Saturday 17 September 2011

Preparing My Child - What Can I Do?

I often hear parents say that they are unsure about what to do or where to start when it comes to teaching their children to read. There are many things we can do as parents to help develop literacy skills in our children and lots of them are simple. Here is my ‘Top Ten’ list of pre-reading activities:

1.  Talk, talk, talk – explain, discuss, question, answer. Go beyond the daily conversational language. Find out what your child knows (and what they want to know) by asking them questions. Be prepared to answer questions (lots of them) that your child poses. Introduce new ideas and concepts on a regular basis and get your child thinking! A good learner is inquisitive.

2.  Visual Discrimination – matching, sorting, classifying. You can use shapes, colours, even household objects (like glasses, utensils, pencils etc...).  Some great visual discrimination games include:
  • Spot the Difference: There are many online ‘spot the difference’ games to show children. You can also find inexpensive activity books in discount stores. Alternatively, make your own. Use simple, clear pictures that have about 3 differences initially. You can increase the difficulty when your child experiences success. 
  • Match the Item: Place some utensils on the kitchen table (spoons, forks, knives etc...). Hand your child one utensil and ask them to find a matching one from the group on the table. You could play this game with just about anything (coloured cups, pencils, toys) so long as you have something to match it with.
  • Memory Tray: Place about 8 – 10 items on a tray. Ask your child to look carefully at each item and remember it. Ask them to close their eyes (or turn around) and remove one of the items. See if your child can identify the object. You can also swap the position of items and ask your child to identify which items were moved.

3.  Auditory Skills – tuning in and listening. Improve auditory skills by paying attention to familiar sounds (eg: transport noises, household sounds, musical instruments). Talk about these sounds when you hear them. Children need to understand that they can actively hear, that is, choose to pay attention to sounds. This will help prepare your child for the task of listening to sounds in words. You can focus on isolating beginning, middle or end sounds in words and identifying syllables in words.

4.  Letter/Sound Knowledge – teaching alphabet names and the sounds they make. Start with only a few and introduce more as your child experiences success. Some letters say more than one sound. The letter ‘A’ can say apple or ape. Some children are prepared to accept both sounds, but to avoid confusing your child perhaps start with one sound (eg: apple) and introduce the alternative sound later.

5.  Rhyme – identifying rhyming words and making rhymes. It is easier for a child to identify a rhyme (“Do the words cat and hat rhyme?”) rather than expecting them to produce a rhyme (“What rhymes with cat?”). Take the pressure off by accepting made up rhyming wors (eg: hat and gat). The process involved is still the same.

6.  Initial Sound Awareness – listening for the beginning sounds in words. What sound can you hear? Playing I Spy helps children to isolate, identify and listen for initial sounds. This game should come with a warning though – it’s addictive.

7.  Concepts of Print – understanding books and how they work - directionality of print (left to right/top to bottom), what is an author, illustrator, title, spine, cover, letter, word, sentence, picture.

8.  Comprehension – understanding what is read, said or seen (tv). How do you know your child understands? Ask them. After a story ask your child some questions that have a specific answer (“What did the boy eat for breakfast?”). To extend their comprehension ask your child a question that requires them to infer understanding (“What do you think the boy would like to eat for breakfast tomorrow?”). There is no right or wrong answer, but you’ll know if your child is on the right track. If the little boy in the story hated eating cereal for breakfast, it is unlikely he will want to eat it for breakfast the following day.

9.  Model and Shared Learning – sometimes you need to demonstrate how things are done, and at other times you need to step back and share new learning.

Here is an example of modelling learning: When reading a book you talk about the picture, pointing out anything of importance. “Oh look, here is a little girl at the park. She wants to play on the slide. I hope she can climb up the ladder safely. Oh dear, look at those big black clouds – I think they are rain clouds. Oh, she’ll have to be quick if she wants to stay dry.”

Here is an example of shared learning: “Oh look, here is a little girl. Where is she? Yes, that’s right she’s at the park. Does it look like the park you go to? What do you think she would like to play on? Yes, the slide. You like the slide don’t you? What else can you see? Can you see something in the sky? What is it? Clouds, yes. What does it mean when the clouds are really dark and grey? Oooh – yes, I think it is going to rain. What should the little girl do?” Obviously you would need to pause for answers!

10. Do Little Things Often – increase the frequency of activities but don’t feel like you have to keep at it for long periods of time. Keep it short and sweet. Playing learning games for 10 minutes each day will be better than expectiong your child to stick at it for a one hour block once a week. I suspect it will be easier on you too!

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Literacy and Oral Language

Recently I was fortunate enough to participate in a workshop run by Elizabeth Love and Sue Reilly. Many years ago, these two speech pathologists formed the partnership ‘Love & Reilly’. Together, they have worked with teachers, speech pathologists and parents, equipping them with valuable information about language development. The conference was entitled ‘Oral Language and Its Links To Literacy ‘ and I was eager to post some feedback here. 

Oral language is an important pre-reading skill. It is one of the first components of literacy that a child develops. Remember, literacy means reading, writing, listening and speaking. Love & Reilly cite Catts, Fey, Tomblin & Zhang (2002) and highlight that 70% of poor readers had a history of language deficits in kindergarten. Those children who have a wide vocabulary and a good understanding of words, tend to become better readers at school. So even though our young children are not quite ready to pick up a book and read it, we can use their language as an indicator for their future reading success. 

Strive to expand your child’s vocabulary

As parents, we are encouraged when our children learn to speak and we delight in watching them find their way, making mistakes as they try to make sense of our language. I’m reminded of a visit to the beach where I pointed out the waves to my youngest son. He responded by waving his hand at the sea. I smiled, knowing that he related a ‘wave’ to something we do when we say hello or goodbye. As an almost 2 year old, my son is only at the very beginning of his journey with language, but he is already processing information and finding meaning that relates to him. It excites me to see the connections he is making.   

