Little bookworms

Experts agree that success can be jumpstarted if parents push children to excel at reading
Thursday, May 6, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:09 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

A common reading teaching technique that is fun, and funny, is to give young children a book and ask them to read it.

They usually jump right in and start “reading” the story, even if they have no idea what words are written on the page.

“All children assume they can read,” said Stephanie Chandler, director of the Academy of Fine Arts and Early Childhood Learning. “It’s fantastic to hear the different opinions about what that story is.”

Literacy and reading have long been recognized as the key to good education — the building block that all subjects depend on.

“Everything stems from reading,” Chandler said. “A child who excels at reading has the opportunity to excel at everything: science, language arts, math, all the different subjects.”

Teaching youngsters to read

As people examine reasons behind disparities in academic achievement and the federal government holds schools accountable, many people are looking for a magic bullet to help all students. Because reading is identified as a key to beginning a successful education, looking at the formative years before school starts and at the early grades has become that crucial component for parents and educators interested in seeing students succeed later.

The impact early literacy has on later education is the reason Sharon Hoge decided to pursue a master’s degree in reading and focus on elementary students after teaching reading for years at the junior high level.

“When I started teaching, I assumed everyone in junior high could read and I would teach them about deeper topics,” said Hoge, the language arts coordinator for kindergarten through fifth grade in the Columbia Public School District. “Then I saw all of the reading difficulties, and I thought, if only I could just get to them earlier.”

The earliest teachers are parents.

“Learning to read starts in the home,” said Diane Audsley, a literacy support teacher for Columbia Public Schools. “Children need to see it is a valued skill.”

Some parents take classes about what their children should be learning.

Jerri Deming is the Columbia Public School District coordinator of Parents As Teachers, a program where parent educators teach parents about children’s development and learning from birth until the child enters elementary school. Parents As Teachers makes home visits, organizes group meetings and activities and screens children periodically to help parents get their children ready for school.

Deming said parents should begin exposing their children to books at infancy.

“We teach parents to have realistic expectations,” she said. “Many times children don’t have the attention span to sit still for a whole book, but just hearing the language or trying to fit in some reading when the child is confined and occupied, like at eating times, helps children begin to be aware of books and words.”

The group teaches parents what types of books are suitable for each developmental stage, such as cardboard books for infants and toddlers. Topics of interest for small children include animals, facial features and body parts. Repetitive wording is also a favorite of this age group.

The nursery rhyme has also been identified as more than just a fun gimmick — it can be a helpful tool in helping children tune in to the sounds of words.

Methods of teaching

“Because interests vary, lots of different types of books should be available,” Chandler said. “Rhyming, stories, lots of words, few words; staying in tune with the learner helps the teacher see strengths and use those teaching tools.”

Hoge said while there is an emphasis on teaching children early, parents shouldn’t worry too much about their responsibility for the formal instruction of reading. She said it is important to flood children’s lives with stories and words and be aware of children’s learning, but instead of planning out lessons or expecting certain progress to be made, parents of young children should do what feels natural.

“Parents need to value what feels good and feels fun while reading,” Hoge said. “This will help develop an interest in reading.”

Hoge said just talking to children will go a long way toward developing vocabulary and identifying with language. Hoge said lack of vocabulary is one of the main reasons for reading trouble in later grades.

“The car and the bathtub are two wonderful times to really talk to young children, because there aren’t a lot of times when you have them as your captive audience,” Hoge said.

Having a print-rich environment is another recommendation. Chandler said labeling objects with signs helps children identify that written language has meaning. Parents demonstrating their interest in reading can also encourage interest.

And then there’s the time-old method of reading to children. Hoge takes it a step further and says children shouldn’t be passive listeners.

“Make children an interactive part of the story,” Hoge said. “Have them turn the page, talk about the pictures, pause during words they know and make sure the child knows the story is in the words.”

Chandler also encouraged parents and guardians with lower literacy skills to still use books as a teaching tool. She said it is important bonding time and shows the importance of books.

“Parents can just hold a book, turn the pages and tell a story,” Chandler said. “The children won’t know the difference, and it has the same effect on young children as actually reading.”

Audsley said interest stems from children enjoying what they read. In recent years, teachers in early grades have shifted away from just starting out with narratives and fairy tales and have been also using interesting nonfiction books. She also said interest can be interrupted if the text is too difficult, so parents and educators should make sure the book fits the child’s ability.

Preschool is important for children because it can give them a groundwork in learning so there isn’t as much pressure and new things to absorb when they start elementary school.

“Kindergarten is such a major transition and so many new things are happening around them,” said Chandler. “The academics learned in preschool gives some level of comfort.”

Chandler said the academy follows the Missouri Pre-K literacy standards, which are determined by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, to get the children ready for elementary school.

Starting early

The literacy standards say children entering kindergarten should be applying early reading skills, which can be seen with certain indicators. These indicators range from knowing how to handle a book in the right way to recognizing letters in the environment around them.

“When children recognize the big ‘M’ means McDonald’s or recognize things the family usually buys because of the lettering on the box, that is children starting to connect things with letters and words,” Chandler said.

Identifying letters and print, especially in connection with their name, is also important, but some indicators don’t even use written words. Just knowing the qualities of stories and being able to tell their own is a standard the state department looks for in children getting ready to enter kindergarten.

Deming said children don’t have to know how to read to be ready for kindergarten — she emphasized being able to take directions and work with self-control in a group environment are more important. Yet children should be displaying awareness of letters.

“Children should know letters are where the story is coming from, that they make sounds which translates into words,” Deming said. “They should be very tuned in listening-wise and be excited about reading and writing.”

After children start elementary school, parents can still help foster their child’s love for reading. Hoge said curriculum books in the early grades are designed for instruction and developing level. She said parents may always use the public library as a resource for great picture books and children’s literature.

“The public library is such a fun place, and children can’t do anything but absorb books and words,” Hoge said. “They also do a wonderful job of pulling books together.”

Many of these components not directly teach kids how to read a book themselves, but they are crucial in fostering an interest and emphasizing the importance that written words have.

“The early years should be about learning to enjoy reading time versus it being a chore,” Chandler said.

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