Category Archives: Literacy

Literacy’s Highly Underrated /f/ Word

“Would you like green eggs and ham? Would you like them, Sam I am?”

“There’s a wocket in my pocket!”

Dr. Seuss was a genius, pulling young children into his colorful, adventurous stories by playing with words. It turns out, the ability to hear sounds in words and manipulate them is one of the most important skills for literacy development. This makes him doubly cool in my book- his stories draw children in with whimsy while simultaneously reinforcing part of the very skill that will allow them to someday read books on their own.

Rhyming is just one component of phonological awareness. It also includes being able to hear individual words within sentences, break apart compound words, segment syllables, blend sounds into words and hear individual sounds within a word. (Moving in difficulty from larger chunks of sounds to the individual sounds and then being able to manipulate those individual sounds.)

With all the focus on learning the names of the letters of the alphabet, one might think this was more important than the sounds in words for literacy development. Amazingly enough, one could technically learn to read without knowing the names of letters. However, if one has difficulty hearing the sounds in words, reading will be incredibly difficult and require special instruction. In fact, the inability or decreased ability to detect sounds in words is a main component of dyslexia. “The best predictor of reading difficulty in kindergarten or first grade is the inability to segment words and syllables into constituent sound units.”* It is truly the sounds that matter. They provide the foundation.

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Two boys on a beach. On a beach! Where’ my ____? (Did you say leech or peach or something else? I say margarita.)

To be able to read a child must be able to assign a particular sound to a letter, and eventually to a group of letters. This is a completely arbitrary task for kids who can’t do this. They either become gifted sight word readers (unusual) or very frustrated (more common). Therefore, a child is typically not ready to read if they can’t hear individual sounds in words. For example, they should be able to discern that the word “cat” is composed of three sounds: /k/ /æ/ /t/. Blended sounds (like /bl/, /dr/, /br/, /sl/, etc…) are harder to break apart and will come later. English makes all of this more difficult because it doesn’t assign just one letter to each sound. Instead, we have /f/ represented by f and ph, and all the other ridiculous spellings like -ow, -igh, and -ough.

(A litte side rant. I have had several clients and friends tell me their kids’ teachers denied that dyslexia even existed. This makes me fume because it means many kids with less persistent parents don’t get the help they need. Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability. It most definitely exists. I have diagnosed it, worked with kids with mild to severe challenges, and taught them phonological awareness only to see them begin to read after years of intense struggling. If a teacher or someone else tells you that dyslexia isn’t possible for your child, seek other opinions. They are wrong- it’s certainly a possibility. If you suspect your child has difficulty with phonological awareness, please seek help from a speech-language pathologist. The sooner the better. Early intervention can make an enormous difference. Early treatment can be what allows your child to view reading and spelling as something they can do and enjoy. Otherwise, sadly, reading runs the risk of becoming a massive, painful, seemingly impossible, embarrassing hurdle. But, it’s never too late for good intervention to make a difference.)

Kids who are typically developing will naturally improve their phonological awareness skills. So, this isn’t something I would recommend parents rush with kids- the progression happens with time. Because hearing sounds in words is a precursor to reading, I think some parents who highly value early reading skills might want to speed things along. There’s really not much point in that. Just like you can’t make a baby crawl until they’re ready. Once they’re crawling, sure- encourage them. Give them plenty of opportunity. Put them on hills and on grass. But, seriously, don’t move their arms and legs to try to force the issue when they can’t even hold their head up yet.

So, with that caveat, how do you celebrate phonological awareness while reading to and playing with kids? (Celebrate? What?! Well, I guess I want to promote the idea that this is just as worthy of cheering for as walking. Playing around with these skills is the language equivalent of encouraging a kid to walk on uneven ground.) Learning the alphabet letter names is cool and all, but kids get inundated with it from the alphabet song, Sesame Street, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and tons of other shows and books. Apart from the rhyming books, there are not many popular mediums that focus on actively playing with sounds.

