How Do I Support Early Literacy in My Young Child?

I was recently having a conversation with a parent about how they wanted their child to believe that they can accomplish things. Not that it would come easily to them, but simply that they would view themselves as capable. It was a lovely moment because one of my specific goals as a teacher is that the children in my care have high self-efficacy. The level of self-efficacy is the belief that one is capable of producing a desired or intended result. So, someone with low self-efficacy believes that things just happen to them and they have no control over it, whereas someone with high self-efficacy believes that they are capable of making things happen. Fostering high self-efficacy in early childhood will reap enormous benefits throughout a child’s educational journey.

I work with children under five and one of the ways that I see them struggle is in the very early stages of literacy: writing letters and the beginning stages of reading. In order to release some of the pressure around this process, I make early literacy an organic part of the classroom. Here is a list of my favorite ways that I do this in the classroom that you, as a parent, can do at home:

Read with your child

    • I know this one is kind of obvious, but it’s important for them to hear your voice in connection to a book even from early infancy. One of the first goals you should have for them is to connect the writing on the page with the words you are saying out loud. I place my finger underneath the words when reading with a child. Especially with toddlers, if they turn the page before I am done, I stop saying the words and say, ”Oh I need the words to keep going.” I know that we have all memorized the words to Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See? But, they don’t know that. To them, when you open a book certain words come out of your mouth and they don’t fully know why, but they know they like it. I usually turn back to the page I was on, point to the next word, and continue.
    • As an aside, I do want to note that I highly value picturebooks and think parents move on to chapter books too early. The reason I think that we should point out words is not to move on from picturebooks quickly, but it is just one of the many connections picturebooks provide. The non-profit Room to Read has a great piece about what we lose when we do this here.

Play a clue game

    • A clue game is like hangman, but without the murder. We usually play on a whiteboard, but it can be done on a piece of paper as well. Instead of drawing a hangman, I usually draw something along like a flower with many petals for each of their guesses. Whatever you use, there should be no way to lose. I do this in order to celebrate their effort because the point of the game is to simply figure out the word from the clues together and I want to reward them equally whether they gave a correct answer or an incorrect answer so that they learn it is ok to make mistakes.
    • For each letter in the word, I will tell them what letter I am looking for. An example would be, I’m looking for a letter that makes and “ah” sound. If they say “o” I will respond by saying, “that makes an “oh” sound but I’m looking for “ah” they kind of sound the same don’t they? Why don’t you guess another letter?” They got it wrong, in other words, they failed in their task but I’m asking them immediately to try again. As adults, we don’t want to let children lose or fail, but they need to know it is ok to fail and more importantly that they are capable of recovering from failure.
    • For younger children, I will sometimes start with most of the letters already in the word. For example, we might start with   C  ­        ­    W  ­ and say something like I have a ‘C’ that makes a “kah” sound and ‘W’ that makes “wah” sound now I am looking for a letter that makes an ‘oh’ sound. I know this one sounds very easy, but it is important to give them opportunities to succeed. In addition, some letters make their own sounds and others don’t, so this is not as easy as it looks.
    • I usually play this game throughout the day when it comes organically. I will give them clues about what is for lunch, who is coming to visit or where we are going for our walk. There is no specific literacy time because literacy is incorporated throughout the day.

Let them continue stories

    • Sometimes, during meals, after we have introduced a new book I’ll hear my students start creating their own adventures for the characters. When that happens, the next day I will set the book up with paper and markers, being careful to match the colors that are prominent in the artwork for the book, and ask them to draw pictures. After they have drawn their pictures, I will have them tell me their story and I will write their words down on a post-it note. If you think they have more to say but have stopped talking I will simply say, “tell me more”. I make a point to not ask leading questions or try to finish their thoughts for them because I want these stories to fully come from them. Don’t think those words are enough? There is a whole book about it, that I recommend.
    • After a few times of making our own books, I’ll ask if they as the author would like to sign their book. Then I let them attempt to write their name. It won’t be perfect the first few times and that is ok. Let them take pride in their work and then gently start suggesting some help verbally. Little by little I ask them if they want to write the title or the ending. If they say no I simply say ok maybe next time because it’s not just about learning to write their letters, it’s about learning to love to write. They will write their letters, they might not be the first of their friends to do so but they will get there and what is most important is that they learn to love writing for the joy it brings because that is what is going to keep them motivated in the long run.

Talk about books

    • After we finish reading, I will simply ask children what happened in that book? Sometimes they will recount the whole story, but other times they will focus one scene or single detail. Both are just fine. The tempting part is to correct them and direct them towards answers by saying something like, “oh you remember he invited the nightmare in his closet to his bed” but I would argue that serves no benefit other than teaching a child to repeat your answer or interpretation. Instead, let them struggle with what is happening in a story, allow them to work their brains in a way that is difficult as they try and process why the story ended in that specific way. 
    • Having nightmares? Moving? Going to the dentist? Feel free to read books about these subjects. The books themselves will be helpful, but do not forget to let your child talk to you about what was in them and let them ask whatever questions they have. Books about specific subjects are meant to be discussed. In fact, after reading a book about a subject your child might have more questions than before and that is great. They are really struggling with big subjects and from the very beginning, you are establishing that they can talk to you about them. You are someone that can be trusted with their most important and difficult questions.

During early childhood, it is especially important to avoid praising children for their abilities, but instead, praise them for their effort. Praising ability communicates that something that doesn’t come naturally is simply something they won’t be good at, and will have a tendency to create a low self-efficacy in your child whenever they try something new that they aren’t good at. This is the idea that things just happen to them. They are good at some things, not good at others, and have no control over which is which. Instead, praising them for their effort teaches them that they do have control over the skills they can learn and even if they were not good at something to start, they can still master that skill if they put the effort in.

With these strategies in mind, you will help your child see themselves as capable of learning to read, understanding stories and writing their own adventures. They will learn to love literacy even if they struggle with literacy concepts at first since you will be supporting them as they try and try again.

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