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Ask the Experts: Family Literacy

Our Experts

Arlene Dale is a Family Literacy/Family Engagement Specialist at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).  Arlene is also a member/staff person on the Massachusetts Family Literacy Consortium (MFLC), working to expand and strengthen family literacy and support. Jennifer Whitehead has been the Head of Children's Services at the Clapp Memorial Library in Belchertown, MA for over 15 years.  Before becoming a Librarian, she taught in daycare centers and elementary schools.  Jennifer is the proud mom of two boys, ages 14 and 12. Jean Ciborowski Fahey PhD is an Early Literacy Research Specialist at Reach Out and Read as well as the Director at the South Shore Hospital Reading Partnership.

1. Life can be very busy and parents have competing demands. Sometimes it’s hard for parents to find the time to read with their children as much as they’d like to. How can a busy parent in a busy household find the time to encourage literacy in their children and enhance family literacy?

Jean: For newborns through preschool aged children, even five minutes of daily reading can impact their life.  This is because the first few years of brain growth offers a unique window of opportunity for parents to help their child’s development that never occurs in the same way again.  The young reading brain is needs frequent, loving, and playful interactions. The frequency of these interactions strengthens the connections in the brain that help children learn language. When it comes to helping our children build strong brain connections that make up the foundation for learning to read, a commitment to a daily reading routine makes a huge difference.  Daily reading can become a routine just like brushing your teeth. The good news is infants don’t mind if you read them a beautifully illustrated baby book or the back of the cereal box. What they want and need is to hear rhythms, sounds, and the tones of the voices of the important people around them. Toddlers and preschoolers on the other hand, want to hear their favorite books and sometimes over and over again. Yes, life can be very busy. Yet when we make a commitment to exposing our young children, every day, to books, stories and print, the pay off in kindergarten is huge.

Jennifer: After a long, busy day I can find it hard to settle down to sleep.  Reading helps me take my mind off my day and slowly adjusts my body so I can relax.  Just like adults, children feel the stress of a busy day.  When bedtime has a routine, it makes it easier for everyone.  Reading for a few minutes to a child at bedtime not only enhances family literacy, but helps a child relax and connect with his parent.  There are many fun bedtime stories but any picture book that you enjoy together will be great.  As your child learns to love this special time with you, it will be even easier to get them to bed, because they will see it as a time with you instead of a time by themselves.  At the beginning it may feel like extra time in an already busy day, but within a short time you will see that it will save you time and become one of your favorite times of the day.  Of course there will be nights when you can't find time for reading.  When this happens, there are a variety of activities you can do to build literacy.  Try reading to your child while they are taking a bath, listen to audio books while making dinner or riding in the car, or carry books in diaper bags to read while you are waiting for an appointment or traveling by public transportation. 

Arlene: Parents can play a powerful role in their child’s literacy development by building literacy activities into your already existing daily routines. It is important to remember literacy is not just about reading, literacy development can be talking, writing, singing, telling stories, and engaging in conversations. You may already be doing this and not even realize you are engaging your child in literacy activities! Here are some activities you can do to encourage and enhance literacy:

  • While driving or walking look for and talk about the signs you see; point out traffic signs, store signs, or billboards.  Try to make up games, like how many signs have the letter ‘m’? or How many times can you find the word ‘stop’?  or How many works start with the same letter as your child’s name?
  • Have conversations with your child as much as possible.  Ask questions that will result in a conversation between you and your child, use questions that begin with “how”, “why”, “tell me”, ask about their day, their favorite part, or a dream they had.
  • Sing songs together including rhyming songs; think about songs you sang as a child!
  • When preparing to go grocery shopping make your list of items together, at the store read labels or signs, have your child help you select the items.
  • Whether your child scribbles, finger paints, or sketches stick figures, art is a fun way to build literacy! Ask your child to tell you all about their piece of work.

2. Sometimes parents may feel uncomfortable reading aloud to their child for a variety of reasons. What are some activities, besides reading, that families can do to promote family literacy?  How can parents find resources to improve the literacy skills of adults in their home?

Jean: When I was a single Mom with a toddler, one activity we would do to promote family literacy was storytelling. Sometimes I would tell her a true story about when I was a little girl and other times, when I was feeling playful, I would make up a wild and funny story in the moment.  But the stories she liked best were stories I would tell about her! I would start with Once Upon a Time and proceed  to retell the ordinary events of the day; like waking up, eating Cheerios, taking her to child care, missing her all day, picking her up, seeing her smile, walking the dog, eating dinner and going to bed, The End.  Rather than reading, parents can use storytelling (especially personal storytelling) to build vocabulary and thinking skills. But more importantly, it creates special parent child closeness.
Another favorite activity of ours was what we called, The Language Book. My 4 year old loved the colorful labels from cereal boxes and other household products. Instead of throwing out the empty packaging, we cut the labels and pasted them, once or twice a week, in a giant scrap book. Then I would encourage her to write about what she saw.  A four-year old’s writing often combines scribbling and upside down and backwards letters. So once she had finished her writing I would ask her to read it to me and watch me as I transcribed her exact words onto a blank space on the scrapbook’s page near the label. This activity inspires creative language in children as they watch their ‘talk written down.’ You will be surprised how much language is generated.  Each week we would add another label/story and I watched in amazement how her written and spoken quickly language expanded over time.

