recognize a letter or even delving further into the scope of alphabet and phonetic awareness: What is this letter called? What kind of shape is it (round, long, pointy)? Can you find it somewhere in this room? What sound does it make? Who do we know that has a name that starts with that sound? Is it a big letter or a small one? How do you know? What letter comes before it? After it?
Your child may have no idea, or she might surprise you about what she’s picked up from you, her daycare or older siblings. Of course, don’t expect right answers! The point is to heighten awareness, and introduce an important topic in an interesting and meaningful way (there is nothing more meaningful to a child than undivided attention from a parent). Ask questions and, when necessary, give answers. If a child is uninterested (especially at a younger age), drop it. Bring it up a month – or 6 months – later.
3. Play with the Alphabet
We are so lucky today to have so many innovative learning toys. The alphabet is (and I suppose has always been) a favorite inclusion in child things. It’s almost difficult to find a baby/toddler section of a toy store that isn’t plastered with the alphabet. There’s a reason for this. People assume that the more kids see the alphabet, the more they will connect to it.
Well, that’s true and it isn’t true.
On the one hand, before a child can read, the letters of the alphabet are no different to any other abstract scribbling they might see. Think about a non-Latin language you don’t know. No matter how often you stared at the characters, you probably wouldn’t just suddenly be able to recognize them, name them or know the sounds they make.
On the other hand, if you help your child make the connection, being surrounded by the alphabet can be a very powerful tool. Again, it’s your participation here that makes it happen.
Luckily, today we don’t only have wallpaper, blocks and carpets decorated with the alphabet. We have much more interactive and engaging alphabet-based toys and activities we can use to captivate our tiny audiences. Nowadays, kids can manipulate, build and otherwise create things with the alphabet, thereby instilling a more visceral connection that will later be tapped into when a child is learning to read.
If you’re more of a creative type, creating letters out of foam, playdough or any other malleable substance can be very helpful for more tactile-oriented children. In addition, you can purchase (or make your own version) of games like the Alphabet Mystery Box.
The point is to make it fun, interesting and tangible – and let your child’s astounding brain do the rest!
4. Label Everything
The power of the label never occurred to me before my kids were in daycare. However, once I saw my kids’ (and other kids’) reactions to having things labeled with their name, I realized what a great idea it was!
You have to understand, a child doesn’t own very many things. If anything at all. Anything given to them becomes of great value, because it’s theirs. However clothes that belong to them are outgrown, toys can be broken or lost. So the one thing that is inherently ‘theirs’ and can never be taken away, broken or lost, is his name. So imagine how powerful it is to a child to see his name on something. It doesn’t matter if it’s written in pencil or permanent marker, or labeled with a sticker. Seeing one’s own name on something is exciting.
And on our end, of course, it’s exciting to see a child recognize his name!
Remember my comment above about reading a foreign character and not making sense of it? Well, for many children, even before they can read the characters of their own language (i.e. the alphabet), they can recognize their name. They recognize it as you would an emblem. They aren’t seeing letters (yet), but a chunk of language that becomes a recognizable picture to them. And it never fails – the first thing your child will learn to read (and want to read) is his own name. Followed by those of his friends (if he is in daycare) or relatives (trust me, he’ll ask).
So go with it – label clothes, cups, chairs, toothbrushes, bags, art works, and anything else they want labeled!
5. Play Word Games
Just as there are a number of great alphabet playthings about, there are also fun and engaging games that work on spelling, rhyming, sight words and phonetics.
But there are so many games you can make on your own as well! For example, take 26 empty tissue or wipes boxes, and label each with a letter of the alphabet (or use one box and use it for one different letter each week or so). Then have your child find objects around the house that can go into the box (objects that start with that letter/sound).
Want to work on sounds? Choose one letter (i.e. G), discuss the different sounds it can make (i.e. soft or hard ‘g’), label boxes or receptacles of your choice with those different sounds (write out the sound with letters and paste a picture of a familiar word with that sound – I.e., ‘soft g – giraffe’, ‘hard g – gift), and then ask your child to find objects that fit in the box.
A third way to make this game work is by looking for rhyming words – again, paste a picture on the box (i.e. fox) and look for objects that rhyme with it.
You don’t even have to ask your child to find objects – you can simply brainstorm or, if you have more time on your and, cut out magazine pictures for her to choose from.
