In the last few weeks I've been doing a project that has me thinking and reading a lot about the concept of early literacy. Basically, the idea is this: most kids start to actually read at about age six, but before they can do that they have to have a lot of other skills and concepts in place; just like, in order to build a house, first you need property, a foundation, materials, a blueprint, much sawing and hammering and swearing, etc. You don't just wave a wand and poof! have a house, and a kid doesn't just pick up a book and read it out of thin air.
The process of gathering and strengthening those skills is called "early literacy", or sometimes "emergent literacy." I used to hear the term "pre-literacy" used more, but the other two terms emphasize that the whole process of becoming fluent in written language is a continuum that starts from birth and keeps going through adulthood. Learning to decode the words on the page is a big milestone, but it's just one step in the process.
Literacy researchers have put together a list of six main early-literacy skills that kids need to have in place before they can read. The Multnomah County Library has made a great website on the topic that includes a page on the six early literacy skills. The American Library Association's Every Child Ready to Read @ your library site has some excellent resources for librarians who want to incorporate Early Literacy skills into storytimes and parent workshops, as well as anyone who's interested in the research that went into the Early Literacy concept.
Here are the six Early Literacy skills, in no particular order:
1. Vocabulary. The more words kids know, the more they'll be able to recognize when it comes time to recognize them on a page. So just talking to kids--using different words, talking about lots of different concepts, explaining hard words, not to mention reading books, which tend to have a wider variety of language than spoken conversation does--builds up their early literacy skills.
2. Print Motivation. I admit it: this is my favorite Early Literacy skill (yes, I am a library geek who has a favorite Early Literacy skill. My spouse's favorite is Phonological Awareness. What's yours?). It means pretty much what it says: liking books, being interested in what's in them, knowing they have good stuff inside. This is hugely important in learning to read. After all, if all you know about books is that they're boring and hard, why bother? If sharing books together is a treat, a wonder, a delight, kids will have more motivation to stay on the often-rocky road to printed literacy.
3. Print Awareness. Before you can read a book, you have to understand what a book is and how it works: it has a cover, pages which in English are turned from left to right, marks on the page which correspond to the words people say when they talk, pictures that have something to do with the words, and so on. The fun part about teaching print awareness is that you can do it anywhere--out on a walk with street signs, looking at a ceral box, in a store-- there is print all over our world, and kids get excited about finding it.
4. Narrative Skills. Stories! Telling stories! Because what else are books but stories? When you think about it, even nonfiction books are full of stories: how things were discovered or invented; what a firefighter's day is like; what you have to do to make brownies. The more kids understand the structure of stories, the more comfortable they'll be when they encounter them in print. Telling stories to kids--fairy tales, true stories about what happened today, family stories--is great for this one. And so is encouraging them to tell their own stories of all kinds, and really listening.
5. Letter Knowledge. So far, all the skills I've listed are very based in what we used to call "whole language" theory: that the most important thing you need for reading is lots of positive engagement with words and stories and books. But the truth is, even with the richest whole-language exposure in the world, you're going to have trouble reading if you can't tell the difference between a "p" and a "b" and a "d", or understand that upper-case and lower-case letters have the same sounds. The twenty-six letters of the alphabet (52, really, counting the upper-casers) are the physical building blocks of written language in English. There are lots of fun ways for kids to learn about them, from alphabet books like Chicka Chicka Boom-Boom to drawing letter shapes in sand to those good old refrigerator magnet letters.
6. Phonological Awareness. This is the trickiest one for a lot of kids. It means being able to hear and understand that words are made up of smaller sounds, and being able to play with, break down, and manipulate those words and sounds. This all sounds very technical, but actually preschool kids practice phonological awareness all the time: when they say or hear nursery rhymes, when they play the "name game" or "Willaby Wallaby Woo," when they sing rhyming songs, even when they make up their own borderline-obnoxious games like maying meverything mith mee mame metter mat mee meginning.
So, that's it: six skills that you can encourage and teach in the comfort of your own home. Reading books together hits all of them, but there are so many ways they can be woven into the fabric of daily life. And when your kid has them mastered--at age four, at age eight, whenever they're developmentally ready and have enough of these skills under their belt--they'll be ready to read.