I’m constantly telling parents to keep talking to their children. However, we need to go further than just the conversational language of giving commands and speaking about daily routines. We need to nurture our children’s language development and foster it from an early age. One way we can do this is to find different ways to explain things. Here are some examples:
  • ‘Hurry up ... walk faster ... quickly’.  
  • ‘Pick up your toys ... collect your toys ... get your toys ... gather your toys together’
  • ‘Think about your brother ... be considerate ... be thoughtful ... be kind’
By acting as a thesaurus you can help to broaden your child’s vocabulary which in time, will be greatly beneficial to their reading development. Try to introduce new concepts and enrich your child’s understanding of the world. We went for a drive the other day and passed by a dam – this was a great opportunity to discuss what a dam is, what its purpose on a farm is. Parents are a child’s first and greatest teacher ... so teach! Don’t expect your child to just ‘pick it up’. If you see a new idea on tv, discuss it. If you find a new concept in a book, talk about it. How else will your child know these things? It’s a little bit like gardening. Every time you give your child a new word, you’re planting a new seed. Keep planting and nurturing and one day you will see the fruits of your labour. My eldest child suddenly told me to ‘cooperate’ the other day ... aha, he has been listening!

Provide opportunities for your child to develop their oral language through play

One of the key points I took away from the course was the importance of allowing our pre-school children opportunities for play. The type of play I’m talking about here is quality imaginative play – not just running around at a park (although that too has its merits). Sitting down to a tea-party, dressing up and acting out a part, racing cars around a city made from pantry items etc... When children engage with others during play they have a chance to develop their spoken language. They might play with siblings, peers or parents. Either way, they learn about new concepts, expand their vocabulary and explore notions of what is acceptable. My son often watches what other children do in play and I can see his little mind thinking. He is learning what to do (and what not to do) and figuring out the ‘social rules’.

It can be easy to be caught up in the routine of life, running errands and taking care of a household.  When you are out and about, invite your child to interact with people in the community. Give them a role to play in the organisation of your life. You might simply start by asking your child to greet people, then progress to giving your child the money to pay for the shopping. With encouragement and support your child can progress to completing whole transactions quite independently. Of course, all children have different personalities. This may seem simple for some children who are naturally gregarious but other children may be crippled with fear. Try not to set the bar too high (I don't say that often), but create opportunities for your child to experience success.  

Do try to find time to play with your child and model the language and behaviours you would like to see. The time spent will be worthwhile. And when your child talks and talks and talks and talks and you wonder if they will ever stop ... remember, it will be worth it when they are happy, eager, independent readers.
So good luck and keep talking the good talk!


Wednesday 13 July 2011

Literacy and Starting School

When kindergarten children first begin school it is often an overwhelming event – for both the child and parent! There are so many new routines, new faces and new experiences that it can take a while for children to feel really settled. Good teachers will do their very best to help children adapt but for some kids, it can be a bit like ‘throwing them in the deep end’. Add to this the notion that school is actually a place for learning, and the experience intensifies. ‘What do you mean I have to read (write, count, add, listen, speak, cooperate, conform etc....)?’   

What is interesting to note is that children who have been exposed to pre-reading concepts in their preschool years tend to adjust much quicker to the new routines of school and settle with greater confidence than their peers who have little understanding of literacy. 

Why, do I hear you say? Follow me here ...

Arguably, the first task (of many) for a Prep teacher is to teach reading. Of course opportunities are provided for children to experience all facets of the curriculum (as mentioned above), but initially a great deal of focus is placed on reading. In fact, I would go so far as to say that during the first year of school most emphasis is placed on learning to read. Typically speaking, the ability to read occurs before being able to write. For many children it occurs at the same stage but our focus here shall primarily be on reading.

School children are introduced to letter/sound relationships, sight words, take home readers, literacy rotations and more. It is structured, guided and measured by the teacher. Children are assessed and move through reading levels at their own pace. Those children that have developed a good understanding of literacy during their preschool years move swiftly, jumping from level to level rapidly. It is only natural that they will possess a good sense of self confidence. What about the child who isn’t so sure? They are perhaps quieter, less engaged, potentially disruptive and certainly lacking in confidence (as compared to their peers who have an insight to literacy). I’m sure some are thinking, ‘Who told all the other kids what’s going on?’

The pace set by the ‘prepared’ child is so furious that it’s debatable whether the gap between students is ever fully closed. Don’t get me wrong - all children move forward in school (at least that’s the aim), but the success experienced early on by those ‘prepared’ students bolsters their esteem so greatly that it often carries with them from year to year. They form attitudes towards reading and literacy, as do the ‘un-prepared’ children. Teachers don’t like to compare one child to another. We certainly don’t offer the parent any comparison of where their child sits amongst the cohort of students. We look at the capabilities of a child when they entered the class and look at their individual journey  ... in nearly all cases, further ahead than in the beginning.

I cannot stress enough the importance of preparing young children for learning. Lay down the foundation as it is often the experiences in the first few months at school which determine a child’s sentiment toward literacy and sets the tone for their whole school life. The Prep year is fundamental and often parents don’t realise its significance.   

Isn’t school the place where you learn to read? Well, yes and no. Teachers will teach all children, but parents can certainly do wonderful things with their preschoolers before getting to school.

So then, if engaging your child in pre-reading skills to help them become a literate adult isn’t enough reason for you – then consider the positive impact it will have on your child when starting school as a confident, capable student. Give your child the best start to their school life by developing skills early and give them a chance to achieve their full potential.