The people of Silicon Valley are exceptional. Few places on planet earth enjoy such a high concentration of intelligent, high-achieving and successful individuals (stay-at-home-moms absolutely included). Geographically speaking, this is a speck of a place, yet our collective accomplishments loom large. Will our children carry the same torch of excellence? The tension among area parents is palpable. Stressful conversations about education occur from the age of, well, gestation.
Enter the first major academic challenge: literacy. But like walking, talking and peeing in the right place, literacy is also, to some degree, a developmental milestone.1 The brain has to mature for reading to be possible. This means the kids call the shots with respect to timing. They decide when they will read.
According to a thorough study by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a project of the U.S. Department of Education, about 1 percent of the nation’s kindergartners could actually read words in context, and 66 percent of kindergartners in the U.S. could recognize letters.2 Another NCES study pegs the number of kinders who can read basic sight words at 20 percent—by spring of the kindergarten year.3
But despite the national averages, the tension and competition among our Peninsula peers is real. When your friend (neither you nor I, of course) is at the park and sees a 2-year-old reading Harry Potter aloud to the neighborhood, she thinks, “My kid is slow, slow, slow.” Back at home, this mom is on it. She invests in sight word flashcards and a phonics program. She conducts letter exams on the way to Trader Joe’s: “What letter does cow start with? M? Are you kidding me?! Try again.” She resorts to bribery—an episode of Power Rangers in exchange for ten words read.
Stop! Please tell this well-intentioned mom (with love, as she lives in us all) that pressure tactics will backfire. Power struggles will ensue, and resistance to reading will likely emerge.4 Our own academic angst, when imposed upon our still-illiterate (or barely literate) progeny is destined to be a killjoy.
Yet studies do link early literacy—letter, sound and language knowledge that prepares children under 5 for reading and writing—to subsequent academic success.5 And parent involvement is absolutely key to the development of early literacy skills.6 So although a child’s brain must mature for reading to happen, parents must also create an environment in which literacy is valued and highlighted.7
A disproportionate amount of brain development happens between the ages of 0 and 5 (approximately 90 percent),8 so our hyper awareness about literacy makes sense. Still it is imperative that we channel our anxiety productively. How can we support children in reading readiness without breathing down their necks?
Here are a few tips and strategies for a stress-free foray into the world of words:
Studies show that reading aloud to your children actually paves the neurological pathways necessary for later independent reading.9 Read for and with your children, and read for yourself in front of your children. Strive to read aloud to your children daily; even one book can make a difference. Read widely: Choose a variety of genres, styles and subjects, and be sure to include books that play with language by using rhyming and alliteration and books that use advanced, rich vocabulary. Add to your reading list a couple of books that highlight the importance of reading: for example, young heroines who read their way out of danger and detectives who use reading and writing to find and record clues.
Keep it playful.
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., and one of the authors of Play = Learning and Einstein Never Used Flash Cards believes that preserving a child’s love of learning should be the primary goal: “Learning has to be enjoyable,” she says. “If a child grows to dislike school, there will be repercussions for years to come.”10 The same goes for reading.
As parents (and teachers), we should strive to make reading and language fun, interesting or intriguing. Incorporate interdisciplinary and multi-sensorial play—games, jokes, movement, athletics, music, imagination, theater, etc. If your child isn’t smiling, laughing or asking for more, stop what you are doing immediately and re-strategize.
Children are intense absorbers and can glean an impressive amount of learning from a well-planned 5–15 minute activity. Stop an activity before they are satiated. Let them beg to do it again. “Oh … maybe next time,” you can say, grinning inwardly.
Make reading relevant.
Children, like adults, want to know why something is worth learning. Show them, as you move through your day, the relevance of reading to their lives. At the supermarket, pick up a carton of milk and say, “Oh good, orange juice.” Then say, in a voice that is slightly agitated, “Wait a second. I made a mistake. That says M-I-L-K! Thank goodness I read that! We already have milk at home.”
Demonstrate a love of language, and celebrate words whenever you can. If you get a letter or a card, show the words to your children and describe the feelings that the words conjure. Chat about magic spells or real-life business negotiations to highlight the power of words to create and destroy, heal and hurt. Tell bedtime stories that showcase language—knights who gain entrance to a castle by telling jokes and princesses who solve riddles to rescue princes in distress. You can also build and expand your children’s vocabulary simply by speaking eloquently yourself.
