Teaching and living literacy

I’m not a teacher. Or a speech pathologist. Or one of a gazillion amazing professions that know a lot more than I do about reading or speaking or learning. What I do know is that I talked with, read with, and imagined with my children. We played games with sounds, letters, and words. We wrote stories and acted them out. I didn’t do any of those things with the express purpose of teaching my children to read or write. We just wanted to spend time interacting and playing together, and these were a few of the ways we did that. I didn’t know I was teaching, and maybe they didn’t know they were learning. But learning happened, and it was fun.

Teaching literacy is easy to do at home, in the car, and wherever you are with children–if it is part of your daily lives and you make it playful.

Make books accessible to children of all ages. Put board books within reach and picture books where they are visible. Let children handle and explore books.

Books within reach are meant to be used.

Don’t forget your public library! Quality children’s literature from the library is free to borrow, frequently updated, and the selection is vast! Visiting the children’s section of the public library can be a special outing, and you can participate in one of many storytimes or reading challenges the library offers. We were fortunate to live about 1/4 of a mile from a branch library when my children were little, and we tried to go to the library every week to check out books.

Public library

Make sure to read aloud to your children. My husband and I read books with our children whenever possible. Reading was part of our children’s bedtime routine, and we read three books aloud with them every night. As the girls grew older our routine changed from three books to one or more chapters, and reading aloud continued long after they were able to read independently. Sometimes snuggled with one child on each side and the third draped over the back of the couch, we sat together where everyone could see the words, turn the pages, or point to the pictures. When reading to all of them at once we tried to read books at or above the oldest child’s reading level. The younger ones picked up new vocabulary words, and by following along they learned how to recognize and spell new words, too.

Don’t just read the words, but talk about them. What do you notice in the pictures? What do you think will happen next? Why do you think the character did that? Let children make observations or ask questions. Reading comprehension develops as children talk about the stories.

Let your child read to you. Allow her to take her time. You can remind her to use clues from pictures to figure out a new word. After your child sounds out one part of a word at a time, ask her to say the entire word. Talk about the story she read. Being able to make sense of the story is much more important than being able to say words that she doesn’t understand.

In everyday experiences, talk about what you see. Before our oldest daughter started kindergarten, I remember a teacher telling me that the best preparation for school is life experience. A child won’t know how to read the word giraffe if he’s never heard of a giraffe. Go to the zoo and see one. Take your child to the produce section of the grocery store and read the names of fruits and vegetables as you pick them up and smell them.

Play word games. Parents and children spend a lot of time in the car to and from school or running errands, and some of that time can be filled playing games that also teach literacy. Just be sure that it’s playful and silly and doesn’t feel like work. If you make it fun, your children will want to play with you. There are many ways to develop aural (listening) skills and differentiation of sounds. Say the words slowly and clearly, putting emphasis on the sounds you want them to hear, and repeat as often as needed to let the child be successful. Here are just a few examples:
First letter sounds
“Can you think of any words that start with the ‘duh’ sound?” Let the children list as many as they can. You can add some new words they don’t already know. Then have a child choose another letter sound.
“Which one is different?” e.g. bucket, basket, watermelon, butterfly
Ending sounds
“Can you hear which one is different?” e.g. wash, squish, splash, bath
“Which two words have the same ending sound?” e.g. jog, jump, run, skip
Rhyming words-
“Can you hear two words that rhyme?” e.g. Spot, Spike, Fido, Mike 
“What rhymes with… ?” Let the children list all they can.

You can spell short words with alphabet puzzles, refrigerator magnets, or letter blocks.

Let your child read with a purpose. Put an early reader in charge of holding your shopping list in the grocery store. Let her read one item at a time and check it off the list after the item is in the cart. Your list can be very specific, including brand names, sizes, or quantities. Sure, your shopping trip will take longer, but your child will be actively engaged and see a real application for reading. She will also want to go to the store with you if the trip is more like a privilege than a chore.

Help your children create their own stories and books. You can start by creating “…and then…” stories aloud (the car is a great place for this) where one person starts and others add to the story.
Encourage your children to write about special days. Younger children can draw pictures and tell their story to you as you write down their words, and older children can write and illustrate their own books. Staple multi-page stories together or put them in page protectors in book form. Invented spelling is acceptable and expected as young children write words the way they sound. If you’re not sure what a word is, ask the child to read his story aloud to you.
You can play pen pal and write notes and letters to each other! You might address and hand deliver the letters in an envelope or leave notes on the counter or a pillow. As you see from the picture below, my five-year-old thought this was very (vere) fun!

Letters from my five-year-old had invented spelling but lots of meaning!

Learn parts of speech with Silly Stories. Long before I knew such a thing already existed, we created our own “Silly Stories.” They are great for road trips, waiting rooms, or any place you have time to fill. Silly Stories can teach parts of speech without anyone noticing that they’re learning. One blank at a time, without reading the story, ask for a noun, an adjective, etc. and fill in the responses. When all the blanks are filled in, read the story aloud. You might need to remind your players that noun means “a thing,” verb is “an action word or something you do,” adjective is a “describing word,” adverb is “how you do something,” an exclamation is “something you shout,” or give an example of a past tense verb or a plural noun. As the girls got older, their answers became more outrageous and the stories more ridiculous. Below are links to some actual Silly Stories we wrote that you can use with your family. Enjoy!

Above all, literacy begins with conversation. Talk to your infants and respond to their babbles. Explain what you are doing when you talk with preschoolers, making sure to use complete sentences and real words. Don’t hesitate to use complex words with school-agers. Have meaningful dialogue with your teenagers, listening to their ideas. Words have power, and we can empower our children by giving them the gift of words.

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