We make reading a ritual in our home. To me, reading is… evening book clubs with friends, foggy mornings with a newspaper (albeit digitally) and a cup of joe, cold nights cozied up with my Kindle, and an entertaining, People magazine at the hair salon. But, for many, reading is not the above; it is not an enjoyable experience to cherish. According to the Department of Education, 32 million adults in the U.S. cannot read. That is 14 percent of the population. Initially, I was shell-shocked at that number. Then, I donned my speech language pathologist hat and recognized – with clarity- that becoming literate is a rigorous, laborious process. In this article, I will discuss the components of literacy, how literacy and language are connected, and how to foster literacy in your home.
Reading, the ability to translate print into meaning, results from two skill sets: decoding (sounding out letters) and comprehension (understanding text).3 Fluent decoding involves a mastery of phonemic awareness skills, such as sound blending (b–a–t = bat), sound manipulation (p-a-t can become t-a-p, by switching initial and final phonemes), sound segmenting (bash = b–a–sh), and rhyming (i.e. cat/mat).
In a perfect world, English would be an alphabetic language with a one-to-one correspondence between the phonemes (sounds) and the graphemes (letters). This would make decoding a breeze. However, English contains 26 letters and approximately 40 sound units that connect to it. Ever wonder why the word “was” does not rhyme with the word “pass?” Because of English’s complexity, beginner readers must use both phonics and context for decoding accuracy. Decoding provides a bridge between word recognition and reading comprehension, but it is not the “end all, be all.”
Research notes that those who decode rapidly, accurately, and efficiently do not spend a ton of cognitive energy doing so. Because of this, they can focus readily on comprehension. Furthermore, individuals with efficient decoding skills are motivated to read widely; reading is seen as fun. This wide reading enhances their reading skills through practice.
Less fluent readers, however, must focus their attention on decoding, leaving little cognitive energy for comprehension. Reading is not deemed fun, rather more of a chore. These individuals become motivated to avoid reading. This avoidance, in turn, limits the development of their reading skills. As a result, the gap between achieving and non-achieving readers widens throughout school and into adulthood.
Tools To Expand Language Skills
Speech language pathologists view reading as a powerful tool to enhance and expand language skills. Reading exposes children to new words, which leads to increased vocabulary and refined grammatical skills. In therapy sessions, I often use books as pre-learning activities. For example, when facilitating the expression of the spatial term “around,” I first read the book, Whoosh around the Mulberry Bush with my client (receptive learning). Then, I act out the book with the child using props (gross motor). I follow up with a painting activity, having the child illustrate the concept on paper (fine motor). Lastly, I tempt the child into using the new spatial word in a prompted conversation (expression).
This type of activity is suitable for many concepts: color words (i.e. red, peach, aqua), number words (i.e. three, seven, fifty), positional words (i.e. first, third, last), and descriptive words (i.e. wet, dry, smooth). Research reiterates, that a child’s first encounter with an unfamiliar word only leads to partial word knowledge, but each additional encounter is an opportunity for a more complete understanding.
Reading Should Begin From Birth
When should you begin reading to your child? From birth, children benefit from hearing your voice, listening to sounds and rhymes in books, and bonding intimately with you. When reading with your child, the most important thing to do is follow his (or her) lead. Let your child pick the book. Observe him while you read. Is he looking at the book, or is he looking at the toy in the corner? If your child is not attending, change your delivery method.
You may decide to start pointing to the pictures in the book and talking about them instead or decide to make your voice sound silly. You could choose to read in the dark with a flashlight. Or, you might choose reading time is over. With shared reading, you are also teaching your child basic, book-knowledge: reading occurs from left to right, how to hold a book correctly, and that printed words correlate to spoken words. So much valuable learning, yet unintentional, occurs during shared reading time. Don’t give up if your child seems unmotivated by books.
For my son, only books with trains, cars, or construction vehicles sustained his attention (and, I mean for very, very, short intervals). He would literally throw any other books across the room. From 18 months of age to 24 months, I had to use visual prompts such as play dough stuck on the pictures for him to remove, a magnifying glass circling the pictures, or a flashlight pointing at the pictures to keep his attention. Books with flaps and sensory tabs also helped gain his attention. However, by age 3, he was on his way to loving all books, without all the visual prompts too.
Reading is a learned skill
Reading is a skill that must be learned, like swimming. It is not innate; we must help our children develop mastery over time. We must be their best cheerleader. We must be their facilitator. That said I believe that reading, most importantly, is a time to bond with your child, a time to listen to your child, and a time to enjoy your child’s company. As we all know to well, time flies – soon enough our children will not need nor want our help. Currently, at our house, reading is a nightly ritual. One we all anticipate and enjoy. It marks the end of our day, winds us down from the stressors in our lives, and gives us time to snuggle and chat.
I encourage you to make reading a ritual in your home.
1. US Department of Education, Statistic Brain, August 22, 2016.
2. “Literate.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 19 Aug. 2014.
3. Chard, D., Pikulski, J., Templeton, S., (2000). From Phonemic Awareness to Fluency: Effective Decoding Instruction in a research Based Reading Program. Houghton Mifflin Reading.
4. Harris, T.L., Hodges, R.E. (1995). The literacy dictionary: The vocabulary of reading and writing.
5. Anglin, J.M. (1993). Vocabulary development: A morphological analysis. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. 58(10, Serial no. 238.).
6. Cunningham, A.E. & Stanovich, Kieth (1986). What reading does for the mind. American Educator, 22, 8-17.