Reading and literacy skills have been correlated with student success throughout life — from increased odds of graduating high school to the probability of attending college. According to the Children’s Reading Foundation, students who lag behind in kindergarten often fail to make up the difference between them and their peers, and by high school, make up the largest portion of those who fail to graduate.
The statistics may be dire, but experts say encouraging literacy in children doesn’t have to be a chore.
Speech language pathologists Mary C.T. Runge and Dani E. Shirkey, the Arc of Jefferson-St. Lawrence, support early literacy and reading development as part of their mission to build language and communication skills. As part of Better Speech and Hearing month, they offer several easy ways for parents to encourage their child’s success in reading.
Find words in everyday places
Books aren’t the only places we use words. Words are everywhere. Parents can also add labels to objects like doors, kitchen appliances or boxes of toys. Point out words on cereal boxes or shampoo bottles. Look for “stop” signs on the road, or point out McDonald’s or Target as you drive by, suggests Shirkey.
Also, parents can share what they’re writing. “So if you’re writing down a grocery list, engaging the child in that,” Shirkey said.
Parents can help children search road signs for certain letters, trace the letters of their name or play with letter magnets.
When it comes to books themselves, parents can also teach children the vocabulary of the book’s cover or spine. Point out the difference between a word and a letter, what a page is and where to find the author and illustrator.
“So getting that specific vocab about books, rather than just from books, helps out a lot,” Shirkey said.
Grab a book (or five)
From a young age, parents should include books among their child’s toys. A 20-year study published in the Social Science Research journal in January 2019 found presence of a home library increases children’s academic success, vocabulary development, attention and job attainment. In the study, children raised in home with a library of 500 books stayed in school an average of 3 years longer than those who had no books at homew. Even as few as 20 books made a significant impact on the child’s future education, the report found.
One of the best things parents can do for their children, unsurprisingly, is to read to them. Often.
“All the time,” Runge and Skirkey agreed.
Reading to children is linked to phonological awareness — the ability to recognize and manipulate the spoken parts of sentences and words — and of literacy development later in life, Runge said.
Books also help introduce children to new objects and ideas.
“Like we don’t have skyscrapers and subways in Watertown,” Shirkey said. So, by reading a book about a city, “they get an experience that they wouldn’t get in an everyday life. A kid in New York City might read a book about a farm.”
One study from The Ohio State University reported that young children who are read to at least five times a day will hear nearly 1.5 million words by the time they turn 5. For that reason, professionals often suggest a goal for parents to read to their child five times a day, but any amount is beneficial. The American Library Association cited a study found 3- to 5-year-olds who had been read to at least three times a week were twice as likely to recognize all the letters of the alphabet, have word-sight recognition and understand words in context.
It’s OK if their minds wander
It’s important to know that not every young child will want to sit through an entire book — let alone five.
“I know a frustration that parents have said is that, if they’re reading a book with the child — especially if they’re really young and they have difficulty with attention — they’ll say (their child will) lose interest and go off and get a different book,” Runge said.
But Shirkey and Runge want parents to know that’s OK.
“Even if they’re getting a different book, and they’re flipping through it, they’re imitating you sitting there reading and flipping through a book,” Runge said. “They may not be totally attentive to what you’re saying and what you’re reading, they’re still attentive to you and what you’re doing and trying to copy it.”
Getting through a whole book is a good goal, Runge said, but “don’t be totally discouraged that they don’t want to sit there” for the whole thing.
Holding them down for story time will increase children’s anxiety about reading, Shirkey added, which won’t make reading any more fun.
For young children, she also recommends tactile books — such as “Never Feed a Shark” — to encourage them to engage in the story.
“They add that sensory experience,” she said. “The parent can read one page, and the kid can play on the other page.
Fun before perfection
Another important thing to remember is that it’s fine to be imperfect, especially if you’re having fun. You don’t even have to read all of the words in a book, Shirkey said. You can even make some up.
“Sometimes I pick out a book for a therapy session and I open it up, and I’m like, this is a chapter book,” Shirkey said. “And I read to the child, ‘The dog is in the car.’ Flip!” Next page.
“As they get older, and they get that one-to-one correspondence with what reading is, but at the younger ages, you can make it up. They don’t know.”
As part of making book reading enjoyable, Shirkey and Runge suggest parents pay attention to how much their child is engaged. Feel free to pause for questions, or to move on if their interest fades.
“There’s that give-and-take when you’re reading a book,” Runge said.
For example, if a child loves construction vehicles, and they’re reading a book about construction vehicles, “then we’re probably gonna stop on each page and ask, ‘What’s this? What’s he doing? Who drives that?’” Shirkey said. “But if we’re reading a book about robins and the kid’s like, ‘I don’t care about birds,’ then we might go a little quicker and ask a few less questions.”
Resources for reading
- The public library is one of the best resources for parents looking to keep their child engaged in reading. Parents can find plenty of children books, preschool storytime events and an annual summer reading program, along with experts in child literacy — the librarians themselves.
- Parents can find second-hand books at thrift stores and libraries such as the Flower Memorial Library in Watertown, which can be an affordable way to increase the size of home libraries.
- Head Start Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, also offers resources for caregivers to build language and literacy skills online at wdt.me/reading, with links on phonological awareness, emergent literacy, vocabulary and more.
- FiveBooks.com offers lists of great books for children through adults, as suggested by experts in their subject. For children, books are divided into books for ages baby to 2, ages 3-5, ages 6-8, ages 9-12 and young adults at wdt.me/kidsfive.
- The Children’s Reading Foundation, offers parents tips and advice to make literacy and language learning fun for children with free downloads, reading trackers, programs and book lists at readingfoundation.org.
- The Imagination Library, online at imaginationlibrary.com, offers free children’s books to families no matter their income — as well as information and resources for parents and caregivers.