Monday, September 7, 2009

Encouraging Kids to Read Print in Their World

My last post was titled 'Getting Boys into Reading Through Non-fiction'. In that post I explored the use of magazines, the Internet, factual books, joke books, 'make and do' books, graphic novels and comics. In a sense, what I was doing was stressing that there are pathways into literacy other than narrative-based books. In this post I want to focus on a few non-book pathways to literacy. Most could be labelled 'environmental print'. In a book I wrote in the early 1990s - 'Pathways to Literacy' - I considered the alternative pathways that some families use to usher their children into literacy. I pointed out that while narrative is critical to literacy development, that introduction to many literacy practices, especially concepts of print like letters, words and symbolic representation of language comes for many children (at least initially) through non-book pathways. For example, my father used an enamel plate that had the letters of the alphabet around the rim to teach me letter names and sounds as we ate breakfast.

While parents read books, tell stories and relate life experiences in narrative forms right from birth, they also begin to draw attention to print and the functions of literacy using many varied sources of written language in the child's world. In this post, I thought I'd mention just a few such non-book sources of early literacy learning and how we draw children's attention to it. This is another area where we can help boys to get a start in literacy using everyday experiences.

Environmental print - children (especially boys) love to explore space. We can use time spent outside for reading purposes as well as fun and exercise. Give a boy an oval and he'll run around every square inch of it, climb every object and crawl under and over every fence. Wherever children are exploring it is easy to draw attention to print and symbolic representations on signs, food wrappers, digital displays, clothing and so on. Point to words, trace the letters, explain what the sign means etc.

Use writing - another valuable way into reading is via writing. Encourage boys to write in varied forms (letters, numbers, their name, words etc). You might get them to dictate labels for a drawing, a caption for something they've made, a letter or email to one of their grandparents or a friend, label their toys, or shelves in their wardrobe, the words on a birthday card and so on. My grandson Jacob (aged 6) is an avid reader; the example opposite shows his drawing of some things he saw on holidays and his labelling of them. From a very young age his parents draw attention to print in his world and encouraged him to write.

Television - from about 2 years on most children will enjoy watching television. As parents you will no doubt moderate the amount of TV viewing (see one of my previous posts on this here), but most children will watch some television. For the young reluctant book reader, television can be a good springboard to various forms of reading. Programs that require children to do more than just watch are best. Programs like 'Playschool' in Australia encourage children to listen, watch, sing, dance, move, repeat actions, read simple words etc. Once again, as part of the child's viewing, interact with them directing attention to words, talking about symbols etc. Don't turn this into a lesson; instead use it as an accompaniment to the viewing.

Computers - digital representation of language and numbers (e.g. automatic teller machines, digital displays on appliances, computer games, electronic signs) are now one of the most prevalent sources of print in most children's worlds. Children will very quickly notice the words and numbers that light up before them, that move, change colour and are often associated with sound and images. As children observe parents using computers, watch you punching in passwords at the supermarket, observe the dashboard display on the car etc, it is natural and easy to draw their attention to the symbols and talk about what they are for.

Summing up

I could go into other non-book forms of literacy but I think the point is simple. Look for print in your children's world and draw their attention to it. Take the time to:
  • Point to the letters and numbers
  • Offer simple explanations of what they are (e.g. these are numbers, this is a word, Mummy has to press these buttons to phone Daddy, that's how I this is your lunch box, it says Sally etc)
  • Encourage children to point to words and letters
  • Show them how words and numbers related to concrete objects (e.g. that says STOP)
  • Look for natural ways to draw attention to print, teach them letter names
Remember that the above practices are still relevant after your children have learnt to read and write. Look for new ways to teach them new words, unusual uses of language, devices used to convey meaning, connections between the language and texts they read, write and views. There are endless opportunities to do this in the midst of everyday life and activities. This is how we stretch our children and help them to learn new things about language and their world.

Related posts

Here are some previous posts that are related to the topic of this post.

'Ten Ways to Encourage Preschool Writers' (here)
'Guiding Children's Learning' (here)
'Teaching and Learning Moments in Everyday Life' (here)
'The Language Experience Approach' (here)


April said...

Hello, thank you for writing this blog. I have found some valuable information on here as a mother to 13 month old bookworm :). My grandmother taught me to read the same way that Mem Fox advocates in her book--by reading aloud to me. I have always loved reading and never remember having to "learn" it, it just came naturally. Similar to your story of learning letters with a plate, I remember my grandmother (who loved word searches) having me hunt for all the "a's" or "c's" in her word search books. Later she had me hunt for small words such as "it" or "the". I loved being like her, little did I know that I was learning at the same time. I have questions about the use of logos as environmental print. Elementary school teachers have students bring in "McDonald's" or "Wal-Mart" logos to bridge the gap between the familiar and the unfamiliar. I understand that. But isn't that helping marketing and consumerism in them? I know one of the major critisms of television watching is all the commercials that the children watch and how they are bombarded with sales pitches every few minutes. I would like your thoughts on this. Once again, thanks for maintaining such a wonderful and helpful blog.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi April, thanks for your comment and feedback. My purpose in writing this post was to show how children's worlds are full of opportunities to read print and that making them aware of it is one way that they can be introduced to reading. I wasn't suggesting that teachers bring this print into classrooms, but I know that some teachers do this in the first year of school, particularly with children who have been in families where literacy learning hasn't been given much support. I can't say that I ever did it, but some teachers see it as having a very limited place. Having said this, I accept your point about it perhaps encouraging consumerism. This is a legitimate point that any teacher or parent needs to consider. I can't see it doing much compared with the bombardment they already receive via TV and seeing the print in their world. Thanks for your comment. Trevor

Anonymous said...

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