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I’m on a beach holding a worm. It’s not a worm, you silly, it’s ___? (Kelp! But you want to say something else, right?)

To help fill that gap, here are some ideas for fun ways to integrate activities that promote phonological awareness into your play and reading times:

*Play rhyming games. Oh, trust me, I know how old this can get. But it is soooo good for your kids! Charlie loves this one that (I think) he made up: “I have a friend named tenguin who loves to play with his penguin.” “I know a girl named Zoga who continuously does yoga.” Charlie and all willing adults and peers in his vicinity take turns making up the rhymes. We have been playing this game for a year and a half. We are patient souls and usually trapped in our car. I think Harry and I usually cut him off after about ten or twenty rounds of rhymes these days but he’d probably go on for hours and we just can’t take it anymore. (Grandparents, come visit soon!)

*While reading books that rhyme, pause and allow your child the chance to guess at what word rhymes with the previous phrase. When your child can guess correctly, they are likely using the stories context (pictures) as well as the words they’ve heard to choose a correct rhyming word. For example, “Would you like it with a fox? I would not like it with a fox. Would you like it in a [pause]…” They will see the pictured box on the page and with this cue, as well as the previously heard “fox”, kids at this level of development with phonological awareness will be able to guess correctly.

*With kids as young as two, you can start playing silly word games that help them focus on the differences in words. Miles loves little games like “Bear is going to eat your toes! Bear is going to eat your nose!” in which a stuffed animal playfully goes after his body. I can pause and let him pick the body part. I can throw some completely made-up word in to make him giggle even more. “Bear’s going to eat your flippity-flop!” I’ll pause, look at him, and then say “Flippity-flop?! What’s that?! Maybe he wants your blippity-blop. No? Slippity-slop? etc…”

*Develop a sense of rhythm through music, musical books, books with rhyming and books with cadence. Sing, dance, shake a rattle, shake your bootie. Songs that provide opportunity for children to fill in a word, like “Old McDonald” are really enjoyable for them. “Old McDonald had a [pause]”. After hearing that song a lot, both our boys like to fill in that gap as early as 18-months. You can build on their listening skills by throwing in your own silly make believe animal and crazy noises every once in awhile. “Old McDonald had a zlug.”

*This website has about a million other activities at various levels.

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Doesn’t feel so very far, until it’s two hours in a car. Rhyming here, rhyming there. Thank goodness we’re done. Soaking in the sun.

If you don’t know where your kid is at with these skills, start with the easiest activities. Keeping an eye on their level of frustration is also a good guideline. If they’re having enjoying themselves, laughing at times and a little bit challenged, you’re probably at an appropriate level. If they’re frustrated, back up a little bit or provide them more examples. Truth is, many of these skills will probably come one way or another if your child doesn’t have any developmental challenges. Again, I wanted to share this information not to get people to try to rush the process and get their kids reading by three, but to help you understand the foundation that needs to be in place before you begin reading activities.

Last warning. I am not an advocate of “drill and kill” types of activities and there’s always the chance a well-meaning parent, worried about literacy, will take playful activities and make them obligatory- something that needs to be checked off each day. I think this should be fun and if it’s not, take a step back. If you’re stressed about your kids learning these skills, I suggest that you might have concerns your child isn’t learning what they should be or with as much pleasure as others. Seeking professional help might give you the ease you need- either because your child is getting services to help them develop these skills or you were told all is progressing as expected. If you have a four year old who doesn’t find rhyming fun, doesn’t make up rhymes, and doesn’t seem to “get it”, I highly recommend having a speech-language pathologist screen or evaluate their phonological awareness skills.

One of my next posts will be about teaching kids how to read. If you have any specific questions you’d like me to address, please leave them in the comments section.

