Robert Savage argues that laying the foundations for your child’s literacy through spoken language and regular shared book reading is one of the best investments you can possibly make in your child’s future.

Parents naturally want to help children get the most from school by preparing them in the pre-school years to become literate. Parents may not however realize how far-reaching are the consequences of literacy levels on life opportunities. Low literacy limits how far children progress through school, is associated with high school dropout and social exclusion. At the other extreme, our work has shown that even among successful university graduates at McGill University, literacy is related to grades achieved. Other studies show that, even more profoundly, high literacy is related to lifelong health!

So what should you do as a parent of a pre-school child? The answer is as often the case, to start at the beginning. Pre-school and even kindergarten teaching is often seen as ‘having fun’ or ‘messing around’ before the serious learning starts. Nothing could be further from the truth! The early experiences children have of language and literacy are crucial foundations as even small differences in the experiences of younger children magnify up to become big differences in literacy as children become older.

What literacy activities should I do with my child?

Literacy almost certainly emerges from well-developed early language skills. This strongly suggests that in the pre-school years we should expose children to a life rich in spoken language. Talking to, with, and around children is crucial - Children talking about their world is even more important. Finding time for use of language through discussions is essential: Aim to use language around meals at dinner tables when children are not tired and try to discuss ‘concrete’ or real events of the day. This means turning the television and the radio off! Try not to correct children, especially their grammar. Think of yourself as a ‘model’ for spoken language: children need to hear the correct forms of sentences but will not get this right themselves immediately! Try to extend conversations with children while they are doing an activity like building a tower of blocks or making a jigsaw puzzle, especially if this helps them understand that activity better or sustains their attention to it. Cultivate a love of language: Explore the origin or meaning of phrases and words that come up in conversation or books. Play lots of language games with songs that have movements and touch (e.g. ‘If you’re happy and you know it.’ ‘The wheels on the bus..’ etc), share nursery rhymes, play I-spy, find rhymes, and make ‘spoonerisms’ (swapping the first sounds of word pairs, for example, who might ‘Bustin Jeiber’ be?). Cultivate the first language of the home even if this is not English or French – children generally transfer language skills to learn new languages if they have first established them strongly in the home language.

Shared reading of books is essential to literacy

Why should I share book reading with my child? Books, unlike TV or video can (and should) involve active discussion of the content of books by parent and child, and thus are intimate ‘conversations’. Books remain the medium children will use most into the future at school. Books also contain huge amounts of vocabulary - much more than in spoken conversations or television! Books require ‘joint attention’ on an ‘object’ (the book) and the use of language to maintain their interest in this ‘object’ thereby developing attention skills. Unlike other objects like toys, animals etc, books represent other objects and ideas as pictures and words as symbols. Thinking about a book story may be the first abstract or symbolic thinking children ever do. Books are sequential (there are a series of events you have to remember to make sense of from previous pages no longer visible), which requires and stimulates memory. These are all crucial skills for later learning.

Regular shared book reading is thus crucial. Think of them like nutrition - a regular daily intake for well-being like your daily vegetables or milk. Why not consume 5-a-day? Find diverse books (from holidays, family elsewhere in Canada, the world). Talk about books even when not reading them, e.g. relating an event in real life that is similar to a situation in a book or to a character. Parents sometimes say, “my child does not like books”. Try to provide extra or new books as a ‘special’ reward for good behavior or as a treat. Just about all young children want security, a cuddle, and re-assurance: this is a reward in itself, so put books in the middle of this shared cuddle sometimes. Find the books that children like and read those books at bedtime and other times of the day too. Making sure children have a choice of books is important to their enthusiasm for books– and a basis for a great conversation about their preferences too.

Children need to hear lots of stories but also lots of different adult voices telling those stories. Involve all family members (especially if you are very busy at work). Older siblings, aunts and uncles and grandparents would love these intimate times sharing books. Hearing men (e.g. fathers, uncles, brothers) read to boys may be particularly important as boys often gravitate to literacy less well in school and may wrongly see it as a ‘female’ activity. Go to story telling or book reading sessions at your local library or if a local author gives a book recital. Share good books with other parents you know and arrange to read together to children. Maybe involve (healthy) food in these ‘book parties’. Finally make sure your child sees you reading (as a part of your shared activities not excluding them). Explain why you read (e.g. to plan holidays, to make shopping lists so as not to forget items etc).

In short, perhaps the most important thing you can so do for your pre-school child’s education is make time for language and regular shared book reading in your and your child’s life. Have fun together in one of the first and most important steps on the path to literacy!
About the Author : Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at McGill University with degrees from Oxford Cambridge and London Universities in the United Kingdom.

If readers want to learn more they might consult the Canadian Language and Literacy Research network’s National Strategy on Early Literacy papers, and more specifically this review of the evidence: docs.cllrnet.ca