As the Executive Director of Calgary Reads (an early literacy initiative), a parent and former teacher, I’m often asked by families how they can help their young child build language skills—and, develop a love of reading.
As we mark Family Literacy Day on January 27th (celebrated annually as a time to inspire families to learn together) I’m pleased to share ideas. While this ‘special day’ is a great reminder of the importance of family in a child’s learning, parents and caregivers have a role to play every day!
Your child may be tiny but kids learn about the world around them right from birth. You can make every moment of these important early years count as you teach, nurture, talk, sing and read aloud together. It’s critical for brain development; babies are born with about 100 billion neurons and by age 3 there will be about 1,000 trillion connections between them.
So, read aloud every day from birth for at least 15 minutes to ‘feed your child’s brain,’ building vocabulary and other pre-literacy skills and powerful social-emotional bonds! Some children will hear 30 million fewer words than their peers before age 4. The number of words a child knows when they enter kindergarten is a predictor of their future success.
One way a solid brain foundation can be built and maintained in your developing child is through ‘serve and return’ interactions. Like an imaginary tennis match between a child and you. But instead of hitting a ball back and forth, various forms of communication pass between you and your child. Practice ‘return the serve’ by speaking back to your baby or child, playing peek-a-boo, or sharing a toy or laugh.
As your child grows, it is important to read ‘with’ him or her rather than ‘to’; make book reading a time for interaction and conversation. One way to do this is through ‘OWLing’: Observe, Wait, Listen.
It might sound simple, but can be difficult to intentionally do. When reading aloud stop every now and then to ‘observe’; make eye contact with your child to encourage deeper interaction. When ‘observing’ you will discover that your child will communicate in ways you might otherwise not notice.
When ‘waiting’ stop speaking and look at your child so they know it’s their turn to say or do something. If your child is reluctant, give them five to ten seconds to take their turn to talk about the story or ask/answer a question.
Really ‘listening’ to a child while reading together means paying attention, trying to understand what they mean, making no assumptions and never interrupting. This makes them feel important and will motivate your child to engage in conversations about the books you are reading together.
And, as a parent or caregiver, your child also needs to see that you enjoy and value reading and books. So, be sure to let your child catch you reading . . . books, magazines, recipes, signs, instructions, mail and more.