Three-year-old Nico searches anxiously for his well-worn copy of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff, pulling it off the stuffed bookshelf and settling down on the carpet, snuggling with his “Beanie Boo” as he has hundreds of times before. His mother, Natasha, smiles as Nico begins to “read.” If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s gonna want some milk…and when you give him the milk, he’s gonna want a straw… She’s seen this scenario a dozen times before and is impressed with how large Nico’s vocabulary has grown and how many words he’s picked up seemingly effortlessly at such a young age. Even though she knows he’s often repeating the story from memory, she has a suspicion that Nico really does already recognize some of the printed words in the books he’s heard a hundred times before. Natasha doesn’t consider herself to be an avid reader, so it always amazes her to see how quickly Nico has grown to love his books; she cherishes their “snuggle time” together and looks forward to reading with him.
All around the world, mothers (and fathers!) of all cultures and backgrounds can relate to this unfolding scene. Children who are exposed to early literacy activities, including rich language, storybook reading, and exploration in writing, often have a head start and these “emergent literacy” events can have a profound impact on later development.
Emergent literacy experiences include children discovering and exploring in print-rich environments; participating in their own versions of early reading and writing; and having meaningful social interactions with adults and other children, building language skills, storybook reading opportunities, and play activities that promote literacy skills. Parents and professionals alike are equipped to provide children with valuable experiences and materials that can enhance emergent literacy. But what about the place of research-proven literacy skills? Do we need to start teaching skills like phonics and rules of reading as children are crawling around exploring the world around them? Or do we leave such highly technical lessons to the professionals? Or, might there be a compromise somewhere in between?
Emergent literacy is defined as an approach to literacy development where children “learn by doing.” It is believed that by engaging in meaningful interactions utilizing language, print, and writing opportunities children will “pick up” on these important skills simply through their own engagement from a very early age. But not every child learns the complex skills and nuances necessary for effective speaking, reading, and writing simply through observations and interactions. Enter the more directed approach in explicitly teaching research—proven skills (such as the sound structure of language, alphabet knowledge, and specific lessons on oral language skills). Often identified as “The Reading Wars” or the “Whole Language vs. Phonics” debate, it often pits literacy experts against each other and the average layperson wondering the best approach to take.
Many parents and early childhood educators alike realize intuitively that engaging children in literacy activities (such as singing nursery rhymes and alphabet songs, “playing school,” or storybook reading) is going to have a positive impact on children, but even the casual remarks about some of the important literacy skills (such as introducing new vocabulary words or pointing out environmental print) can greatly impact children’s literacy development. You don’t have to be a PhD in language or literacy to be able to draw children’s attention to some of their everyday experiences with literacy skills.
Parents are children’s first teachers, and as such they have a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to provide enriching and engaging literacy experiences that don’t have to be overly technical or scientific. Providing children with a variety of different reading materials (storybooks, online games or aps, comics, magazines, flashcards, etc.) and encouraging and supporting children’s interaction with these materials are effective.
Parents and influential adults as well as siblings and other children are powerful role models as well. Building positive attitudes towards literacy behaviors (such as reading, writing, and engaging in conversations) goes a long way in motivating children to also engage in these behaviors and provides opportunities to practice literacy skills. Remember, speaking, reading, and writing are all literacy skills and many fun activities that precede the development of these skills (such as learning how to rhyme, practicing holding a pencil or other writing material, or trying new words in oral conversations) are important, too!
A balanced approach to literacy means doing all the things parents and caregivers might do intuitively, like reading together, drawing and labeling pictures, pointing out signs or other words during outings, and providing reading and writing materials for children to explore in the context of play. It also includes making a point to use “teachable moments” in everyday experiences to point out some of the important skills associated with literacy—introducing new vocabulary, learning the alphabet and the associated sounds that letters make, teaching concepts about print, and pointing out the parts of words that make the whole and breaking down whole words into smaller parts. A balanced approach means doing what comes naturally but also paying attention to the “skill work” and taking advantage of opportunities to practice these skills in authentic engagements in a child’s everyday world.
There’s no question that as a literate society, the more readily children learn to speak, read, and write, the better off they are. But statistics also reveal that problems with literacy can also be predictive of later, more serious issues. Taking the time to provide even the youngest children with opportunities to explore and engage in literacy opportunities can have a powerful impact on their future.