Reading and understanding text is essential for children to succeed in school. Children’s reading ability is powerfully affected by the language and literacy skills they learn in early childhood. Children who do not have stimulating language and literacy experiences in early childhood fall behind their peers in language and literacy achievement, and the gap accumulates and builds to big differences in reading ability and content knowledge within a few years of schooling.
The importance of helping all children develop basic language and literacy skills is seen in the learning goals and curriculum frameworks across a broad range of early childhood policy reports, and in the President’s plan to establish a continuum of high-quality early learning opportunities for preschool children (Obama’s Plan for Early Education for all Americans, 2013). Here are the basic skills that children need to learn.
Basic Language and Literacy Skills:
- Phonological awareness is an awareness of the phonological or sound structure of words. Phonological awareness is an auditory skill that helps children match the sounds in words to their corresponding letters or letter combinations.
- Alphabetic understanding is the knowledge that letters of the alphabet represent the sounds of spoken language. It is particularly important to acquire in preschool, especially for children who are behind their peers in their knowledge of letter names and sounds. Research recommends that children be provided with intentional exposure to, and practice with letter names and their most common sounds to help them develop an understanding of the alphabetic principle. Early letter writing also helps children learn letter names and sounds, and understand that letters and writing carry meaning.
- Vocabulary is the knowledge of words and word meanings. The size of a child’s vocabulary affects later reading ability, especially reading comprehension. Effective preschool approaches focus on developing word and vocabulary knowledge by explicitly teaching word meanings and giving children chances for meaningful and teacher-assisted practice in using new words.
- Oral language is a group of skills that includes expressive and receptive vocabulary, syntactic and semantic knowledge, (including the ability to create or retell a story). Oral language and listening comprehension play a major role in the development of reading ability. Preschool read-alouds and small group discussions give preschool children, especially those at risk for reading difficulties, important opportunities for developing these skills.
Research supports the effectiveness of instruction designed to develop alphabetic understanding, phonological awareness, vocabulary, and oral language skills in preschool children, particularly those at risk for later reading problems. Evidence-based preschool programs are a practical way to help early childhood teachers teach these skills. Programs typically include interactive storybook reading, exposure to letter names and sounds, and an emphasis on oral language development. But in spite of their evidence-based content, preschool curricula have had mixed success in helping all children develop the language and literacy skills they need for success in school. One potential stumbling block may be the lack of specific guidance in lesson plans explaining to teachers on how to present the activities, monitor children’s learning, and provide sufficient practice and review.
In our work with Head Start teachers, they have often told us that they know WHAT to teach, but they don’t always know HOW best to teach it to children. Although good professional development and better guidance from programs can help, here are a few things that teachers can do on their own to help all their children learn.
How to Teach Basic Language and Literacy Skills:
- Limit introduction of new skills. Children with limited literacy backgrounds can be confused or overwhelmed if they are presented with too much new information at once. Introduce new content and skills at a slower rate to allow children with limited language and literacy backgrounds enough time to learn and apply their new knowledge in multiple contexts.
- Teach explicitly. When you introduce something new, tell children what they are going to learn and why. Demonstrate what you want children to learn e.g., “Watch and listen to me.” Have children first practice with you, and then practice without your help so you can see if they need more help and support.
- Provided frequent practice and review. Some programs provide little practice and review, which doesn’t give children the time they need to gain mastery of new skills or vocabulary before moving on. Monitor your children’s understanding and provide quick, daily practice with new skills or ones they have trouble remembering. Mix it up and make practice fun and engaging through songs, cheers, and personalizing it with your own teaching style. Stay enthusiastic. If you’re having fun, your kids will too!