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Earlier Literacy Skills Are Easy!


9 ways to boost your child’s early literacy skills without a book in sight

Did you know that preparing your preschooler to read can be easy, unplanned, and happen on the go? Here are 9 easy ideas that don’t require any reading or writing.

By Adizah Eghan

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of early literacy? For most people, it’s books. True, storybook reading with little ones increases the likelihood that children will read on their own. It also strengthens family ties and promotes overall literacy. But it’s not the only way. In fact, there are other things you need to do to help your child read. Talking is one of the simplest – and best. Children need to hear about 21,000 words per day to develop their vocabulary in a way that sets them up for future success. Researchers from the University of Kansas found that children’s language skills at age 3 predict their language skills at age 9 or 10. Good language and reading skills at age 9 in turn increase your child’s chances of completing both high school and college.

21,000 words a day?

Curious how you’ll squeeze 21,000 words into a single day (let alone every day)? It’s easier than you think. Break it down, and it’s about 2,000 words in an hour — that’s far from a constant stream of chatter. Put another way, it’s 15 minutes of so-called “rich conversation” during a trip to the park. This basically means asking your child open-ended questions (questions where the answer cannot be yes or no), and discussing what you’re seeing and doing. If your little one doesn’t say much, that’s okay. Parents are encouraged to narrate their day, verbalizing things in a way that may get kids talking – and definitely keeps them listening. Even if it feels like you are talking to yourself, your kids are listening. Narrate what you do and see. Still sound like a lot? There are plenty of out-of-the-box activities that are relatively easy to do with your child – without picking up a book.

1. Play with hi & good-bye.

Teach your child different ways to say hello and goodbye – in English and other languages (good morning, what’s up, hi, how are you doing, buenos dias, allo, konnichiwa, zao, aloha, good-bye, ciao, see you later, buh-bye, adios, later alligator, hasta lluego, bai bai la). Try a new phrase every day. The physical act of waving helps children learn these expressive statements at an early age. Not comfortable speaking other languages? Try stringing words together to make a sentence: Hello. Hello Monica. Hello Monica with…Hello Monica with the big pretty eyes.

2. Play storyteller and listener.

Use stories to introduce new words your child might not encounter in everyday conversations – like the names of planets, flowers, or animals. If your child is a little older, you can switch off who is telling the story. Sharing made-up stories is great for eye-to-eye conversation. Be sure to add questions while telling a story (e.g. What do you think the boy should do?). This gives your little one a chance to be creative and practice his comprehension skills. The bonding time will help your child integrate the emotional and verbal side of his brain, learn language faster, and feel more.

3. Play an audiobook.

First tip: hit pause regularly! Take advantage of all those audiobooks, podcasts, movies, TV shows, and apps made for kids. Every interaction has the potential to be educational, as long as it develops your child’s mind in some way. But remember, screen time is up to you, so if you choose to let your child use technology, make the most of it. Watch programs and listen to audiobooks or podcasts together – and make it a practice to stop the story along the way to share your reactions. Was that surprising? Funny? Use new words and ask your child to describe her reactions, too. At the end, talk about what happened in the story, how it ended, and how it could’ve ended differently. Try One More Story, an online library of children’s audiobooks set to music. Sprout or PBS kids are great channels for preschoolers.

4. Run errands together.

Go grocery shopping or do laundry together. Start off by creating your grocery list and asking your child what might belong on the list. At the store, ask plenty of questions, like, “Where do you think we’ll find the milk?” Let your child touch the rough outer layer of a pineapple and compare it to the smooth skin of an apple and ask, “How do these feel different?” If you are doing laundry, talk about separating the laundry into groups by color; “Whites go in this pile – can you show me something else that is white?” The jeans go in his pile — can you find your jeans for me?”

5. Have dinner discussions.

Include your little one in dinnertime table conversations, family gatherings, and family talks. Family time is great for rich conversations (as long as they are age appropriate!). Your little one can keep in touch with family members who live far away using video chat or by talking on the phone — after dinner. It may not be as great as face-to-face conversation, but it’s conversation.

6. Sing!

Listen to your favorite songs and nursery rhymes. Whether it’s the ABCs, T-Swift, or TV jingles, your child is developing an ear for different words and sounds. There’s a plethora of age-appropriate rhyming games and songs you may remember from childhood — “This little piggy,” “Itsy bitsy spider, “ “I’m a little teapot,” “The wheels on the bus,” and “Pat-a-cake”— that you can play to teach your child rhyming, alliteration, and sound matching.

7. Play make-believe.

Reading is an abstract activity that requires children to imagine a story out of shapes on a page. The more imagination your child uses, the better. Games like follow the leader, dress up, and make believe (with dolls or household items) build social and emotional skills that help your child set goals, stay on task, and avoid distraction. Model pretending by saying things like, “Let’s pretend we’re on a pirate ship” or “Now you be the mommy.” As your child grows older, continue to add more complex and exciting twists.

8. Play I Spy.

To expose your child to as many words as possible in a short time, this game really delivers. I Spy is a super-simple knowledge-building game to play on a walk, in line, or on your way somewhere. As your child grows more comfortable identifying objects, experiment with extending your little one’s brief observations into grammatically mature statements. For instance, your 3-year-old may win saying, “The dog!” But up the ante by getting your 5-year-old to win with a full sentence, such as, “The black dog on the porch across the street.”

9. Ask your child open ended questions.

Yes or no questions fail to promote language development. If your child points to something, resist the urge to give it to him because you know he wants it. Let her use her words. When your young child says, “Wah wah?” and points you say, “Oh you want the water?” as you hand him the water. Then, intentionally say, “Here’s your water” or “Water” and allow them to repeat, “Water.” Not “Here’s your wah wah.”

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