Optimizing Our Homes for Literacy
by Mark B. Thogmartin, PhD
This article explores ways parents can create an environment in which a child's reading skills are likely to blossom. While the article focuses on research about "early reading" (learning to read around ages 4 or 5), I recommend that you not be concerned about the age your child learns to read. The heart of the article - and the part you will probably find most useful - is the validation that the environment we create and the simple, wonderful experience of being read to every day make a tremendous difference in our children's emerging reading and language skills. The author offers tangible suggestions for making the most of your reading time with your child.
My sister, DeAnna, is a great mom. She spends a tremendous amount of time with her two children, Sylvia and Sammy. She turns every moment with them into a learning opportunity. They take advantage of programs offered at the local libraries, museums, and parks, and the kids frequently enter (and win!) art contests offered through various magazines and sites on the World Wide Web. The house is decorated with samples of their artwork and with illustrated stories and poems that they have authored. Sylvia even has her own web page. DeAnna takes care to nurture the children's' literacy in creative and enjoyable ways. And even though DeAnna insists that she didn't specifically try to teach Sammy and Sylvia to read, they both were reading fairly well at age four. They are classic examples of what the research literature calls "early readers."
Early Reading Children
By definition, early readers are children who, with no formal instruction, begin reading at ages three, four, or five. I say "no formal instruction" because the parents of these children, like my sister above, almost always say that they did not set out to teach their children to read. But it didn't "just happen" either. Several research studies have looked into this phenomenon with the goal of finding out what factors led to the unusual accomplishments of precocious readers. Two notable studies were completed by Dolores Durkin (1966), and Denny Taylor with Catherine Dorsey-Gaines (1988)
Before I continue, let me emphatically state that this article is not an endorsement of early reading instruction in order to try to raise a child prodigy. I don't believe in an overly forced and rigid approach in teaching a child to read, especially at a young age. But I do believe in working to provide an optimal environment where literacy is valued and is part of the family's routine life. The parents and other family members of early reading children consistently provided this type of environment for their children. If we believe that learning ought to be something that is enjoyable and occurs "naturally," then it would be informative for us to take note of the literacy life of these families.
Durkin studied families living in New York and in California who had raised early reading children. The children in her study had IQ's that ranged from low to high, dispelling the notion that children who learn to read on their own they must be extremely intelligent. Not surprisingly, Durkin found that the parents of these children were actively involved with them in every aspect of their lives. Like all good home schooling families, these parents considered the task of raising their children to be the most important responsibility in their lives, and they believed in the need to spend both quality AND quantity of time with their kids.
What kinds of parental involvement led to the younger family members' unusual literacy accomplishments? Perhaps the most important ingredient in the formula is the habit of reading aloud. As you might expect, these parents and older family members spent much time with their children reading books together -- more time than the average parents. A child's request to read was rarely turned down. When reading aloud, their parents did not allow the children to be passive participants in the process. They held the book or magazine in such a way as to allow the child to see the text while they were reading. They encouraged the children to ask questions about the story, and they answered the questions often times by asking questions in return like "How did (the character) feel when this happened? What do you think will happen next?" and so on. Parents of early reading children were much more likely than the average parent to check their children's' comprehension of the story.
The homes of these children were filled with print-rich materials used by both adults and children. The younger family members had abundant access to books and magazines meant just for them. These materials might have been owned by the family or checked out from the local library. The parents were avid readers themselves who demonstrated by their own actions the value of literature and literacy. Family discussions frequently centered around something someone was reading. When interviewed, these parents stated that the availability of reading and writing materials in the home was very important in promoting their children's literacy growth.
Early reading children distinguished themselves from non-early reading children in two other ways. Parents of early reading children often reported that their children had memorized books or stories and would "read" them back to whomever would listen. This may indicate that these children learned early on that the print in the book carries the message -- a very important first step in becoming literate. These children also had an unusual interest in words as separate elements in the literacy context. They enjoyed word games and were intrigued with letters and their corresponding sounds. My sister gives much credit to the television show Sesame Street in helping to promote the precocious literacy of her two children. As you probably know, individual letters and words are frequently the "stars" of each daily show. One way that this interest in letters and words can be extended is through writing with children. Children who have free access to the tools of writing, pens, pencils, crayons, paper, typewriters, and word processors, frequently develop a working knowledge of letters and words at an early age. The children in Durkin's study did have writing materials readily available to them, and they witnessed their parents writing often in the daily flow of life.
It should be noted again that parents of early readers did not force the issue of literacy. Experiences with print was a frequent and enjoyable part of their everyday lives, initiated as often by the children themselves as the parents.
The study conducted by Taylor and Dorsey-Gaines in the 1980's adds another dimension to the research on early reading children. The families in this study were from the inner-city where they lived in extremely sub-standard conditions. Most of us might have a pre-conceived notion that early reading children come from middle-class or above families who live in modern, suburban neighborhoods where the educational resources are supportive and abundant. This study powerfully demonstrates that promoting literacy within a family is dependent on factors other than finances or social status.
All of the positive components in the Durkin families discussed above were also true of these inner-city families. They used reading and writing for a variety of purposes, and the children witnessed their parents engaging in these activities for enjoyment and for practical reasons. Contrary to the stereotypical view that most people would hold, these families were highly "cultured;" that is, they appreciated good literature and spent much time reading together. They went to great lengths to make sure the children had abundant access to literacy related materials.
The parents in this study had very high expectations for their children. They believed that they could empower their children to rise above their harsh circumstances and do well in school and in life. These high expectations were regularly communicated to the children in positive ways. Becoming literate was the primary goal that they set before their young ones.
Recommendations for Parents
What can parents do to provide optimal conditions in their homes where literacy is a natural by-product? Some helpful principles can be gleaned from the two studies of early readers that we've discussed.
- Read aloud regularly, at least daily. The more, the better.
- Respond to a child's initiatives in reading as regularly as possible.
- When reading aloud, let the child see the print as you read. From time to time, point at the words while you are reading. Encourage your child's attempts at reading.
- Discuss the story together. Ask the child questions about it. Encourage him or her to ask questions.
- Make sure that appropriate reading and writing materials are abundantly available to your child. Visit the library often and check out books regularly.
- Let the child see you as you engage in reading or writing. Involve him or her whenever possible.
- Look for opportunities to talk about and explore words and letters. Play word games. Label things around the house. Watch Sesame Street together.
- Work on writing projects together. Write and illustrate stories with your child. Create a web page. Encourage exploration on the typewriter or word processor. Keep a journal together.
- Positively communicate high expectations to your child without pressuring.
Our children will value what we value. If literacy is important to us, it will be important to them as well. They may not begin reading on their own at an early age like my sister's children, but they will certainly be eager and ready to learn when the time is right.