By Maria Hawkins
Photo credit: ThomasLife
A few days ago a parent in my youngest daughter’s soccer class asked my advice on teaching her daughter to read. I took a deep breath to collect my thoughts before I answered. Her daughter had just turned three.
The world of reading and writing opens so many doors for our children, yet I often feel like there is an unnecessary pressure to kick them open before its time. If we just wait and encourage and fill their environment with literacy, I feel like the majority of kids will open the door on their own, or at least walk through with you, no kicking necessary.
Really your baby’s introduction to literacy begins with you talking to her and reading to her while she is still in the womb. Missed that window already? No worries! Just start reading and talking lots now. Whether your baby is a few weeks old or a few years old she will benefit immensely from being read to as often as possible and being surrounded by language. You can fill her world with language (or languages, as the case may be) knowing that you are setting the stage for literacy down the road.
Our 4th baby just turned four months old and believe it or not he is already on his way to biliteracy. Every time he goos and coos his father, me or one of his siblings are quick to answer and engage him in conversation. As he sits in his sling throughout the day I narrate what we are doing and where we are going. He listens as I help one of his siblings through a math problem, reading a book, putting together a puzzle, singing a song.
Believe it or not, all this language is paving the way for his later literacy! He is building receptive vocabulary, learning the cadence of the two languages in our house, finding how conversation works and practicing making the sounds that make up the two languages we speak in our family. Before we know it he will start contributing more than smiles and coos to the equation.
If you have a baby or young child at home, know that with little extra effort you can help him or her build the scaffolding for later biliteracy. And trust me, it will come. While it is possible to teach your three year old to decode and read, I would ask yourself what exactly that adds to their three year old life, and what the time spent on learning how to decode takes away. There is little doubt they will learn to read and write at some point, but there is no way to guarantee they will like it or choose to do it.
I think if the early years are experienced as a journey through a wonderous biliterate or multiliterate environment, the chances will be high that your child will be asking for help to figure out how to read and write. They may even do the bulk of the work themselves, with you only needing to help with the details. And with that, so are the chances much higher that they will be choosing to willingly and happily read and write for years to come.
Below are some ideas for how to begin or boost your “baby literacy” at home:
- Read lots of books following your language pattern. We are OPOL so I always read in Spanish and my husband in English. Since for us Spanish is the minority language I am pretty strict about only reading in Spanish but sometimes my husband reads in Spanish as well. Do what works for you as long as you read lots and lots!
- Verbally label everything, all the time. As you go about your day talk to your baby about what you are doing. Use the names of the objects you are using, things you are doing, things and people you see, signs you pass, vehicles on the road… You are building her personal vocabulary.
- Use complex and varied language. While the tone and cadence you use with babies and young children may have its own rhythm, you don’t need to always simplify the language. Know that the use of new and interesting vocabulary is helping prepare your child for using that vocabulary later on. If you say something your child doesn’t understand her or she\ will be quick to ask for an explanation – that is just another literacy moment waiting to happen.
- Talk with your baby/child, not just to them. Its important that children learn how language works, and part of that is understanding the taking turns of normal conversation. Even with those early goos and coos you can engage in a conversation with baby which will eventually become complex conversations with your child. Respond to your baby as if he or she were talking to you. There are no wrong ways to do this, just make sure you pause and give your baby/child a turn. Imagine that coo was a question or comment: listen attentively, and respond in kind. Have fun!
- Play with language. Songs, poems, rhymes and riddles are a great way to puzzle out the complexities of language and always a hit for kids. If you don’t know any “kid songs and rhymes” in your language, a quick trip to the local library or an online search can at the very least get you started. And if “kids stuff” isn’t your thing, by all means feel free to share any rhymes and poems you enjoy that are not “kid centric”! Do what works for you.
- Join in your baby/child’s play. Playing and talking with your 6 month old while she is putting a ball into a box over and over again or playing make-believe with your young child is a wonderful opportunity to enrich their language. Put aside your worries and just immerse yourself in their play as often as you can knowing you are spending valuable time on your child’s budding biliteracy. (By the way, this is a great time to add complex vocabulary to the interaction and introduce words they might not use on their own.)
- Stick to your language pattern. Don’t feel pressured to provide “balance” when giving input. Stick to the language pattern you have chosen for your family and trust that they will develop proficiency in all languages – just make sure that all the input is rich and varied and consistent. Know they may ebb and flow with proficiency in each language depending on your pattern but don’t let that scare you into changing a pattern that works for your family.
- Point out environmental print in your world. As you drive around and go out in the community, talk about the signs and newspapers and other things you see. Talk through making the grocery list or writing an email. Show them literacy is all around.
- Encourage them to write and draw. Once they are old enough put something in their reach, cover the table with paper and let them go crazy. (I like to use small pieces of large crayons or “crayon rocks” to encourage natural use of the pencil grasp.) Encourage their scribbles and let them explore making marks on the paper. Those marks will eventually turn into shapes and letters and numbers. Don’t stress over their formation. Let them experiment and enjoy over these next few years. Trust that they will learn the correct formation eventually and know that what you are cultivating now is love of language and love of writing.
How do you boost literacy in your household? Do you read to your bilingual children every day? Do you fill your bilingual children’s lives with a variety of literacy? Please share what works best in your household!
Maria Hawkins grew up in New Mexico immersed in both Spanish and English. She has her National Teacher Certification in early childhood education and has taught in both bilingual and monolingual public schools. She currently keeps busy homeschooling her three bilingual children, teaching weekly Spanish classes for kids, and leading a Spanish Playgroup to support local bilingual families.