The growing research on early literacy development can be very helpful to guide you in designing programs and introducing strategies to make oral and written communication meaningful for young children. But, sometimes it can also be overwhelming as you try to make decisions about what and how your children should be learning. How, indeed, can you effectively immerse their young children in a literacy rich environment?
More than simply decoding words, literacy needs to be embedded in young children’s everyday activities throughout their entire day. Young children’s literacy skills need to be developed through exposure to and hands-on involvement with print-related activities and through conversations. And, research shows that a single most important activity for developing skills and understandings for literacy success is reading aloud to young children. Let’s take a look at how early literacy development was encouraged in one preschool classroom:
During a discussion recounting our field trip to a local farm the day before, my preschoolers talked with fascination about the black Chinese hen they saw that laid green colored eggs. Capitalizing on their interest in the hen, I read them aloud the classic folktale, The Little Red Hen (New York: Scholastic, 1985, $2.99). Describing the real animals that they had seen on the farm and adding the make-believe animals in the story, the preschoolers created an interesting dictated web. They loved the story so much that they retold it and acted it out for several days. They also decided to name their own farm that they built out of blocks, including chicken houses for the “special” black and red hens. Finally, they extended their story experience by reading a recipe to bake their own delicious bread, just like the busy Little Red Hen.
Referring to this scenario in a snapshot approach, let’s see how young children can actually make important literacy connections in their classroom environment. Here’s how you can help to set the scene to develop your children’s potential to become lifelong readers and writers.
Start With the Story
Be sure to provide or build up a classroom library. Try to include between five to eight books for each child. Aim for a mix of types of books – informational, poems, fairytales, songs, wordless, old favorites, etc. Add children’s magazines, too. A portion of these books should be changed every three weeks depending upon your children’s interests and the themes they are pursuing. Various themed books can be placed in appropriate activity centers for reference. Make sure you have a number of books down low on a rack in a reading center. Face the covers outward for easy perusal and selection by individual children or pairs of young readers. Because not all children who come to preschool have been read to, it is important to provide some cozy spots (big floor pillows, rocking chair) within the environment for pleasant one-on-one readings with you, or for small-group interactive experiences with books.
As children are read to, they learn about book concepts, such as finding the cover, the mechanics of reading like turning pages, and concepts of print – letters are printed symbols that can be put together to form words. Children gain a wonderful sense of stories as they come to understand settings and recognize that characters have roles, such as the animals in The Little Red Hen.
With the whole group shared reading of this particular book, supportive conversations and pertinent activities occurred to maximize the children’s involvement. “What does the hen seem to be doing in this picture on the cover?” was a question asked in the beginning to arouse the children’s curiosity about the book. During the reading, prompts and questions, such as, “Who do you think might help the Little Red Hen?” assisted to keep the children’s focus and interest. And, after the reading aloud of the story, opportunities were offered for the children to respond to the book by asking, “How would you get the animals to help?” as well as creating a web about the various farm animals’ roles.
A predictable book, such as The Little Red Hen, is perfect for developing listening skills. Predictable books encourage enthusiastic participation when the children can anticipate what comes next. In this book, they quickly picked up on the lazy animals’ responses, “Not I” and the Little Red Hen’s more positive reply, “Then I will.” Other types of predictable books can build the children’s literacy skills with anticipated thymes, conversations and cumulative patterns.
During rich read-aloud experiences, introduce children to new and unusual words that may not be a part of their everyday conversations. While reading The Little Red Hen, the preschoolers were amazed to discover that my name, “Miller,” was used for the man who ground the wheat into flour for the hen. And then, the children sharpened their comprehension skills as they categorized the “lazy” animals while constructing their dictated web on large chart paper.
When the children asked for repeated readings of this story, as they so often do with favorite tales, they began to help with the narration and noticed the repetition of the letter “I” on the printed pages. (“I will,” said the hen. “Not I,” said the dog.”) as they said it out loud. When they helped to retell the story of The Little Red Hen, this enabled the children to understand how the plot unfolded as they reiterated the story in its meaningful sequence. This also helped them organize their thoughts. Retelling allowed them to add their own ideas, such as when Adam thought driving the wheat in a truck would be easier for the hen than pushing it in the wheelbarrow.
A story is a wonderful impetus for expanding your young children’s reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. Interacting with books helps to build on their prior experiences, introduce them to new ideas, and go way beyond to construct and make relationships through the text information they have heard or read.
Now, having used books as a springboard, let’s look at some other ways to create a literacy-rich environment to embed reading and writing in activities familiar to young children as we instruct them and support their present needs for literacy learning.
