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Positive Parenting for Today

Dolores V. Reig, M.S. Ed.

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Early Literacy: Birth through Five 

by Dolores Reig, M.S. Ed.

Before a child is born, the sounds of the real world start entering his/her awareness; voices, cars, television and radio, the family dog, even a mother’s heartbeat and the pulsing of blood through her body. At birth, the world of sounds and visual images explodes into a confusing and unpredictable array of stimuli. The child’s task is now to make sense of this chaos and to find a comfortable and safe spot within it. This is where literacy begins.

Very early literacy looks more like care giving than the alphabet or word recognition. It begins with reciprocal babbling and moves to speaking and interacting with a young child. It consists of hearing spoken words and developing an association between the words and their respective objects; of discovering meaning in a seemingly random string of sounds; of understanding that these sounds enable the child to understand and be understood by the caregiver. This knowledge then gradually transfers to the written word.

  • As a child becomes increasingly verbal and aware of the environment, have conversations, make and share memories and tell family stories with your child. Read the writing in the real world: signs, logos, cereal boxes, headlines. “Read” the world itself:curbs say stop,” “red/green/yellow lights say ____”, budding flowers say “spring”, snow says “winter”.

  • Make ordinary language more interesting by using adjectives, adverbs, descriptors and by expanding on what a child says to you.

  • For example, “Cold outside” can become, “It is so freezing cold outside that my eyes sting and my nose feels like an icicle!” Don’t worry about using “big” words and concepts your child does not yet know, think of it as introducing these new vocabulary words and concepts.

  • Encourage your child to think and act as independently as possible. Listen to your child as if what s/he was saying was really important. When your child asks you the same question too many times, challenge him/her by asking “what do you think?” When your child tells you s/he “can’t” do something, ask how you can help without actually doing it for the child.

  • Connect with your child’s curiosity by asking “I wonder…” questions. For example, “I wonder …what will happen next?” … what is under that rock? …why do birds fly instead of swim?” Join your child in what s/he is curious about and try to see the world through the child’s eyes every now and then.

  • When your child is ready, introduce the alphabet by pointing out letter names and sounds in the words you have already pointed out to him/her: signs, logos, cereal boxes, headlines, etc. When you are walking or riding in the car, rather than just singing the Alphabet Song, make up little songs that emphasize spelling and the sound of the first letter in a word, as well as rhyming words. Use familiar melodies like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, or even the “Alphabet Song”.

  • For example, using the melody from “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” sing, “ ‘M’ is for Mary, Mommy, Mickey Mouse, ‘M’ says, mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm mmm.” Then repeat using, ‘D’ is for Daddy, Doggie, Donald Duck, ‘D’ says duh, duh, duh, etc. Use your imagination and continue as long as it is fun for the child. Make up fun rhyming songs and games. For example, “banana, wanana, ganana, ranana, banana!”, “Mary mad a mittle mamb, mittle mamb, mittle mamb, etc” stressing the sound of the first letter of each word. Say to your child, “I see/am thinking of something that sounds like rat, can you guess the word I’m thinking of?” Give hints as needed (you wear it on your head in cold weather); the object is to get the child thinking about connections between words and not just getting the “right” answer.

  • Encourage your child to make his/her own “Favorite Words” book; the child dictates the “favorite” word to you and you write it down either as a list or as a book with one word to a page. A younger child can draw a picture to match the word; an older child can copy the word on the page to the best of his/her ability at that moment.

  • Play the “Clapping Game”: clap your hands, and invite the child to do the same, once on each syllable of the child’s name or any word the child comes up with. For example, the name William would be divided into “will” and “yum (iam)” and each syllable would get one clap. Try a word like “chry-san-the-mum.” Repeat each name or word at least 3 times, but remember to stop if the child is not enjoying it.

  • To practice writing or scribbling, get a roasting pan at least 3 inches deep, fill it with about half an inch of wet or dry sand, cornmeal or shaving cream, and invite the child to “write” or draw in it with his/her fingers or with a dowel, chopstick, or unsharpened pencil.

Give your child the freedom to explore and experiment 
while you watch from a safe distance. 

Allow your child to make mistakes and then
help the child solve or resolve the problem. 

Avoid hovering over a child and micromanaging
every move, every decision. 

But always be there to oversee, supervise, protect, guide,
encourage, praise, 
and love your child.

© Dolores Reig 2010

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