*Lyon, G. R. (1995). Toward a definition of dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 45, 3-27

Nurturing a Love of Books

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Parents are reminded ad nauseum to read to their children from day one. I swear, while mom and dad fearfully prepare to take their newborn home for the first time, a nurse slips you a pamphlet on the importance of reading to your child. You don’t know the basics of feeding and changing your child yet and they’re already making you feel guilty for not reading to them enough. You are reminded of this all over the media and at every pediatric appointment. Often there aren’t any strategies laid out for how to encourage a love of books, particularly with babies.

Some of our natural inclinations for reading to children can actually lead to bored, squirmy babies who no longer want to be a part of storytime. Some caregivers believe they need to read every word in a book because of a misleading notion that language develops best if we speak with complexity to babies. Others don’t want their baby to move or interrupt during the story. Thankfully, most remember to show the baby the pictures of the book and don’t attempt Charlotte’s Web with a six month old! I’ve heard “my baby doesn’t like books” from many of my friends and acquaintances and I think it’s often because their storytime approach is better suited to older children.

I approach storytime with little babies by completely following their lead. A baby just a few months old will give you clues as to what interests them with their eyes. So, I rarely read the printed word. If they are staring at a pictured light, I talk about it. This is often as simple as saying, “Oooh, light. That’s a nice light.” while emphasizing the word light, and letting them look as long as they maintain interest. Parentese is ubiquitous across cultures; it serves the purpose of allowing babies to learn the sounds of their native language better. Just as we adapt our speech when talking to babies, we need to do it with our language while reading with them.

There are very few books with language simple enough to please a baby, so I adapt most to meet them at their level. A few that I rarely change are Goodnight Moon or Pat the Bunny. We will sit with individual pages as long as the baby desires. We might talk about the kittens for five minutes, meowing and pretending to pet them.

I might adapt a book like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by imitating the animals after each question: “Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? Roar roar roar roar roar, roar roar roar roar.” (Count the roars there. I know the book by heart.) Eventually I’ll adapt back to the written word, but this quickly draws the babies in and helps them associate the sound with the animal they’re looking at.

My youngest, as a one year old, would turn pages through several books as quickly as possible until we hit his favorite page. The exciting part for him was just interacting with the book, so I would read quickly or simplify the words depending on the type of book and we’d go back and forth between that page and the next over and over again to his heart’s content. The sweet spot in Goodnight, Gorilla is when the zookeeper’s wife turns on the light and finds the gorilla lying there in bed. He still loves this page because my husband and I always make a shocked, silly gasp and dramatically exclaim something like, “Oh! Gorilla!!! What are you doing in my bed?”

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It is important to remember that the goal is enjoy yourselves while exploring books, not to finish the book or read every sentence. Time with books should provide a dedicated time together seeing new things, labeling new words, talking simply about what’s interesting. It can be a launching pad for a longer conversation about a single picture or topic, returning to finish the book another day. If a child is tired of a book, just close it and move on to a different one, even if you’re on page one. If they need to run around the room and just check in every once in awhile while you read, let them. Be silly, make the book interactive, keep your language simple, and vary your pitch a lot. Most babies will not be interested in every word of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but they will love touching the holes in the book and probably delight in hearing silly eating noises while you try to nibble their fingers or toes.

If you’ve been having challenges reading to a baby or toddler, give these strategies a shot. A baby with a strong built-in aversion to books will need some serious playtime with the first few books, maybe even the first few hundred books. Make sure that baby knows you are going to have FUN and storytime has changed. Make crazy animal noises while looking at pictures, get a puppet, stuffed animal, doll, or other favorite toy to read, or whatever other silly idea you have to make it clear the routine is different now.

For example, as a toddler, our oldest wanted his stuffed robot to read his books every time for at least a year. We made up a monotone robot voice and read every book that way. When he wanted to talk about the book or ask questions he would say, “No, robot talk,” if we used our voice. We would have to answer him in the robot voice and have the robot point to things. He and the robot had many stimulating conversations, let me tell you.

After a few experiences with the new and improved storytime, I imagine your child will be bringing books to your side to request a reading. Give it a try, follow their lead, and see how much more pleasant it is. I hope you will find this makes reading more pleasurable for both the adult and child.