Board books - those supposedly indestructible, stout structures - are popular with babies and toddlers. They like to throw them, chew on them, and offer them to dogs. Pictures books are also attractive for page-ripping or pulling off of shelves en masse, activities that are equally appealing with a stack of novels. Overall, children are not exactly born with an innate appreciation of books as objects.
Yet children are drawn to the written and spoken word, and it is important for parents to know how to foster that affection, even when their children are very young. Infants and toddlers with short attention spans benefit as much from exposure to books and stories as older children who are able to follow a complex story plot. The key is to know the most effective ways to share books with very young children so that it is a positive experience for them and their parents.
Knowing about "early literacy" is a great way for parents, especially new parents, to understand how to approach literacy activities with their children. "Early literacy prepares children with skills, knowledge and experiences before official and formal education," says Joan Laurion, family living educator with UW Extension Dane County. Generally speaking, there are six early literacy skills (see sidebar). They differ from specifically teaching kids how to read. Instead, early literacy skills prepare children to learn. One obvious example is that letter knowledge will help a child learn to spell words. However, while a four-year-old may be learning letters, children much younger are also picking up literacy cues from their parents.
"The most important early literacy skill is vocabulary - talking, asking questions, and telling stories," says Laurion. In the past decade, a lot of research has been done on brain development in babies with respect to learning language. The research demonstrates that infants "learn" the sound of their parents' voices within the first days of life and maybe even before they leave the womb. This vocal recognition is actually a neural connection in their brain. Different connections will be made for different sounds, and, eventually, these connections aid in language development and learning.
Some parents may feel foolish talking out loud to their infants, even if they know it is positive for development. This is where reading a book to them can substitute for rambling aloud. Reading a book gives parents structure and purpose to communicating with their baby. Also, "books contain a greater variety of words than we use in daily life. There are nine rare words per 1,000 in conversation and 27 rare words per 1,000 in literature," explains Laurion. The more words babies hear, the easier it will be for them to recognize words when they begin to read and write.
It may be hard for parents to believe their child's brain is doing anything productive if they pick up a book and start gnawing on it. Yet, by picking up a book, children are showing the first signs of print motivation, an early literacy skill. Instead of saying "no" to a child for putting a book in his or her mouth, parents could gently take the book and point to an illustration or show the child how to turn the pages. Creating very positive experiences with books, even before children are developmentally able to understand exactly what they are, will encourage children to go back to books, again and again.
Developmentally appropriate activities are essential for children to learn early literacy skills without becoming frustrated. Narrative skills, another element of early literacy, speak to a child's ability to understand that stories have a beginning, middle and end. This takes practice, and children can better understand that sequence if they are read books appropriate to their comprehension level. Very simple stories, taxing as they may be to an adult reading the book for the 50th time, help children predict stories, give them a sense of satisfaction, and bolster their confidence when approaching more advanced books.
Regardless of how parents help their children develop early literacy skills, sufficiently preparing children to learn when they enter school is critical to their future academic success. If children are not performing as well as their peers by third grade, they are not likely to catch up before, or if, they graduate from high school. The drive to ensure that all children are ready to learn when they enter school is behind the state Department of Public Instruction's Early Learning Initiative for Public Libraries.
Part of the goal of this statewide initiative is to inform librarians how they can implement early literacy skills into their children's programs and inform parents and caregivers about the importance of literacy-rich environments. The initiative stresses that efforts are not about radically changing what parents and caregivers do, but educating them about why certain activities or environments are important. For example, children respond well to rhyming songs, and encouraging them to sing the rhymes helps them become aware of different letter sounds, a precursor to reading.
The Madison Public Library is building on the Department of Public Instruction's initiative, and several of its branches offer book programs for younger children. These differ from traditional library storytimes, which are geared towards three- to five-year-olds. "Book Baby" is designed for babies up to 15 months old, and "Toddler Time" is appropriate for 16-to 35-month-old kids. At these programs, parents are asked to honor a one-child-per-parent ratio so that they "have an opportunity to learn about their child," says Linda Olson, community services manager at Madison Public Library. "Storytime gives parents and children dedicated time and space to enjoy each other, learn about each other and share language experiences, time that isn't always available at home."
During the one-on-one interaction, parents will learn about new songs, rhymes and books for their children. Librarian Carolyn Forde uses a stuffed bear at her Book Baby sessions to demonstrate to parents how they might share the material with their young children. She led a group of infants and their parents through a series of activities at Hawthorn Branch library recently. Throughout the 20-minute program, Forde emphasized bouncing and touching babies to highlight rhythms and syllables in songs and books. As the parents bounced their giggling babies to the beat of a song, she explained how doing this will help them recognize syllables in words when they are learning to read.
Activities coupled with education points are an important part of the program, but Forde admits "99% of my job is done if I've communicated a love of books and reading." She also hopes to educate parents about their role in helping kids develop early literacy skills and start the library-going habit early. Taking kids to library programs at a very young age instills positive associations with the library, an indicator of lifelong learning.
Benefits go beyond an individual child's development. "Over the weeks of the Book Baby series, the storytime group becomes a community," Olson explains. "Parents learn from watching other parents and babies and librarians. How will my baby look in two months? What will he/she be doing? Parents have an opportunity to meet other parents and feel more supported and supportive." After the Book Baby program, parents did linger and talk about bedtimes and who was (or wasn't) sleeping through the night.
It's easy to state that books and literacy activities are good for kids. "But successful learning isn't about worksheets, drills and knowing all the letters perfectly," says Laurion. "It is about knowing that words and books are fun and having the motivation to learn more." The better parents are able to instill that in their children, the more prepared their children will be for life.
Six early literacy skills
1. Vocabulary: knowing a variety of words
2. Print motivation: being excited about books
3. Print awareness: knowing letters and words hold meaning
4. Narrative skills: understanding oral and written stories
5. Letter knowledge: beginning to recognize and write letters
6. Phonological awareness: understanding different sounds make up words
Where to learn more
Madison Public Library
Central Library children's room: 266-6345
Infant and toddler book programs. Some require advance registration; call your local branch to find out more. Play literacy program: www.madisonpubliclibrary.org/youth/playliteracy.html
UW Extension, Family Living Programs
In Dane County: 608-224-3700
Early literacy workshops for parents and daycare providers.
Madison Metropolitan School District
"Launching Into Literacy" is its birth-5-year-old learning initiative, with a great Web site for parents and childcare providers.
Your child's preschool teachers
Preschool teachers are well versed in early literacy and often have materials for parents to learn more.