Many parents unknowingly limit their pre-schoolers’ start to literacy

I’m all for letting teachers do their job in terms of teaching children to read and write, and for not pressurizing children to do these before they’re interested and ready.

However, there are problems at kindy!

More and more children are arriving with very poor pre-literacy skills.

Although most parents try to make sure their children are ready for school and focus on what they believe are the right things, they are missing out on some elements that have become increasingly important because of societal change. They know their children’s lives today are very different from when they were kids, but may not yet realise the effect this is having on early literacy.

Here are some of the great literacy-builders that most parents already do with their pre-schoolers:

  • They talk and play with them
  • They read to them and encourage them to look at books, apps etc (including some alphabet or phonic ones)
  • They encourage them to participate in a wide range of play activities, both with others and alone
  • They take them to a wide range of different places and build their experience in handling different environments and situations

What is it that they may be missing then?

Involving their children in extended talk!

This means giving them time to think and say more about a particular topic of conversation. When you ask an extra question or two, you can encourage them to think more deeply and say more. You can also say what you think and ask other people what they think.

These days we’re all caught up rushing here and there to meet our commitments, and seem to have have less and less time to have extended conversations with our own families. In fact, only 20% of families now sit down together for a meal each day. Of those that do, only some make sure there is no media input at the same time. TV, radio, phone calls, texting or electronic games all interrupt the flow of conversation, and so many families are actually losing the capacity to converse together. Meal times used to provide young children with a regular opportunity to hear and be part of extended conversations.

What happens when a young child doesn’t hear extended conversations or have enough appropriate talk time?

  • They may not greet people spontaneously
  • They may not respond to simple questions, or may only give one or two word answers
  • They may just run away when they are spoken to
  • They may have a very limited vocabulary
  • Their brains may be developing fewer language connections

Exploring the sounds in spoken language!

Parents tend to focus on teaching their pre-schoolers the alphabet and the sounds the letters represent. As adults, we know that the alphabet is a code for the sounds in spoken words, and we often make the assumption that children understand this too. Many young children don’t, however, because they haven’t explored spoken language enough yet. If they are not given the opportunity to do this, they may end up ‘knowing’ the alphabet but not understanding what it’s for, and so be severely hampered when it comes to learning to read and write. This is easy to avoid when you know how.

Here are some of the easiest ways to start developing the essential phonological awareness (awareness of the sounds in spoken language) that all children need in order to avoid later problems with literacy:

If you think your child doesn’t know that speech is actually made up of individual spoken words, you can show them how to step out the words in a spoken sentence, and then hold their hand and get them to do this with you. Of course, you would start with a very short spoken sentence, such as ‘I like apples.’ This is something to keep developing through frequent practice.

If you think your child doesn’t know how to listen for the first sound – not the letter – in a word you say aloud (eg /b/ is the first sound you hear in the word ‘bird’), you can work on this by telling them that you’re going to say a word very slowly, and asking them to listen for the first sound they hear coming out of your mouth. After modelling this for a while, they will start to get the idea. You should keep practising this with lots of different spoken words over time, and as a FUN activity.

If you think your child doesn’t recognise rhyming words, you can introduce rhyme through nursery rhymes, rhyming books, songs etc, by explaining rhyming words as ‘words that sound the same at the end’. You’ll know that a child is on the right track with rhyming when they suddenly tell you that something rhymes with something else as you read to them. Children naturally relate to rhyme and frequently make up nonsense words that rhyme in their play. You should encourage this and talk about their rhyming words.

If you think your child doesn’t know that words are made up of syllables, you can introduce this idea by showing them how to clap the correct number of syllables as they say the names of family members, eg Jody (2 claps), Mum (1 clap). Names are easy to start with, and then you can extend to clapping the syllables in other words.

None of these strategies involves anything other than speaking and listening, but they are all essential in getting children off to a great start in reading and writing at school.




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