Building Blocks to Literacy

“There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all.” —Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

I have previously written about how important it is to develop a love of reading, and how parents can help children become successful readers, especially through the development of oral vocabulary. According to the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading:

Research shows that learning begins long before a child enters kindergarten. Children, even infants soak up words, rhymes, songs, and images. Vocabulary development is particularly important.

Life is so exciting for young children. Everything around them is a new wonder to explore, a learning experience filled with language. You can take advantage of the child’s natural curiosity and imagination to create delightful language learning opportunities that are immersed in play. As children engage with the world around them, literacy can be linked to their experiences. This is especially powerful when parents focus on building blocks to literacy, beginning as soon as a child is born and continuing through his or her school career.

What are these building blocks to literacy?

  • General oral vocabulary development
  • Development of specific oral vocabulary related to school subjects
  • Motivation to read
  • Recognition of the individual sounds, or phonemes, in words (phonemic awareness)
  • Awareness of other aspects of the sound of language, such as syllables, rhymes, sentence sound patterns
  • Knowing the names of the letters of the alphabet
  • Comprehension of stories that are read aloud
  • Concepts of print, such as left to right order of words, relation of text to pictures, and the idea that letters and combinations of represent sounds
  • Early attempts at reading
  • Early attempts at writing

Here are some ways that you can develop these building blocks to literacy at home.

Building Block: Developing oral vocabulary

Parent Tip: This is easy: talk to your child—a lot! For example, when your child is playing with blocks, bubbles, or toys, use words that describe their shape, color, sound, texture, and other things they can be compared to. Use complete sentences and ask questions. Everything you do with your child every day is an opportunity to build vocabulary!

Building Block: Developing school subject vocabulary

Parent Tip: School subjects such as reading, math, science, social studies, art, and music have their own sets of vocabulary words. As children play and explore, look for opportunities to talk about what they are doing using words such as letter, word, syllable, sentence, rhyme, character, setting, number, more than, less than, add, subtract, community, city, county, world, seed, flower, stem, root, insect, mammal, reptile, color, shade, melody, and so on.

Building Block: Motivation to read

Parent Tip: The best way to increase your child’s motivation to read is simply to read to and with her. And these reading experiences should be enjoyed by both of you! Whether your child is looking through a picture board book, an adult is reading to your child, or your child is reading to an adult, the words, illustrations, characters, and story lines should be celebrated. And be sure to take your child to the library and help her select her own books.

Building Block: Recognition of the individual sounds, or phonemes, in words

Parent Tip: Think about the words cat, cot, and cut. The sound in the middle has changed; the beginning and ending sounds have not. Children should learn to recognize such differences not only in the middle of a word, but also the beginning (cat, fat, mat, rat) or the ending (cap, cat, cab, can). One way to develop this ability is to play a “make a word” game while you wait for an appointment, cook dinner, or fold laundry. (Can you change one sound in the word cat and make a new word?) Remember, this is about sounds, not letters, so don’t write the words down.

Building Block: Awareness of other aspects of the sound of language, such as syllables, rhymes, sentence sound patterns

Parent Tip: There’s nothing more powerful than listening to and singing children’s songs with your child to develop an awareness of language sounds such rhymes, syllables, and rhythm. Once your child is familiar with a song or poem, try singing or saying part of it and leaving out the last word. Jack and Jill went up the _____ (hill).

Building Block: Knowing the names of the letters of the alphabet

Parent Tip: Place alphabet magnets on your refrigerator or a baking tray for your child to play with and manipulate. As your child gets older, he can learn to put together the letters in his name. As you drive, point out letters and the way words are put together in traffic signs or names of businesses. (This is called environmental print.)

Building Block: Comprehension of stories that are read aloud

Parent Tip: When you read aloud, your child should be able to follow along and understand the story. You can help by asking questions about what is happening. The first time, read the book all the way through. After you finish you can ask: “What was the story about?” “Who was in the story?” “Was it a person or an animal?” What happened at the end?” “How would you change the story?” “What happened first, second, third, last in the story?” “Where did the story take place?” “What was your favorite part of the story?” On subsequent readings, you can ask questions and talk about what’s happening in the story as you read it.

Building Block: Understanding how books work, such as left-to-right order of words, relation of text to pictures, and the idea that letters represent sounds

Parent Tip: It’s important to help your child understand the parts of books: covers, spine, title page, letters, words, sentences, and illustrations. So, as you read to and with your child, point these out from time to time. Here’s a useful guide to the kinds of questions you might ask as you enjoy books together.

Building Block: Early attempts at reading

Parent Tip: After you read to and with your child for a while, she will often begin to try to “read” books on her own, mimicking what you have read aloud many times. These are important first steps to reading and should be supported. As you read more books, your child will begin to find words that reappear often in many books. These are called “high-frequency” words. You can support the reading of high frequency words by labeling a chair, toy box, bed, door, sink, tub, stove, table, or any place that your child will enjoy finding and reading words. Change them from time to time and your child will learn to read many new words.

Building Block: Early attempts at writing

Parent Tip: As with reading, it’s easy to support your child’s writing development in your home. Place writing tools in a shoe box with old envelopes, index cards, leftover printing paper, or little notebooks. This will encourage your child to start the early stages of writing—which include scribbling, drawing, and beginning letter formation—and then progress to labels, words, and more advanced writing. Encourage your child to enjoy the writing process. You can even use a brush dipped in a small container of water to “write” on the sidewalk on a hot day. As the writing evaporates ... new writing can begin!

The list of all possible ideas for helping your children develop these building blocks to reading is as big as your imagination. But here’s one more: set a good example by showing your child that you enjoy reading your own books and magazines. And whatever you do to develop literacy with your child, make it joyful—that’s how you foster a love of reading that will last a lifetime.

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