Learning to Read
Developing Literacy Skills at Every Age
There seems to be a clear and binary distinction between adults who consider themselves to be “readers” and those who don’t. Of course, when we identify ourselves this way, what we are typically talking about is the frequency with which we choose to read for entertainment as opposed to reading for information.
Regardless of which camp you align yourself with, as parents we share a common mission to help our kids develop the literacy skills they need to learn and thrive - and maybe even develop a lifelong love of reading along the way.
When experts talk about literacy, they are talking about understanding and engaging with words that have been written down. But today, educators and child development experts are thinking about specific subsets of literacy, too. Digital literacy, for example, is the ability to compose, comprehend, and evaluate information in digital forms. Visual literacy refers to interpreting and taking meaning from information presented in the form of images. “It’s really understanding the art of persuasion,” one teacher told me. “It’s becoming aware of what you are being fed.”
Building Blocks for Literacy
Children begin building literacy skills long before they ever enter a classroom, which means parents and caregivers play the most vital role in laying a strong foundation.
Allison Geary, a University of Oklahoma-Tulsa instructor in early literacy, says the very best thing an adult can do is talk to a young child. “Caregivers really become the model for language,” says Geary. “For children who aren’t spoken to or with, the chance to make that up later is very low.”
Geary says that by engaging in two-way conversations, toddlers and preschoolers also learn about pacing, reciprocity, listening and taking turns. Asking open-ended questions and introducing new ideas into a conversation can help stretch a child’s vocabulary.
When it comes to school-age children, it is generally understood that until third grade kids are “learning to read” whereas in fourth grade children begin “reading to learn.” Some educators have challenged this thinking, saying that it doesn’t adequately emphasize the importance of comprehension for early readers or address the fact that older students are still facing new mechanical challenges as they read. In any case, the Center for Public Education says that if a child is not a proficient reader by the end of third grade, it can present serious challenges and decrease the likelihood for academic success.
Reading in the Digital Age
For years, there’s been debate about the impact of screen time on children’s brain development. When it comes to building early literacy skills, Geary says that the science is clear: Being exposed to language on a show or app is not the same thing as engaging with another person. While she is not opposed to screen time in moderation, she says there is very little that can substitute human interaction when it comes to modeling language.
As children develop reading skills, however, tablets and e-readers can have their advantages. They allow voracious readers to load many books to one device and download new material without making a trip to the library or bookstore. Some e-readers also provide assistance with definitions when readers come across a word they don’t recognize.
Teresa Smith is a literary arts teacher at the University School at the University of Tulsa. She doesn’t have a problem with e-readers for her students and supports reading in whatever format her students enjoy. Smith says that if children are reading digitally, she encourages them to find an app that lets them annotate as they read, because it helps them engage with a story on a deeper level.
“It’s like you’re having a conversation,” says Smith. “If you jot down questions, you are looking for the answers as you read. I tell [my students] that it’s great to enjoy reading for pleasure, but I want you to start reading critically. I want you to really think about what you are reading. What is the author’s purpose?”
Connections Between Reading and Writing
Smith has also observed that students in her classes who read more tend to excel in writing. Experts confirm that reading and writing skills are inextricably linked.
Parents should encourage young children when they express an interest in writing, which also hones those all-important fine motor skills. Keep in mind, however, that just because your little one may be ready to experiment with writing doesn’t mean he or she is necessarily looking for specific instruction.
“Particularly with early elementary-aged children, it’s a good idea to encourage them to write in whatever form that takes,” says Geary. “If a child is constantly corrected, they can begin to see writing as an opportunity for criticism rather than a fun expression.”
When children begin to write, they are learning a lot about tactile inputs and establishing patterns. This is one reason some professionals believe there is value in learning to connect letters together to form words, which is the basis for cursive writing.
University School Director Dr. Patricia Hollingsworth says that cursive is important because it is faster than printing once the writer is proficient. Writing at a faster speed allows words to flow onto the page at a pace that more closely mirrors thinking and hearing.
