Reading, and What Comes Before

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“Daddy, do you think I’ll be able to read when I’m a grownup?”

This question came from my six year-old daughter. Her eldest sister, now ten, started reading when she was six, and moved straight from picture books to the Narnia series. The next oldest, now eight, endured similar frustration until everything clicked for her this year. Now she’s unstoppable and reading space on the couch is at a premium. I don’t think the six year-old has much to worry about.

My children are home schooled, and their mother is a skilled and experienced teacher, but there’s really no secret to how reading came to be a prized experience in our family. We have books. Lots of books. Books on the shelves, books on every flat surface, books on the floor and under the beds. Books we sought out and books that were gifted; books from frequent trips to the library and books that appeared mysteriously without explanation. Books that fall out when we open the car door.

The presence of books in the home is probably the most powerful way to encourage literacy in children. After all, kids learn what’s important from what is in their environment. A long-term study found that having books on hand is a more significant indicator of a child’s future academic success than the parent’s level of education (which was previously though to be the most important factor). According to the study, “Having as few as 20 books in the home still has a significant impact on propelling a child to a higher level of education, and the more books you add, the greater the benefit.”

Reading to your children is important, of course. After all, they have to know what those leafy things are and how they work (and why nothing will happen when you swipe or click them). There are a variety of preliteracy activities that help to ensure that kids will read at the appropriate time.

  • Oral language skills. Children listen to adult conversations. They learn to ask questions. They tell stories, especially if we tell stories to them.
  • Play. Left on their own, children will naturally create their own narratives through the very important activity of playing with one another.
  • Language is everywhere. According to this article, “While it’s important to understand preliteracy skills and behaviors, you don’t have to directly teach them. Instead, try to follow your child’s lead. For example, interesting experiences like grocery shopping, bank visits, and trips to the veterinarian encourage children to talk. These informal occasions allow them to take risks using language, particularly in new and creative ways. They will play with familiar words, explore new meanings, and test uses of language in different settings.”

Having books around? Talking to kids? Is it really that easy? Not for everyone. My six year-old is still a little concerned that reading won’t happen during her childhood (I give her six months to a year). But reading, in this environment, will happen when it happens. Every child is different, and the skills will fall into place when they’re ready (as any parent who has struggled to potty train their child can attest).

We are fortunate to have much more than twenty books. Of course, this increases exponentially the possibility of library fines. Somehow, it’s always worth it.

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