Literacy Within the Play Environment
In the block corner, the preschoolers discussed building a big farm by combining features from the Angstadt’s farm that they visited and The Little Red Hen’s farm. After brainstorming farm names, they used markers on cardboard to write signs for their “Animal Farm” and the farm buildings (milking parlor, barn, Red Hen’s house, Black Hen’s house, etc.) They also built a mailbox like Farmer Angstadt’s so the farm family and animals could receive posted written messages.
It is important for children in activity centers, like the block area, to be provided with a variety of materials for making marks on paper or writing. This helps them to understand that what they and others say can be written down and then read and interpreted, such as the sign for their “Animal Farm.” Teachers can extend young children’s experiences with print by exposing them to and encouraging them to write multiple kinds of text used for a variety of purposes, such as the letters, thank you notes, and post cards that the children sent to the farm mailbox.
Dramatic Play and Art Centers
The preschoolers thought it would be fun to act out The Little Red Hen story. In the beginning, I helped them to verbalize the characters they wanted for their dramatizations. Then, I said the words as I carefully wrote them so the children could hear and see the words as they were placed on the chart paper.
Interpreting the pictures of the animals in the book and adding their own ideas from their farm visit, the preschoolers made delightful decorated paper plate masks of the characters using the materials in the art center. This required them to recall visual story details and combine them with their real life observations.
As they acted out their roles while reenacting the familiar story, it became obvious they gained confidence in their speaking and listening abilities. Research shows that dramatic play brings out rich language in young children. During the play Jonathan suggested that the hen “walk a little” so she didn’t appear “lazy”, too. To expand the dialogue, I provided scaffolding that enriched their literacy development by encouraging the children to play with sounds and add their versions of the animals’ unique noises (oink-oink, woof-woof).
After the preschoolers spent several days having fun practicing their narrative skills with the masks in the dramatic play center, I encouraged them to play a picture/word card game in the language center with rhymes (red, bread, head) to increase their phonological awareness.
Finally, in the cooking area, the preschoolers read and followed the picture/word directions on a recipe poster so they could mix the ingredients (including eggs from the black Chinese hen) and bake their own bread, just like the Little Red Hen. We played sound matching language games as they waited for their bread to cool and decided which of their friends’ names began with the specific sound that bread begins with (Brad and Bruce). Later, during a rich teacher-initiated conversation, the preschoolers thought of exciting descriptive words to tell how their bread tasted (yummy, grainy).
With a collection of children’s recipe books and recipe file cards available for reference, coming full circle, the preschoolers used materials supplied in a portable “writing box” stocked with pencils, markers, sheets of paper, large file cards, etc. to write their own bread cookbook. Some used scribbles or marks like letters. Others wrote with their own “invented spelling” words where a single letter represented one syllable or words overlapped. Opportunities such as this assist young children with practical experiences in applying the alphabetic system as they learn ways to express themselves in print. And, there is a marvelous self-satisfaction that comes when others are able to receive and share their printed messages.
As teachers, we need to provide and guide interesting, enjoyable, and challenging hands-on literacy experiences in natural ways within the classroom environment to help young children learn to use their language in expressive and functional ways. It is critically important that, as educators, we build on the diverse literacy connections children have made at home and in the community so they can become successful readers, writers, listeners, and speakers.
Susan Miller, Ed.D., is Professor Emeritus of Early Childhood Education at Kutztown University in Kutztown, PA.
Start With Stories
1. Build a book collection. Seek out inexpensive sources of quality books. Ask for donations of outgrown books from parents and shop at garage sales. Join a book club that gives bonus books.
2. Set up a space for books. Place a bookrack in a quiet area of the room. Add comfortable seating, like big floor pillows, so children can cozy up with their books.
3. Select books carefully. Introduce children to books of all types: informational, songbooks, poetry, etc. Try to avoid gender and cultural stereotypes. Find books where pictures help to tell the story.
4. Rotate your books. Visit the local library to obtain fresh new books. Pay attention to your children’s interests to select specific theme books. Add some theme books to activity centers for handy reference.
5. Make available a core of favorite books. Children love to hear familiar stories over and over. Keep these on a low shelf to encourage independent reading.
6. Let children know you are available to read. Sit on the floor and enjoy a lap story with one child or gather a few together for an informal, small group, shared read-aloud session.
7. Read together every day. Model book awareness (turning pages, starting at the front). Make it fun – change your voice and add props, like puppets and silly hats.
8. Talk about the stories. Ask questions. Point out new words or exciting parts as you read together. Rich conversations enhance the children’s literacy awareness.