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Reading and Writing: What You Should Know About Your Child's Reading Abilities (5/3/2011)

Excerpt from ACCESS News Spring 2011
By the ACCESS Staff


According to Literacy Action of Central Arkansas, 30,000 adults in the Little Rock area are functionally illiterate. With the hardships that coincide with poor reading skills, becoming a better reader is a key concern to parents whose children are entering their elementary school years.


We could write reams on this subject, but for now, let’s focus on some practical things you can do right now with your toddler (Yes! Your toddler!) and older child to develop their reading skills.


Learning to Read


We have few key phrases here at ACCESS that continually pepper our conversations, workshops and articles: Language begins at birth, language is the key to academic success, a child’s vocabulary at age 3 determines his or her reading skills in second grade. Are you sensing a pattern here?


We are inclined to think reading begins when we see a 5-year-old starting to sound out words from a book. “Ah, yes!” we think, “He is learning to read this year.” What is much less obvious is that the reading process begins when infants and toddlers are first exposed to sounds, words and conversations.


The biggest indicator of reading success is a child’s phonological awareness during his or her preschool years. Phonological awareness is the understanding that letters represent sounds, that words are made of letters and that sentences are made of words.


“Many parents get hung up on teaching the alphabet when what they really should be teaching is the sounds these letters make,” asserts Monika Garner-Smith, ACCESS preschool director.


What exactly does that mean? Most children eventually learn their alphabet forward and backward. While they are learning language and building vocabulary, however, it is more important to establish phonological awareness of sounds in words by learning to manipulate sounds, word beginnings and word endings, therefore developing the abilities they will need years later to read, spell and write.


Prepping Infants and Toddlers for Reading Success: Making Time for Play


Developing phonological awareness isn’t really a secret, but in today’s world, it’s not as intuitive as it once was. Where Mom and Dad used to spend time walking and pointing out concrete objects to their babies and toddlers; singing silly songs and playing I Spy games on vacations; and incorporating reading into everyday life, the lure of technology and prevalence of two-income households have quietly eroded some of these activities. Many people are not even aware these types of engagement are so important: Did you know that, stripped of all education – daycare, preschool, Sunday school, etc… – one of the biggest influences on a child’s vocabulary is how much his parents talk to him? If we consider how many times we come home, say a few words, turn on the TV and (silently) make dinner, review work on our laptops or steal a few minutes of Words With Friends, this assertion can be quite scary!


Happily, engineering your daily life to develop your child’s phonological awareness is pretty simple. The key to success is making time to play with your child, knowing which activities promote literacy at a pre-reading age, and surrounding yourself with quality toys and books of educational value.


Through play, children develop their senses and motor, communication, social-emotional and cognitive skills. Play geared toward promoting language and literacy is best when it’s presented in a multi-sensory format, employing visual, auditory and kinesthetic (touching and movement) tactics. Just as you are more likely to remember what was said in your business meeting because you took notes as you listened to the speaker, your child is more likely to remember every word of the song that pairs dance moves with lyrics. You might not think of an activity like this as promoting reading, but consider this: you could probably sing the Alphabet Song right now if asked. In this case, pairing auditory information with singing is helping with recall; other activities can be presented in a multi-sensory format so children can learn and retain important pre-reading information, such as learning word beginnings and endings by singing and dancing to a rhyming song.


Reading to Learn: How to Help Your School-Age Reader


Sometime around the second and third grade, students stop learning to read and start reading to learn. At this age, reading material shifts to develop higher-level cognition, such as problem-solving, linguistics, executive functioning and pragmatic (social) skills. You can help your student develop the vocabulary and comprehension skills needed for this level of reading by continuing activities to develop reading skills.


Help your student develop context by presenting him or her with background knowledge. If the book is about life on a farm, for example, engage in some brainstorming about farms to see what your child knows about them. Can he name several farm animals? Has she ever been to a farm? Can he name different types of farms? Doing a “picture walk” can also help: Ask your student to view the cover and guess what the book is about. Flip through the pages, not to read, but to observe any illustrations to make storyline predictions and to see if there are words your child already recognizes or words that might be challenging. This will help you know what contextual information to present to your child before reading the book. That could be as simple as a Google search for common types of farms or researching farming vocabulary words like “vaccination” or “organic.”


As you read with your child, toss in questions as he or she reads the text, and have your child retell and discuss the story at the end. In discussions, use new words in sentences so your child can understand their meanings. These activities will help you gauge whether your child is developing his vocabulary and whether he comprehends what he reads. Comprehension is the true test of whether a child can read.


Finally, watch for problems with spelling, decoding (sounding out and correctly naming words) and written expression, and consult a credentialed evaluator if you suspect your child has a reading-related disability. As cumulative as reading to learn is, any problems need to be addressed immediately using an accredited reading program.


A Word on Books


Books cannot be overlooked as a teaching tool. Books should be an integrated part of your daily activities. Not just any old books but good quality children’s literature. Make sure you select books that are developmentally appropriate and truly promote literacy. Books intended to market entertainment to children tend to not have the needed mechanisms for building vocabulary and phonological awareness, and they are many times not on the appropriate language level for the child.


Books We Love


Infants and Toddlers

“Goodnight Moon” by Margaret Wise Brown
“Where’s Spot?” by Eric Hill
“Time for Bed” by Mem Fox
“Silly Sally” by Audry Wood
“Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” by Bill Martin and Eric Carle



“The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Bill Martin and Eric Carle
“The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats
“If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” by Laura Joffe Numeroff
“King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub” by Audrey Wood
“Sitting in My Box” by Dee Liligard


Kindergarten – Grade 1

“The Mitten” by Jan Brett
“A House For Hermit Crab” by Eric Carl
“Goldilocks and the Three Bears” by James Marshall
“The Three Billy Goats Gruff” by Paul Galdone
“The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn
“Stranger in the Wood” by Carl R. Sams, II, and Jean Stoick


Older Elementary Children

“The Courage of Sarah Noble” by Alice Dalgliesh
“Little House in the Big Woods” by Laura Ingalls Wilder
“Charlotte’s Web” by E. B. White
“Superfudge” by Judy Blume
“Stone Fox” by John Reynolds Gardiner and Greg Hargreaves
“The Sign of the Beaver” by Elizabeth George Speare
The Magic Tree House Series by Mary Pope Osborne and Sal Murdocca
The Ramona Series by Beverly Cleary and Tracy Dockray


Tips on Making Reading Part of Your Everyday Life


Model reading and writing.
Let your child choose a few favorite books, and then find a cozy place to read them together, every day.
Create a home library, and treat it with respect.
Give books as gifts.
Promote reading as everyday entertainment: in waiting rooms, on vacations and on-the-go.

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