Though they had no formal training, hadn’t immersed themselves in parenting manuals and weren’t college educated,my parents had, by instinct or modeling from their own parents, given us a foundation for success in early literacy and in our future academic experiences. They had given us a legacy…the gift of words. Often when we think of literacy, we think of reading. However, in her article, “A Window to the World: Early Language and Literacy Development,” Jaclyn Kupcha-Szram explains that “Literacy is about communication, which begins long before a baby utters her first word.” This communication and language development is based on the everyday experiences, talk, play and discovery, and enriching activities that occur during interactions with nurturing and trusted caregivers. What makes early language development so vital is that by three years of age, a child’s vocabulary growth, amount of talk and conversational style are well established. In their well-documented study of children’s early experiences across socioeconomic strata, Betty Hart and Todd Risley discovered that long before the first day of kindergarten, extreme gaps have emerged between children whose language development has been richly stimulated and those who have enjoyed fewer opportunities for growth. These gaps continue to increase with children’s academic success or failure by age nine to ten generally corresponding to the amount of talk and the language development that occurs from birth to age three. Clearly, we as parents are poised to make the greatest contributions to our children’s language development, as we are their first teachers. (Source: Hart, Betty, and Todd Risley. Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing, 1996.)
In The Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease declares, “It’s not the toys in the house that make the difference in children’s lives; it’s the words in their heads. The least expensive thing we can give a child outside of a hug turns out to be the most valuable: words.” Affirmations (“You’re such a smart boy.”) and questions (“Can you see the moon?”) that prompt for continued speaking are more valuable and confidence building than prohibitions (“No! Stop that!”). These words can be offered in talk, in song, in nursery rhyme and, perhaps most importantly of all, in reading. Reading offers more diverse vocabulary than conversation, as you can see from the “Rare Words” chart. Conversation generally consists of the same approximate 5,000 words we use frequently and an additional 5,000 slightly less frequently used words. It is the “rare words,” – those that fall outside the common lexicon – that play a more crucial role in vocabulary development and preparation for reading. Reading a children’s book aloud to a child potentially offers more than three times the rare word exposure of adult to child conversation. It also offers 27% more rare word exposure than Prime time TV. (Source: TreLease, Jim. The Read-Aloud Handbook. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2006.)
A child is never too young or too old to benefit from listening to books read aloud. Children are born ready to learn and reading should begin as soon as possible. The key is to make reading fun, select appropriate reading material for a child’s age and manage our own expectations as to the child’s capabilities at that age. For instance, board, vinyl or cloth books with simple illustrations and bright colors can be introduced to the very youngest infants, not with the expectation of any real comprehension, but to familiarize the child with your reading voice and the presence of books. Early books with simple nursery rhymes and sing-song rhythms can be soothing and capture the attention of infants. As they grow, babies will become more aware of the language and can withstand a slightly longer reading period.
They are increasingly more interested in manipulating the books and attempting to turn pages. By the nine to twelve month stage, a baby will likely be more interested in the actual content rather than physical elements of a book. Board books are still essential, particularly those with predictable text, familiar content, and conversational words they are mastering, such as “Hello” and “Goodbye.”
Older infants and toddlers who are more accustomed to books and reading experiences should be encouraged to interact during read aloud sessions. Adding comments or questions creates a dialogue and an opportunity for further exploration: “Look at this. Can you find the turtle?” Pausing after a directive and affirming the child’s response verbally or answering for the child if he supplies no response offers more opportunities for the child to gain confidence and play a more active and exciting role in reading experiences. (For more complete information on book choices and usage by age, two very helpful sources are: “Early Literacy” from zerotothree.org/BrainWonders and The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease.) Older children, even those who read for themselves, still benefit from listening to a parent or other adult read aloud. Besides being valuable time shared, this continues the example set when they were younger that books are valuable and reading is important and enjoyable. As preteens and teens are often very focused on their peers, it may be useful to find reading programs that they can enjoy in group settings. Your local library is a great place to start when seeking out reading programs for children of all ages, as most will have themed story times, activities, and book discussion groups. It is also important to remember, however, that older children can benefit greatly from the one-on-one time with a parent that reading affords. In “The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books we Shared,” Alice Ozma chronicles a challenge she and her father undertook to read together each day for 100 days. After achieving their goal, they both felt compelled to continue reading, stopping only when her departure for college required it.
As a mom to three young boys of varied ages, I have enjoyed immensely every opportunity to talk with and read to my children. As we ventured beyond the beloved Margaret Wise Brown books, I found the need to employ a bit of creativity in our home reading experiences to keep my younger children engaged and my oldest child interested. One such adventure featured a story about lady bird beetles, followed by releasing lady bugs into our garden, where we then followed them through their life cycle. We read Monica Wellington’s “Zinnia’s Garden,” and went on to study how flowers absorb water and nutrients by placing daisies in a series of test tubes with colored water. We have, admittedly, come up with some very interesting adventures to pair with books we’ve enjoyed over the years, sharing laughs over a few mishaps and surprises. The legacy that began with my parents and their parents continues on with my children. They are curious, adventuresome and bright, and I think they’ll grow up treasuring their gift of words.
|Pat the Bunny
A "touch and feel" book for small children and babies which has been a perennial best-seller in the U.S. since its publication in 1940.
A classic of children's literature, the text is a rhyming poem, describing a bunny's bedtime ritual of saying "goodnight" to various objects in the bunny's bedroom.
|Toes,Ears, & Nose
A fantastic way to teach your older baby how to recognize their own body with interactive flaps that lift up and identify different body parts.
Gwen Hopkins- Sadowski is the Founder and Executive Director of Grow, Learn & Thrive, an organization helping at-risk children in their crucial early years. She loves to read, write, run, drink wine, garden, and spoil her kids and husband.