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Building Literacy in a Young Child


Q. What's the best thing I can do with my preschool child to make him ready for school?


You can do a lot of simple things to set him up for success, and they center on making him into a reader. There are dramatic differences in life outcomes for children who have good attitudes and abilities about reading, and those who do not. Helping your child become someone who loves to read, and is good at it, is THE key task of parenting to help your child wind up in the first group.


But that doesn't mean drilling your child on phonics, or forcing him or her to try to read. It is highly inappropriate to try to teach your child to read at a young age. It must be a natural process, not a forced one. Parents and day care / preschool workers who trot out worksheets or drill kids on the alphabet are going about it completely wrong. Moms who want their child to be the first one on the block are asking for trouble. Resist the temptation to "compete" with neighbors and friends. Take all pressure off. Let your child set the pace.


Reading shouldn't seem like work. It should seem like play between a parent and a child. Books should seem like exciting, wonderful toys that open up whole new worlds of imagination to your child. Literacy is one of those precious things that, if you go after it, you probably won't get it, but if you just live your life and rear your child the best way you know how, and enjoy him or her, you'll look back one day and see where the roots of your child's excellent literacy really got their start: in happy hours of play.


The idea is to help your child love to read, not just view it as a means to an end, to get through school. Btu there are smart things you can do to improve the chances that your child will maximize his or her learning capability. Here are some key concepts:


n       Make your relationship with your child as warm and loving and attentive as you can. That creates a strong parent-child attachment. That's a crucial component of a good self-image. A child who feels secure and good about himself or herself will be better able to learn.


n       Keep your home clean, orderly, calm and on a set routine. No matter how much sleep your child is getting, he or she could probably use more. Use sensible, firm, consistent discipline procedures. Children love the security and structure of a home like that. It gives them self-control and prepares them for good classroom behavior. They will enjoy knowing what the rules are, and following them. They will know right from wrong, instead of being left to guess. They also will seek out order in their reading and writing, because that's what they're used to, instead of loud noises, unpredictable activity, and chaos.


n       Excellent nutrition is an absolute must for brain development. Work with your pediatrician on this. Avoid the junk food syndrome; it hurts your child both physically and emotionally. Stick with the healthy, wholesome food groups. Give your child whole milk or 2% through age 6. That helps form the myelin sheath in the nervous system that is important for smarts.


n       Talk a lot to your child. Ask questions and give praise and affirmation. That causes the child's brain and communication skills to open up and grow. Avoid harsh orders, put-downs, namecalling, yelling and commands not to do things. Those make a child "shut down."


n       Talk face to face with your child. Your child needs to see your lips form the letters, and your facial expressions communicate the meaning; that helps with phonemic awareness - matching the sounds that letters make with the meaning they symbolize.


n       Nursery rhymes and funny poems are great. Researchers think children love rhymes because they make order out of the chaos that the language often seems to be, to a young child.


n       Play with words when you interact with your child: jokes, puns and nonsense syllables are helpful.


n       Start reading aloud to your child in infancy and keep it up until about eighth grade. The more you talk to your child, the more your child's brain will grow. Reading aloud builds vocabulary until about eighth grade, when listening and reading comprehension levels finally dovetail. Until then, the best way to learn new words is to hear them.


n       Limit TV to an hour a day.


n       Ask your child's teachers to increase time spent reading aloud to the children, and having silent reading periods. The more time is invested in reading, the higher the achievement on down the road.


Homework: See Jim Trelease's The Read Aloud Handbook, and his website:


By Susan Darst Williams Ages & Stages 101 2008


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