Let’s talk reading.

Now, it would be unreasonable to expect children to read when they’re babies, toddlers, or even Pre-K students. However, the foundation for reading is being built very early in a baby’s development, when they connect with the important people in their lives and begin to learn language. We’ve talked a lot about how our relationships and interactions with our kiddos support their language development – but how does language development impact reading

Let’s do a little experiment. Read the following sentence and see if you can make sense of it:

“The wardsud kerflaffled the zonkdo from the picselfthevel.”

Do you know what it was about? Did you know all the words in the sentence and what they meant? No? That’s okay! You shouldn’t have been able to understand it because I made up some of the words. They were unfamiliar to you. When readers encounter unfamiliar words, they have a hard time understanding what they are reading, even if they can ‘sound out’ the whole word. It’s easier for them to understand what they read (experts call that comprehension) if they’re familiar with the words and know what they mean (experts call this receptive vocabulary). Did you know the number of words kiddos know at age three is a great predictor of how well they read and comprehend text when they get to fourth grade, when school switches focus from learning how to read to using reading to learn

Vocabulary-Building: Setting the Stage for “Reading to Learn”

Have you ever noticed the words we read in books are more sophisticated than the words we use in everyday conversation? It’s true. We don’t go around saying words like injustice, approached, untimely, or miserable very often in our daily lives, but all of those words are in the first few pages of the beloved chapter book, Charlotte’s Web. If children are familiar with those words, the first time they come across them in a book, they’ll be better able to comprehend the story. If they’ve never heard those words before, they’re less likely to understand the overall meaning of the text. And if they don’t understand it, it will be difficult for them to connect with the book or characters, which is often the main joy of reading. 

Two great ways to build vocabulary and connect with a young child are talking all day long and reading or telling (and rereading and retelling) stories. Children usually need to hear a word at least 12 times in order to learn it. So the next time a little one brings you a book to read for the thousandth (okay, millionth) time or asks you to retell a beloved family story, know that doing it is building their vocabulary! When you feed your wee one lots of rich, loving words, and when you read or tell stories over and over (and over) again, you’re setting them up to read and comprehend later in life! 

Here are a few easy ways to build vocabulary with kiddos of all ages:

  • Babies: Setting a bedtime/naptime reading routine is a great way to connect with your baby. When reading with babies, think about this as a conversation around a book. Respond to their gestures and facial expressions and just talk about the illustrations. It’s never too early to start using feeling words like sad, upset, or even disappointed
  • Toddlers: Toddlers love to pretend to be grown-ups! It’s fun to let them “read” a book to you! You may be surprised just how much of a familiar story they remember! As you read together, remember to ask open-ended questions like, “How would you feel if that happened to you?” or “Why do you think that happened?” Let the book be a springboard to a bigger conversation! Remember to keep that conversation going and strive for five back and forth exchanges!
  • Preschool & Pre-K: For preschool and Pre-K aged children, books can spark amazing conversations! Choose books from the library or digital libraries like myON.com that speak to your family’s culture and values. At this age, conversations around books are a great way to build empathy for others, an important skill for reading comprehension.

Phoneme Awareness: Dress Rehearsal for “Reading to Learn”

Build vocabulary – CHECK! Is there anything else families can do to build a strong foundation for reading? Of course, there is! (Would I have asked if there wasn’t?) The greatest predictor of early reading success is phoneme awareness. 

What-a-what? Not familiar with phoneme awareness? Not to worry. It’s something skilled reading teachers learn about in college or teacher training, but we’ll let you in on the secret. A phoneme (pronounced fō-neem) is the smallest chunk of sound in a word… the /b/ sound in book, for instance.

Watch this video to hear all 44 English phonemes.

Phoneme awareness is the ability to hear, identify or change the sounds in words. It’s different from phonics where we show children the letters and teach them the sounds they make. A child’s ability to hear the individual sounds in a word and put them together or take them apart, without ever seeing the letters on a page, will help them when they first sit down at a reading table in kindergarten.

Sounds tricky? I promise it’s not! We’ve got you covered! Chances are, you’re already doing some of the work and you don’t even realize it. Rhyming activities like nursery rhymes and jump rope songs are great for bringing children’s attention to the sounds in words. 

Here are a few more examples of activities that will build a strong foundation for phonemic awareness:

  • Babies: When we speak in “parentese” to babies, we’re connecting with them and doing the first real work in developing their language and literacy skills. Exaggerating the sounds in words, stretching them out in that loving, sing-songy way we use when we speak to babies helps build a strong foundation for phonemic awareness.
  • Babies and Toddlers: This age group loves rhyming songs, nursery rhymes, and fingerplays (think Itsy Bitsy Spider). Each of these activities builds language and encourages children to play with the sounds in words. Remember to have FUN! Facial expressions and gestures can help capture a child’s interest. Once children are familiar with the rhyme you can pause and let them supply the missing word! Looking for rhythm and rhyme songs and activities? We’ve got you covered!
  • Preschoolers and Pre-K: They’re now ready to listen more closely to sounds in words. Tongue twisters and silly songs like Willaby Wallaby Woo, Apples and Bananas, and Down by the Bay are great (and silly and fun) practice for some pretty sophisticated phonemic awareness work later on. Look them up on YouTube if you aren’t familiar – but remember, children learn best with an actual human rather than a screen! 

Regardless of your child’s age, TALKing, READing, and PLAYing with language through songs, nursery rhymes, and fingerplays are all excellent ways to build a strong foundation for reading!

This is post is guest-authored by Salley Edwards, Literacy Coach for Crisp County Schools in Cordele, GA. Learn more about how Crisp County Primary transformed their school culture and improved their test scores using Cox Campus practices.