Use natural passion.
Most children are passionate about something, and language and literacy can be paired with any interest, hobby or obsession. Seek literacy games, activities and reading material that coincide with your children’s current interests. Let their natural passions determine the literacy content, too.
At all times, in all contexts, when you see your children working hard at something, praise their efforts and acknowledge their stamina and dogged determination. Avoid praising products and successes. According to Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford’s Psychology Department, our children will be most resilient and successful as adults if we help them create a growth mindset and squash fear of error.11 If your children voluntarily take on a challenge, let them know how impressed you are by the bravery and risk. Your children’s appetite for challenge will transfer to the reading process.
Bite your tongue!
As a teacher of young children, I clamp my mouth shut for many key moments during the pre-literacy and literacy process. If children make a reading or writing mistake at the beginning, overlook it and praise the process. If your children develop a particular love of mass market, highly commercial paperbacks with subject matter that you find to be mildly objectionable, do your best to let them read what they want to read. Even as you cringe and flush with embarrassment, let your kids call the shots. We should follow their literacy lead. Then supplement with high quality, intelligent children’s texts during your read alouds.
Trust your children to develop reading skills during the very broad developmental window. Trust yourself to find the right support if the reading process goes awry. Trust that reading will happen. Trust that your children are exceptional—regardless of the age they read their first sentence.
- Schlaggar, B. and McCandliss, B. (2007). Development of Neural Systems for Reading. Annual Review of Neuroscience (30). Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/9klo7sw
- Zill, N. and West, J. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2001). Entering Kindergarten: A Portrait of American Children When They Begin School: Findings from the Condition of Education 2000. Washington DC. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2001/2001035.pdf
- Denton, K. and West, J. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2002). Literacy. Children’s Reading and Mathematics Achievement in Kindergarten and First Grade. Washington DC. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2002/kindergarten/23.asp?nav=4
- Children Who Can Read, But Don’t … . (n.d.). Reading Is Fundamental. Retrieved from RIF.org http://www.rif.org/us/literacy-resources/articles/children-who-can-read-but-dont.htm
- National Institute for Literacy. (n.d.). Early Literacy: Leading the Way to Success: A Resource for Policymakers. Washington DC. Retrieved from http://lincs.ed.gov/publications/pdf/EL_policy09.pdf See also: Strickland, D. and Riley-Ayers, S. (April 2006). Early Literacy: Policy and Practice in the Preschool Years. New Brunswick, New Jersey: National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Retrieved from http://www.readingrockets.org/article/11375/
- What Research Says About Parent Involvement. (n.d.). Responsive Classroom. Retrieved from http://www.responsiveclassroom.org/what-research-says-about-parent-involvement See also: Mullis, R.L., Mullis, A.K., Cornille, T., Ritchson, A.D., & Sullender, N.L. (2004). Early Literacy Outcomes and Parent Involvement (Tech. Rep. No. 1). Tallahassee, Florida: Florida State University Family Institute Outcome & Evaluation Unit. Retrieved from http://www.earlyliteracyweb.com/earlyliteracy/PDFs/EarlyLitNParentInvolvement.pdf
- Wetzel, J. (Aug. 18, 2011). “Robust” Link Between Preschool, Language and Literacy. Research News @ Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt University. Retrieved from http://news.vanderbilt.edu/2011/08/preschool-language-literacy/
- Brain Development. (2012). First 5 California. Retrieved from http://www.ccfc.ca.gov/parents/learning-center/brain-development.aspx#/?a=braindevelopment
- For Families. (n.d.). The Children’s Reading Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.readingfoundation.org/parents.jsp
- Scott Curwood, J. (2012). What Happened to Kindergarten? Instructor. Retrieved from http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/what-happened-kindergarten
- Dweck, C.S. (October 2007). The Perils and Promises of Praise. Early Intervention at Every Age. 65(2):34–39. Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/9kxbg7e
As a full-time play-based educator who teaches both English reading readiness and Spanish immersion classes, Janel Moses spends more time interacting with children than adults! She lived and taught in Costa Rica, Ecuador, Chile and throughout the U.S. before settling in Silicon Valley with her husband and daughter. To find out more about Janel, visit http://spanishclassroom.net, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.