Dr. Patricia Hollingsworth
“With cursive you can take notes, listen, and not pick up your pencil,” says Dr. Hollingsworth. “It is helpful in terms of being able to pick up on all of the conversation as it is happening.”
The fact that cursive pairs left brain and right brain skills is another important advantage, according to Dr. Hollingsworth. Learning to fluently read cursive also helps students study and understand handwritten, historically important texts.
Tips for Parents
Looking for ways to promote literacy in your own home? Here are some simple ideas you can try today.
Talk to Your Child (A Lot)
Vocabulary is one of the earliest building blocks of literacy. Try narrating something you are working on like a play-by-play announcer: “First we put in the flour, then the baking soda.” You can also ask questions to model conversation, even if it is initially one-sided: “Do you hear that dog barking? He sure sounds excited!”
Rhyme and Sing
“One of the primary assets [young children] have is an inclination to want to make sounds,” says Geary. Singing and rhyming help babies and toddlers learn how sounds are put together. As your child gets older, it can be fun to make a game out of inventing silly songs and rhymes - just try to see who can go the longest without laughing!
Experts have been saying it for years: Reading to your children early and often promotes literacy. The bonding time, the joy of a good story, and the use of words and phrases that might not be a part of your everyday language - it all has a positive impact. Don’t forget to think beyond the book. From board game instructions to signs at the zoo, there are plenty of everyday opportunities to read aloud.
Kindergarten - 2nd Grade
Get a Library Card
Anyone who lives, works, attends school, or pays taxes in Tulsa County can apply for a Tulsa City-County library card. Consider making a splash out of your library card ‘signing day’: Visit your local library (with required ID), have your child sign his or her very own library card, check out a book - or five - then grab an ice cream cone to celebrate.
Resist the Red Pen
When a kindergartener makes a birthday card or captions a piece of art, odds are there will be plenty of spelling errors. And that’s OK. Geary says that it is perfectly normal for younger children to begin spelling based on the logic of letter sounds and that parents should rest assured that instructional learning will eventually take over. Instead, focus on the joy and confidence your children are feeling as they experiment with written communication.
3rd - 6th Grade
Audiobooks can be a great way to help build literacy skills with early readers. Having your child read along in print while listening to an audiobook can help her understand inflections and pronunciations as she reads. Audiobooks can also be useful for kids who are ready to enjoy stories that may be beyond their reading level. On your next roadtrip, consider stocking up on audiobooks that everyone in the family can listen to together.
Keep Reading Material Around
Once kids experience the independence that comes from being able to read for themselves, it’s important that they have the opportunity to practice as often as possible. Consider leaving a book or two in the backseat of your car. Stash a kid-friendly magazine in your bag the next time you head out to a restaurant or a dentist appointment.
6th - 8th Grade
Support Freedom of Choice
It’s a good idea to let kids explore series and genres that interest them, even if they aren’t exactly what you would choose. Ask your kids about their favorite books and why they like them, but be careful not to turn a discussion about a certain book or author into an all-out inquisition. If you are looking for a quick gut check on whether something is age appropriate, Common Sense Media is a good source for ratings and book summaries for parents.
It’s well established that modeling is one of the most effective ways to influence behavior of all kinds. Of course it’s important to read to your children when they are younger, but reading around your kids as they grow up is also a great idea. When your kids see you fully engrossed in a good book or passionately discussing an interesting article with a friend, they are being exposed to the enjoyment and stimulation that comes from reading for pleasure.
Piggyback a Movie
From The Fault in Our Stars to Ready Player One, studios can be counted on to turn popular novels into films. If your teen has already read the book, consider treating him to a movie night. Afterwards, you can discuss how the story and characters on the big screen compared to the vision in his mind. And if he hasn’t read the book yet? Now that the big screen version has his attention, reading the story’s source material is a great way to understand background facts and nuances the film may have missed.
When we think of reading for pleasure, many of us think about a great novel. But if your teens are looking for something new, you might suggest non-fiction titles on subjects they are really interested in. Royal biographies, legendary sports stories, political corruption - sometimes nothing beats the intrigue that comes from real life. Older teens may also love books by adult humorists (think Jon Stewart or Tina Fey.)