Early childhood is a time of profound growth. From listening to conversations, to looking out of car windows, to seeing signs in shops, children are flooded with information that forms the foundation of their knowledge.
Through daily interactions with their natural environments children are unconsciously absorbing information about literacy long before the process begins formally. Providing children with a rich oral environment, full of stimulating vocabulary, sets them up to become effective learners and adults who enjoy language.
While adults play an important role in their development, it is critical to understand that children do actively construct meaning themselves. Very young children are capable of using visual and physical clues to identify that certain markings have certain meanings. For example, young children begin to associate logos with the item they belong to, and as their skills develop further they will begin to realize that signs are made up of letters and words.
Studies have shown that children do not acquire these understandings completely on their own; play and adult guidance play critical roles. Adults should provide children with rich opportunities in which they can engage in challenging but appropriate activities that enhance their development, while simultaneously allowing children to interact in their own way.
“Parents are children’s first teachers”
Parents are children’s first teachers. They have the unique opportunity to create an environment chock-full of opportunities to acquire vocabulary both implicitly and explicitly. Adults can help give children meaning to what they are learning by helping develop their oral comprehension and engaging with them in meaningful conversations. Building these skills can be done in multiple ways, including participating in frequent shared reading experiences, drawing and explaining the meaning of their pictures, and dramatic play.
One of the most powerful strategies for building early literacy skills is shared reading. Shared reading time allows children to associate with print words they may have only previously heard orally. Additionally, there are many informal activities that can be paired with shared reading. Children can be given the opportunity to talk about what they see in the pictures, discuss their favorite character, and even ask for certain parts to be re-read to enhance their understanding. Experiences like these are likely to naturally spark children’s curiosity about letters, phonics, and reading in general.
It is not only important what kids are learning, but how they are learning it. In their early years, children form opinions on learning which will follow them throughout their lives. It is critical that children see education as fun. Rich vocabulary should be a part of everyday life and everyday conversation. In the same way, when interactions with print are enjoyable children develop a greater love for literacy which can translate into later academic success.
Professor Susan Neuman is a specialist in early literacy development. Her research and teaching interests include early childhood policy, curriculum, and early reading instruction for children who live in poverty. She was the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education and has written more than 100 articles, and authored and edited eleven books.
Hailey Breitenfeld holds a Master’s degree in International Education from New York University. Hailey’s passion for working with young children, their teachers, families, and communities has taken her to Ethiopia, Kenya, China, California and New York. Currently, she is proud to be part of a team that is providing low-income children access to quality education in the greater New York City area.