When you play pat-a-cake with your baby, you might think you’re just enjoying a fun game. However, child experts say rhymes, songs, and finger play actually help our children develop early literacy skills and build the foundations for a lifetime of learning.
Language and literacy do more than open up the possibility of academic achievement, says Daniela O’Neil, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Waterloo. Research has shown that oral language and literacy skills affect not only our reading, writing and math skills, but also our ability to get along with peers and to manage emotions.
Some researchers have even looked 20 years down the line and been able to see the impact of early literacy on the level of education attainment and the type of jobs people excel at, adds O’Neil.
The good news is that all of us — parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and childcare providers — can help a child develop fundamental literacy skills. O’Neil along with early childhood educator and children’s book author, Lana Button, share practical advice for how we can do this every day.
Both O’Neil and Button (no relation to Country Guide editor Tom Button) agree that the essential thing for us to do with our kids is to read, read, read.
It's never too early to start. For babies, look for sturdy, washable books. But don’t expect baby to sit while you read or talk about the pictures in the book. “It’s OK if baby moves around, or even chews on the book,” says O’Neil. “It’s the sharing that’s important.”
However, reading isn’t the only way to promote language and literacy skills in young children. Talking and singing are two other ways adults can help children with literacy, says O’Neil. Speaking any language with the child will promote language development, she says. “Talk about routines like bedtime or bath time or what you see when you go on a walk.” When you are grocery shopping you can talk about the food, or point out logos and talk about what they mean, continues O’Neil.
Babies also enjoy rhymes, short poems and finger plays, adds Button. And, says O’Neil, two-year-olds love repetition. They may want you to read the same book over and over again, and that’s OK, she says. “Follow the child’s lead… follow the child’s interests and don’t try to redirect him or her. Children learn the most when you talk about things they are interested in.”
Rhymes help toddlers remember stories, anticipate what’s coming, and figure out word patterns, says O’Neil. This helps prepare them for when they start to read. Singing simple songs also exposes them to word patterns.
While books with simple text suitable for a short attention span are best for toddlers, four- to six-year-olds will enjoy a more complex story, says Button. For example, many children like the Franklin series. They get to know the main character and the setting, she says.
Books can also be used to start a conversation or to create links to real life events, says Button. For example, reading the book How Cold Is It? can lead to a discussion of temperature. Reading the book Today I Feel Silly can prompt a discussion of emotions.
There are many resources to help adults select appropriate songs, finger plays or poems if you can’t remember the songs from your own childhood or if you’d like to expand your repertoire beyond Wheels on the Bus and Itsy, Bitsy Spider. Try searching the Internet, or attend a reading circle or song time at your local library, community centre or book store.
When it comes to school age children, educators agree that reading for at least 20 minutes every night is crucial, says O’Neil. You want reading time to be a positive experience, so choose a time of day when they aren’t too tired if they are getting frustrated, she says.
Most schools have levelled reading programs to help gauge a child’s reading ability. If you have any concerns about your child’s ability you should talk to his or her teacher, O’Neil adds.
Be aware that the child’s age when starting school can make a big difference in their reading readiness, especially when a child is only three or four, says O’Neil. Boys may also lag a little bit in their development, but O’Neil’s research shows the lag is only about two months.
If there is some kind of issue, the sooner the problem is investigated and identified the better. “There can be many, many reasons for a problem,” says O’Neil. Sometimes problems can be identified as young as 18 months, she says. If you have concerns about a child who is not yet in school, seek out a child speech pathologist in your community. “Earlier interventions are more successful,” she says.
If your child prefers factual books over fiction, that’s OK, says Button. But if you can find a fictional book on a subject of interest, it will really come alive for them, she says.
Some schools will hold reading nights where staff provides information to help parents explore books with their children. For example, O’Neil says you can go on a “picture walk” in a book where you just look at the pictures and try to anticipate where the story is going.
Even when children are reading by themselves, both O’Neil and Button urge parents to continue to read with their kids. It’s an important way to bond with your kids and maintain a connection. “This may be the time when they want to tell you about their day,” says O’Neil.