Why we all need to read with our children

Published: Wednesday | August 19, 2009

R. Tortello, Contributor

READING IS fundamental to life and to living. The importance of reading and exploring books from a young age cannot be overstated.

Research has shown that the overwhelming majority of Jamaican children do not enter grade one as emergent readers. It is recognised worldwide that literacy development begins at birth and is closely linked to a baby's earliest experiences with books and stories. Babies learn language through social literacy experiences - parents interacting with them using books. These experiences also serve to associate books with parental affection, attention and approval.

Early or emergent literacy (reading and writing) does not mean early-reading instruction or teaching babies to read. It is the natural development of skills through the enjoyment of books, the importance of positive interactions between babies/ toddlers and parents, and the critical role of literacy-rich experiences.

Consider the results of a recent American study around emergent literacy where normal, emotionally stable families with small children from different socio-economic classes were observed. The researchers recorded everything that was said to each child on various occasions over a certain period of time. On an hour-by-hour level, the differences were not that noticeable, but when they extrapolated the numbers over the child's first four years of life, the results were staggering. The study showed that white-collar (high socio-economic status (SES)) children reach kindergarten having heard 45 million words, whereas blue-collar (mid-SES) children have only heard 26 million words and poverty-level children have heard only 13 million words. That is a 32-million word difference between the professional children and the poverty children.

Break cycle of disparity

Why the difference? The professional level parents talk to their children more and read to them more. This gives the higher SES kids a head start in kindergarten and creates a gap that the poverty-level children can rarely close. This gap stays with them throughout their education, and is then passed on to their children. Although we do not have figures for Jamaica, it is more than reasonable to believe similar results would occur here. We must break this cycle of disparity and inequality by creating greater equity across our education system - yes we must fix our infrastructure, as well as our access to higher-trained teachers, but we must also work hard at home and at school to develop emergent readers.

Our biggest window of opportunity comes in our children's early years zero - to five. What can our early-childhood teachers and parents do? There are six components to emergent literacy - and they are not hard to learn.

Show what you value

Print motivation is first. Have traditions in your home/school: a bookshelf, reading traditions. Tell the children that Reading time is fun! Tell them that libraries are fun! Read in an upbeat, happy voice.

Don't read when the child is tired, fussy. Don't force the children to read. Parents and teachers must read in front of the children. They must model and show that they love books too. Buy books as presents: show what you value.

Second, is vocabulary - meaning the ability to know the names of things. Parents and teachers need to talk to their children all the time, pointing out and naming things - exposing children to as many words as possible. Repetition is the very best way. Don't underestimate a child's ability to learn the specific names of things! The best thing about reading books is that children are exposed to words that they would not normally hear in everyday conversation! Explain new words as you are reading! Here's an interesting fact - books generally have 27 rare vocabulary words per thousand, spoken language on the average contains only nine rare words per thousand. Reading to children is the very best way to expose them to new words.

Print awareness is the third component of emergent literacy. This means noticing print, knowing how to handle a book, knowing how to follow words on the page. Even a baby learns quickly how to turn the pages. When you read, occasionally point out and move your finger across the page. Point to words on signs, packages, labels.

Negative approach to learning

Pretend you don't know how to hold a book. Let the child tell you to hold it right side up. A child who is not comfortable with books comes to school feeling that books are 'hard', 'have-to' 'homework' - we do not want to encourage that kind of negative approach to learning.

Narrative skills is next. That means being able to describe things and events and tell stories in sequence.

Parents/teacher can talk with children about what they did during the day. They can also tell the children stories about what happened to them during the day.

It is important to encourage children to talk and tell stories because it is in the retelling of information that we often see evidence of learning of true comprehension.

Fifth is letter knowledge. This means knowing that letters are different from each other, knowing their names and their sounds and being able to recognise letters everywhere. Parents and teachers can find and point out letters everywhere. They can ask the children to clap when they hear a word that begins with a letter they are learning or ask them to make the shape of the letter when they hear it, if possible, throughout the story.

Last, but not least, is phonological awareness.

This means being able to hear that words are made up of smaller sounds and be able to play with those sounds. Songs, rhymes, finger plays are excellent ways for learning about smaller sounds.