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Ready to Read: How to Start Preschoolers on the Path to Literacy

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When achievement tests given nationwide revealed that 40 percent of all fourth-graders were behind in literacy skills, the spotlight focused on the preschool years, when experiences in reading and writing begin. Preventing Reading Difficulties, published in 1998 by the National Research Council, identified one reason for this deal: many pre-kindergartners are not ready to read when they enter school. Furthermore, surveys at that time revealed that while 62 percent of children under five years of age were cared for outside the home, only 15 percent of their preschool teachers and caregivers had received training in early literacy education. Fortunately, there is now a substantial body of knowledge available to be tapped by teachers, parents, and other caregivers who want to help start preschoolers on the path to literacy.

In July 2002, the Ohio Department of Early Childhood Education published a draft entitled Pre-K Standards and Indicators in Language and Literacy. This document introduced ten standards which provide a framework to measure literacy development. By definition, preschool indicators identify the skills a child should have at kindergarten entry. This article discusses the kind of experiences that teachers and caregivers need to offer children so that they will be ready to read.

Listening and Speaking

Teachers and caregivers are promoting reading readiness when they encourage and support children’s ability to listen to speakers, stories and poems; to share personal experiences in response to information heard; and to follow simple directions. Can the child speak clearly and understandably? Can he recite books and rhymes? Does he take turns in conversation? Is he able to express needs, feelings, and ideas? Can he describe an experience or a creation? The attentive caregiver can build language competence. For instance, “Tell me more about your block tower (or painting)” requires more language from the child than the often heard “What is it?”

Building a Vocabulary

Parents and teachers can help build vocabulary by taking advantage of children’s natural curiosity about the world around them, including the many forms of language that they are exposed to: conversations, songs, books, and “environmental print” (e.g. Stop, McDonald’s, Exit). Children can figure out the meanings of new words by content and by asking. Also, when adults help children name items in common categories (animals, food, transportation) – and encourage attention to positional words (up, down, on, in) – they are paving the way for the acquisition of reading skills.

Words to letters to Phenomes

“Does your name start with the same sound as your friend’s name?” “Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack all dressed in (black, black, black)”.

When children are prompted to play with the sounds of words, they are taking important steps toward recognizing the relationship between letters and words. The letters that form a child’s name are of special meaning, of course, and often a good place to start. In face-to-face interaction and by selecting books that draw attention to sounds, teachers and parents can do much to build awareness of rhymes, syllables, and phonemes (b as in ball and box, t in Matt and cat).

The Act of Reading – How and Why People Read

When children are read to, and when they “play read,” they have the opportunity to learn about the process of reading. They can tell if the book is right side up; they distinguish between print and illustrations; they see the conventions of front-to-back, left-to-right, and top-to-bottom. In addition, caregivers can reinforce the usefulness of reading – for the joy and interest of a story, as well as for helping us figure things out (dictionaries, how-to-books). Asking children to retell a story or to summarize information may help them see the importance of the printed word.

The Act of Writing – Putting Words on Paper

Literacy means not only reading but also writing. By “playing” (using real and/or mock letters) children can learn conventions such as proceeding from top to  bottom and from left to right, and using spaces and punctuation. Real writing (for example, stories dictated to an adult who writes and displays them in the classroom) can also be an important experience for pre-kindergartners. One way that caregivers can be intentional about building a child’s awareness of the processes and applications of writing is by setting up “writing centers” and providing access to writing materials.

Research – Where Curiosity Leads

Success in school depends on the child’s interest in wanting to learn new things. Pre-kindergarteners show curiosity about how things work, what letters say, and how to use a variety of tools (e.g., calculators, computers); they also want to tell what they know. Preschool should provide time, tools, and materials that invite children to figure things out.

Ready to Read? What Preschool Teachers and Parents Can Do

Clearly, there is a wonderful opportunity for preschool teachers and parents to engage in more intentional guidance in preparing young children to read. Increase two-way conversational exchanges; expose children to a rich variety of books; encourage them to comment on a story, its meaning, and possible ending; point out features of print and the sounds of language; provide a space and materials dedicated to writing. You will be preparing pre-kindergarteners to read and ensuring their sustained success.

Sandra Louise Redmond, Ph.D., Program Manager of Early Childhood Education, Cuyahoga Community College

Through her long history in early childhood education, Dr. Sandra Redmond has contributed to the field in many capacities; preschool teacher, administrator, consultant, principal and project director. Her current position as Program Manager in Early Childhood Education at Cuyahoga Community College has led to developing an Early Literacy Mentor Program funded by grants from the Ohio Department of Education and Federal Initiative in Education.

She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Wells College, and her Master’s and Doctoral degrees in Early Childhood Education from Tufts University and Case Western Reserve University respectively. She has been very active in the communities in which she has lived, serving as President of the Cleveland AEYC and the Cary, North Carolina AEYC. She serves as a member of the Ohio Department of Education Pre-Kindergarten Language and Literacy Standards Committee.

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