Many studies over the past decade have shown that the early years, from birth to age 2, form an indelible blueprint for your child's long-term learning success. Early behaviors and skills associated with successful reading development used to be described as readiness skills, but we now use the term preliteracy. This umbrella term covers far more than a child's ability to identify letters, numbers, or shapes. It includes important skills such as oral language and phonological and phonemic awareness (the awareness of sounds), as well as knowledge of the alphabet and an understanding of common print concepts (print goes from left to right and from up to down on a page).
By the time your child enters kindergarten, his teacher will expect him to have some preliteracy skills — especially the ability to carry on a brief conversation. She might also expect him to pay attention, and react, to stories; to know some letters of the alphabet and the sounds that these letters make, as well as some basic print concepts, such as knowing that printed words convey meaning. These are all skills derived from living in a language-and print-rich environment.
Encouraging Preliteracy Skills
Although knowing letters and sounds is important, perhaps the most significant factors in your child's reading success are his oral language skills. Language is the foundation of reading development and is strongly tied to your child's growth in reading and writing. Research shows that by about 5 years of age, most children have learned approximately 5,000 words. But those words aren't acquired through passive listening alone. Rather, language is supported through verbal interactions and experiences with others.
One of the most significant interactive learning opportunities comes at dinnertime, when families can try to take the time to talk about the daily events in their lives. Even if your child doesn't always chime in during family conversations yet, he does learn from what he hears. Like all parents, you've probably wondered, "Where did he learn that word?" Most likely it came from listening to you speak with other family members and friends!
Motivation to read and self-regulation (self-control) are also considered preliteracy skills. Children develop motivation to read by being read to often, learning firsthand the pleasures that reading can bring. Motivation also grows out of a child's interaction with the adults in his life and his observations of how print and language are used in everyday life.
Self-regulation involves your child's ability to control his behavior. Listening to a story or directions and sitting still when necessary are skills that will help your child become a capable learner in a classroom. If your child is an especially active learner, you can help him build self-regulation skills through a brief activity, such as listening to a very short story, and then, once you've captured his attention, slowly extending it over time. You'll find that self-regulation is more difficult for some children than for others, and is learned only with your patience and persistence.
While it's important to understand preliteracy skills and behaviors, you don't have to directly teach them. Instead, try to follow your child's lead. For example, interesting experiences like grocery shopping, bank visits, and trips to the veterinarian encourage children to talk. These informal occasions allow them to take risks using language, particularly in new and creative ways. They will play with familiar words, explore new meanings, and test uses of language in different settings. Sometimes they'll even invent new ways to use well-known words, and eventually begin to write about these events (through scribble writing, letters, and phonic spellings). All of this happens in interactive settings, with a devoted adult who listens and responds in positive ways to their language play.