Caregivers and parents can find resources to improve their literacy skills at local libraries, the Massachusetts Family Literacy Consortium (www.doe.mass.edu/familylit) and the Massachusetts Literacy Foundation. (www.massliteracy.org). Also, in Massachusetts, there is a strong Adult Basic Education program for undereducated and immigrant adult populations. This is extremely important because, a study of over 4,000 Los Angeles families showed that one way to improve young children’s academic scores was to boost the literacy levels of the mothers and other caregivers! 

Jennifer: Audio books have come a long way. There are books on CD for all ages and you can get them free from a public library.  Many come as a kit with both the book and CD, so parents can look along with their children in their lap.  Libraries also carry CDRoms with Living Books and some even have free databases, such as Tumblebooks, that allow you to interact with a book on your computer at home.  With audio books, not only will the child enjoy the stories but you can learn techniques for reading to your child.

If you live in a dual language household, many children’s books are becoming available in two languages! Each page will have the words written in, for example, Spanish and English. Building reading skills and a love for stories can happen with any book. Beautiful, creative wordless pictures books can help parents tell a story through the pictures of the book, while also helping children learn how to turn pages, read left to right, comprehend and predict what will happen next! Ask a librarian to help you find books to help you feel more comfortable reading to your child; they might be able to share some useful strategies too! Also, try turning on the Closed Caption feature on your television to promote letter and word recognition.  Research has shown in countries like Sweden, children learn to read a year earlier than American children because of their exposure to printed word while hearing the word.

Arlene: If a parent feels uncomfortable reading aloud to their child, they can use their imagination to make up a story, in their own language, that goes with the pictures in any book! Ask your librarian for a list of wordless picture books. Literacy can take many shapes and forms: talking, writing, singing, telling stories, working with numbers, shapes and building things, drawing, using rhymes.  Even activities like cooking can help promote literacy, with your child, you can read the recipe, count, measure, and then enjoy a delicious treat! The key is to spend time with your child. Make it easy for yourself and have fun!

The video “Storytime: How to Share Books with Your Child”, developed by Raising a Reader Massachusetts, can give you some tips on reading to children (http://tinyurl.com/RaisingaReaderMA-StoryTime)

If adults in your home are looking to improve their literacy skills, the Massachusetts Adult Literacy Hotline (1800-447-8844) provides referrals to adult education programs that offer one-on-one tutoring, small-group or classroom instruction to adult learners.  Also, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) funds free adult education programs across the state through its Adult & Community Learning Services Unit.  If an adult has a high school diploma but lacks the skills expected of a high school graduate, they are still eligible for services. To locate programs funded by DESE one can either call the hotline or go to the Massachusetts Adult Basic Education Directory which lists programs by city and agency: http://acls.doemass.org

3. Children’s books can be expensive.  How can parents with limited budgets access a good selection of materials to encourage a love of reading and help their children learn?

Jean: When my daughter turned 3, she scratched out her name on her very first library card. We visited the library often and encouraged her grandparents to do the same when she visited them weekly. We asked friends and family to consider books as gifts for her birthday and holiday presents. We were happy to receive all kinds of books that now give us happy memories of reading together  (Animals, Animals, poetry by Eric Carle; and all the wonderfully silly Dr. Seuss). We noticed she enjoyed collecting books so we gave her the lowest book shelf in the living room to store her very own books.

We also borrowed dozens of audio books from our local library. Audio books are wonderful ways for the child to understand the mood of the story. She and I listened together to the clip clop of the horse’s feet and the sounds of the stormy wind and rain. She waited for the signal tone to turn each page; and although she was too young to read, she could match the narration of the story to the pictures on the page.

Finally, the national pediatric health care system is interested in distributing free and new books to children starting at 6 months and through age 5. If your child is among the thousands of Massachusetts children who visit a Read Out and Read doctor,  they will receive a new and free book every time they have a  check up and parents will receive coaching about reading aloud (see: www.reachoutandread.org.).

Jennifer: Libraries are free and offer more than just books; music, DVDs, magazines, computers, programs, and often passes to museums!  It is wonderful to own some of your books, too.  Ask for them as gifts; stop by tag sales and library book sales.  Some school systems offer Scholastic book clubs where there are usually books for under a dollar or two. 

Also, during the summer months, libraries and bookstores often sponsor Summer Reading Programs; many will offer a free book when your child completes the program.  Once you have a small collection of your own, organize book swaps with neighbors and friends.

Arlene: We are very fortunate to have public libraries that provide a whole range of FREE materials and resources for families.  Make regular trips to the library with your children and make it a fun learning experience.  It is wonderful for children to see there are so many books available to them on every subject under the sun!  Take out books for yourself as well. You are a model for your child and your actions send a message to children that reading is fun and special. 
Also, remember that libraries often conduct storytelling hours, sing-a-longs and other fun activities.  Some libraries even offer take home kits/book bags to borrow.  These usually include a book and a fun literacy related activity with materials and instructions for parents to do with their child at home! And if you have access to a computer, there are some websites which provide books that can be read online.

4. With a growing population of bilingual families, with English as their second language, how can parents help their child develop literacy skills in both English and their native language?  How can parents raise their child to be bilingual and a strong reader?

Jean: To raise a child bilingual is to raise a child with an extra brain benefit. The young brain is very capable of learning more than one language and then switching from one to the other. As a result, early bilingualism also children learn in other domains. Parents are encouraged to read, tell stories and converse with their children in their home language. As children enter kindergarten, it makes a difference when all teachers, especially monolingual early education teachers adopt specific strategies to support the home language. And as bilingual children participate in dual language learning, all children benefit, including native English speakers!  When the first language is maintained in the home and supported by early childhood educators in the classroom, bilingual children can become proficient in both languages.

Visit the following websites for more ways to promote literacy:

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