6. Utilize Alphabet- and Reading-focused Books
There are SO many books these days that focus on recognizing, practicing and producing the alphabet. Some of our (and our kids’) favorite alphabet books are: Poke-A-Dot: An Alphabet Eye Spy and A-Is-For-Apple. These books make it fun for your kids to guess, press, turn flaps and brainstorm alphabet-related ideas, and they are easily adapted to younger or older kids!
Of course, once your child has mastered the alphabet, it’s time to start putting the sounds together. While many books out there call themselves ‘Level 1 Readers’, I’ve found that many are a huge leap for true beginners.
So before you invest in too many ‘Level 1 Readers’ or ‘Books for Beginners’, look for books that focus only on sight words, or are aimed at pre-readers.
So far our favorites are the Bob Books. They really begin slowly and build on sight words and introduce one sound at a time, focusing first on only short vowel sounds (which are much easier for first time readers).
7. Use Music
One of the best gifts we’ve ever received has been the Little People ABC CD by Fisher Price (which I can no longer find on their website). Even our youngest has started recognizing the sounds letters make and the spelling of some words just by listening to this CD! It isn’t just the ABC song, but a song for each letter focusing on the sounds it makes and the different usages in different situations, and it even includes a song about vowels.
You can also find a slew of Sesame Street songs for each letter, as well as the whole alphabet!
8. Practice Writing
Even before kids know what the letters are, they can begin manipulating their forms to become more familiar with them. I’ve already mentioned a few ways to play with the alphabet, but another great way to do this is actually through writing. More specifically, through tracing books and cards such as these cards or this book, both by Roger Priddy.
Another activity that got our son very excited about writing, was by giving him wall decal letters that allowed him to actually write things on his own wall. At first he could only write his name (again, this is always the first thing they learn), then he started copying words from books and pictures in his room (Superman, Batman, etc.). In doing so, he thought he wasn’t actually writing (i.e. creating) anything because he was ‘just copying’. So he was amazed (and very proud of himself) when we explained that he was actually WRITING. And it’s true. Think about how many steps he took in order to write ‘Superman’ on his wall: 1. He had to choose a word that was meaningful to him (which he figured out by looking at pictures, not by asking us). 2. He had to hunt for the correct letter. 3. He had to place each letter in the correct way and all the letters in the correct order.
Our son was able to do this well before he could technically ‘read’. It was just another step in the process for him, building on all of the skills he had already conquered (knowing the alphabet, relating words with pictures, knowing to write left to right, etc.). And it was really fun for him! The type of activity a parent doesn’t ask a child to do, he just does it!
9. Watch TV
I am not a big fan of educational TV. It’s what is called ‘passive’ instruction. (For what it’s worth, I’m also not a fan of passive instruction in a classroom). I firmly believe that kids must be engaged in an activity to get the most out of it.
However, that said… if you do let your kids watch television, and you want it to be something more educational (in other words, don’t pretend that TV is teaching your kids, but choose something more educational if you are showing them TV anyway), then there are some good programs to choose from.
We only have Netflix (not cable), so our choices are perhaps somewhat limited, but lately our kids have been asking for the Leap Frog show. I couldn’t be happier with that choice! Again, it may not be teaching them to read, but it is making the letters fun, entertaining and ‘cool’, even for our 2-year-old who loves the songs!
10. Use Apps
Again, as a slight educational technophobe, I don’t actually allow our kids to use phones, tablets or computers. Except under dire circumstances. You probably all know what I mean – on flights, in doctor’s offices (when waiting for over an hour), etc. So when these instances do occur, I have ready for my kids only super educational apps that feel to them like the best games they’ve ever played (because they actually get to touch buttons on my phone)!
I’ll be even more candid here – I also refuse to pay for apps out of principal (due to my dislike of children using them), so the apps I’ve downloaded onto my phone are all free or ‘trial-sized’ games. But the kids haven’t even noticed – they are so excited for a chance to play a game on a phone, they just eat it up!
Of the half dozen or so apps I have downloaded, more than half of those are literacy-related: EdukittyABC by Cubic Frog, and Phonics Island, Alphabet Aquarium and Baby Bubble School all from 22 Learn.
Have you been successful in getting your kids to love books and reading? What are some ways you’ve gotten them interested? Or, if you haven’t been able to get them into books, why do you think that is? Share your thoughts with us below!