It’s becoming more and more commonplace to see programs using flashcards and worksheets in their attempt to jumpstart literacy development. These early academic activities are touted as best approaches and provide tangible take-homes for anxious parents who don’t want their children to “get behind.”
Unfortunately, what’s really important to early literacy is largely being overlooked and the best opportunities to make learning matter are going unnoticed.
These programs need to stop the nonsense and expense of fancy and unnecessary academic curriculum. Instead, there needs to be a focus on just 5 things, using an approach that is age-appropriate, meaningful, and purposeful to young children. Research tells us that these 5 are the best predictors of early literacy:
1. Oral Language. A child’s exposure to oral language and his ability to develop a good vocabulary are the foundation for future reading and writing. There is a strong correlation between vocabulary and reading comprehension. It is critical that from birth, children hear as many words as possible every day. They are naturally curious and the observant teacher will capture opportunities to explain things they are interested in… surrounding them with rich vocabulary experiences. It is important to cash in on these moments, zeroing in on that one child, so he knows he has your undivided attention, eye to eye, listening and sharing words. This is especially important for low-income children, who are at risk, according to a research study from the University of Kansas, of falling into the “word gap”…. Hearing incredibly fewer words per day than children in higher economic groups.
2. Phonemic Awareness. This involves children hearing, identifying, and playing around with the sounds (or phonemes) in a language. They are given opportunities to recognize how sounds are the same and different through playful and interesting activities, like picture book reading, storytelling, word games, poetry, singing, and movement games.
3. Alphabet Awareness. Children learn to distinguish the shapes of the letters and the sounds they make. This can happen by having a variety of letters available to manipulate in the classroom. There might be cardboard letters with sandpaper surfaces or magnetic letters to move around on a metal pan. The teacher can introduce catchy songs that teach letter sounds in fun ways that children love.
4. Understanding Print. Children should be immersed in opportunities to see print in their child care environments. When they see print in their activity centers, in dramatic play, on their cubbies, and on labels around the room, they learn a tremendous amount about print and how it works. When preschoolers sign-in upon arriving in the morning, the use of letters becomes personally meaningful. When reading with children, the teacher can provide information like, “the author of this book is---“ or “the title is…” while pointing to the words. They can also run a finger along the text as it is read, signaling that there is something important there to pay attention to… that those symbols are telling the story. Helping children look closely at the illustrations is another strategy for encouraging attention to detail, which is a good prerequisite for looking closely at the print on a page.
5. Early Writing. As children understand that letters convey information, they will usually have an intrinsic desire to make their own letters to represent words or ideas. Usually, their name takes precedence, with the first letter standing for the whole name. It’s important to pay attention and to verbally notice and encourage these first attempts, so children will be motivated to write even more. They can be supported in labeling their own artwork using the letters they know, or making a sign or map or poster with classmates.
If early educators are observant and follow the children’s interests, they can capture those teachable moments. When a child is really engaged with something, it’s meaningful and purposeful to him. The teacher can then step in to enrich his understanding and expose him to new aspects of literacy that will make a lasting impact.
A stack of flashcards or worksheets can’t even come close.