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Practicing Literacy at Home: The Best Methods

April, 2010
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You have probably heard the saying, “Parents are a child’s first and most important teacher.” It is certainly true and worth remembering. You will continue to be important in guiding your children’s development, even while striving to build their independence and ability to care for themselves.

When children are very young, parents play an especially critical role in primary language development, particularly in vocabulary building. You are also a huge factor in building your children’s concepts of the world by providing various learning experiences for them, talking with them about what they’re interested in, and patiently explaining (and modeling what they need to know.) The following are a few more “tips” for promoting literacy in the home:

1. Extend your child’s primary language. No one else can do that as well as you can in the early years. If your children and you speak a language besides English or Chinese at home, please do not try to extend their English or Chinese (unless you are fluent in both these languages). Continue to build your own language with them in all the ways we describe below.

2. Limit TV viewing and involvement with video games. Although TV can be educational and entertaining if well monitored, children 2 years and under should probably not be watching it at all. After 2, children benefit greatly when parents limit TV to only 1 hour a day and guide children in what they are watching.

Cartoons that are violent should not be on the allowed list of programs. Current research indicates that children are watching as much as 6 hours or more of TV (or playing video games) daily. TV is often called the “Third Parent” because it is frequently used as a way to keep children busy and provide relief for parents. However, too much is intellectually deadening and a poor personal habit for them to get into.

3. Read to your children daily from high-quality narrative and information books. literacy-1sChoose books that your child likes to listen to and introduce new books periodically. When you come to words they may not know, ask them if they know what it means and explain it to them. We call these words “juicy” words in school, and becoming familiar with these will increase your child’s later ability to decode numbers of words they will meet in their reading. As soon as your children can read a few words, allow them to share in the reading if they want to (don’t force this). When they can read a lot of words, have them alternate with you reading a page or a paragraph. Read the book out loud together.

Encourage older children to read to a younger sibling. Have available information books about topics in which they are interested in. Above all, keep reading fun and not a “test” of how well they’re doing. Remember that your child’s room may well be stocked with books, but if no one is taking the time to read those books to them, just providing them and having them in the house won’t accomplish what you want.

4. Have conversations with your children. Find out what THEY interested in talking about and learning more about. We know that children who come into school vary significantly with respect to their spoken vocabulary, their ability to ask for what they want from others, their capability in explaining their ideas to others, and their ability to have fun with language. The ones who are ahead in this generally have high levels of literacy. Mealtimes are a good time to have relaxed talks. Sitting for a few moments at bed time to talk about the day is also good. Occasionally, use words that your children may not hear on a day-to-day basis. Again ask, “Do you know what that word means?”

5. Keep a well stocked writing centre for your children. Colored paper, white boards, slates,  stamps and stamp books, envelopes, scissors, staplers, tape, glue, various markers, chalk, pencils and crayons, home-made little “journals,” and other materials encourage children to create pictures and messages. If you write interactively with them, they will learn to read and write faster. Have fun with writing. For example, give them simple written messages of things to do (example, “in 5 minutes, it will be time for bed.”) Have a “treat hunt” where you write a number of messages (that you may have read for them at first), leading from one place to another, with the resulting treat at the end of the message hunt. Have a little message board in their room and leave messages for them.

Encourage them to “write” back to you, even if it’s to draw you a picture, and leave it in a special message place.

6. Accept your child’s products without criticism. The early years are a time for children to realize that print is a way of sharing meaning with one another, and they’ll do it as well as they can at any particular time (because they want to impress you with their skills!) We’ll be watching for just the right time at school to move your child to another level of writing, spelling, etc.

7. Read environmental print. Draw your child’s attention to print in a number of places both inside and outside your home. Say, “People use writing for a lot of different reasons, don’t they? Menus and checks, and books and email, and signs, and letters and……” Ask your child if they can read logos they see frequently.

8. For very young children, label areas of your home, pieces of furniture, and objects, having your child help you with the signs. Then, frequently have a “house walk”, asking your child to read the labels with you. When you think they know those words or can read them independently, move them to a bulletin board of “words I know” and label some other things. Have them help you spell the words: “Can you hear a beginning sound for a word? Can you hear any other sounds?

All of these techniques will help improve your child’s literacy without it seeming like you are teaching and testing them too much.


By Anne K. Soderman,

Principal of 3e International



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