The classroom is alive with a steady hum of 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds at their interactive best. Yvette, the teacher, scans her room and thinks, "This is what it's all about! This is why I love to teach! There's Adam at the writing center telling Jasmine about his drawing while she's working on getting her capital 3 just right. The group on the rug is huddled together over our new Big Book. I guess Althea and Shane invited Lucas to work with them in the block corner because the new sign reads: SV FR ALTHEA SHANE ND LUCAS."

Literacy is a priority in Yvette's classroom. The evidence is the ease and involvement of her children as they make connections with each other and with the materials she has carefully prepared for them. Yvette understands that young children are not developmentally ready to sit still and focus on tasks imposed on them. Bringing the interconnected skills of listening, speaking, writing, and reading into the curriculum is an exciting and daunting challenge for us all.

Building Bonds for Literacy Learning

We are constantly suggesting to parents that the best way for them to foster reading is to snuggle up with their children and read to them. From this vantage point, supported by close bonds with an adult, the child becomes interested in books, hooked on stories, and familiar with the printed word in its many different forms.

But how does a busy teacher, who doesn't always have the time to read one-on-one with each child in her program, establish these bonds that promote literacy?

  • To begin, a teacher can:
  • Structure the classroom so that conversation between children is encouraged.
  • Make time for group activities that help children feel part of a community.
  • Create a classroom environment that feels like a "trusting space," similar to the ease and comfort children feel in the cozy lap of a parent.
  • Carefully choose books, writing and drawing materials, and literacy-based activities that will hold children's interest, allowing them to make meaningful connections. (See box, The Name Game, page 41.)

Careful planning lays the foundation for the bonds that fuel enthusiasm for listening and language development and for emergent reading and writing. Throughout the teacher's preparation process, two key elements help to create strong bonds that foster early literacy: the use of books and opportunities for conversation.

Bonding Through Books

Watch a young child completely absorbed in "reading" a book and you'll see a powerful bond form between the child and the book. Watch two children share a book and you'll see the book become a catalyst for a connection between the two children. Watch a teacher read a story to a group of children and you'll see bonds form within the group. There's no question about it-books build bonds that last and last.

Connecting Through Picture Books

For most children, picture books will be their first experience with books. Here are some ways you can pique children's interest in connecting with a book-and with one another:

  • Attractively display picture books on a bookrack or shelf, enticing the young browser to choose a cover that reflects a personal interest, displays an unusual image, or stands out in an attractive combination of colors.
  • Place picture books in learning centers where small groups of children gather. You could have books about building or transportation in the block area, books about magnets or hermit crabs as part of your science-center display, books about weather or the changing seasons near the meeting rug, and so on.
  • At story time, share picture books that meet the needs of individuals or the group. Teachers can read about timely events (such as a new baby in the house), choose a story about rain (reflecting the sudden storm that sent the class scurrying indoors during outside time), or follow Frog and Toad's volatile friendship. Children appreciate teachers' efforts to introduce books that speak to their personal concerns and interests.
  • Be sure to include in your classroom library a collection of picture and storybooks that reflect the differences in ethnicity and cultural heritage of the children in your group.

In a book-rich environment, children learn to connect with books as indispensable and meaningful elements in their lives, containing the joys of story and the satisfaction of new information.

Bonding With Big Books

Big Books have the potential to help create a classroom community while encouraging literacy learing. They allow for close investigation of words, letters, and sounds by the whole group. The teacher reads aloud with dramatic flair while the class joins in, beginning readers swept along with the more advanced as all anticipate the next rhyming word. Favorite Big Books are asked for again and again, often spread out on the floor by groups of children who help each other remember the rhymes and decipher the text of the story.

"Make Your Own" Books

Stories children choose to create will give you invaluable insight into their thoughts, interests, and concerns and allow you to connect with them in evermore-meaningful ways. The writing-and-drawing center is an ideal place to encourage children's own bookmaking. Presenting them with folded and stapled drawing paper is an open invitation to "make your own book." The way a 3-year-old puts a few marks on each page will tell a lot about his understanding of the way a book "works." Fours and lives will have different approaches, depending on their style and comfort level. Some will make the pictures first, then ask an adult to write the text, while others will have the story already in mind and ask the teacher to write the words first (illustrations to follow! ). Still others will draw the story, carefully sequenced on each page, and write a word or two, usually with invented spelling, to indicate the text.

Teacher-Made Books

Teacher-made books are a wonderful way to foster group communication and information sharing. You can create whole-class books around any topic, asking children to contribute drawings or dictated pages for the project. For example, a visit to an apple orchard might inspire a popular October book, and a When I Was a Baby book, including photos from family albums, provides opportunities for children to share their precious beginnings with one another.

Books on Tape

Listening to books on tape and following along with the pictures enables children to connect to a book no matter what their level of emergent reading ability. The very young will probably try to match the story with the pictures. For fours and fiver, there are opportunities to build skills as they turn the pages and search for recurring words. Books on tape also allow children to share a book together when more than one set of headphones is available.

Bonding Through Conversation

Conversation is the core of that "hum" you hear in your classroom every day. It's what happens when children engage each other one-on-one, in small groups, or as part of a larger discussion. Conversation is not a "free-for-all" but a sound that indicates speaking and listening in action, one of the cornerstones of literacy development. It's the sound of a teacher intent on talking with an individual child or a group of children as she responds to their ideas.

Teacher-Child Chat

Children know when teachers are genuinely interested in what they say, do, and think. Teachers show that they are attending to children by:

  • positioning themselves at the child's eye level
  • speaking respectfully
  • responding directly to their words and ideas

When a teacher comments on the vibrant colors in a painting, the intricacy of a block building, or the careful lettering of a name, the child knows that it is not empty praise. This is where trust and honest interchange between teacher and child begin. Every teacher has her own special way of talking with children. Finding a few moments to ask a question, read a story, or write down a child's idea has immense impact. Genuine conversation with a child leads to further questions and opens avenues for endless learning possibilities.

Group Talk

When we think about group times, we tend to target opening meeting times (in which the schedule, calendar, and weather are discussed), "sharing" or "show and tell," and read-aloud or story times. These are important, predictable occasions for the class to connect as they listen, think, and make contributions. However, real conversation implies something beyond the predictable. It means finding out what children want to know about and how to further their understanding. Projects and group investigations provide teachers with a treasure trove of conversational possibilities and literacy connections.

Child to Child

When your classroom is set up with learning centers that engage young children's interests, it allows you to listen as they converse with one another. Listen to two children talking about their plans for a garage that they're building in the block area. Enjoy the excited conversation preschoolers participate in as they pair up to be musician partners in your music center Ideas are being exchanged, feelings are being shared, and problems are being solved!

The dramatic-play area is one area of the classroom where several conversations may be going on at once. Although the talk going on here may seem like an unconnected stream of monologues and dialogues, closer listening reveals that children are actually operating on a number of different levels. Since they are often dealing with more than one theme at a time, they change and negotiate roles ("I'll be the baby now, you be the puppy") or agree to be multiple characters to accommodate a classmate's need for a more "elaborate production." These dramatic players are practicing the art of conversation.

Books and conversation are rich entries into literacy development. Teachers of young children need never apologize for allowing children to speak openly, to "hum" as they go about their work and play. This hum, this sound of children's engagement, is the basis of early literacy, the sign of a classroom where teachers can confidently enjoy the importance and the rewards of their profession.

Click here to view and download the Developmental Chart Literacy Development Age by Age (PDF)

This article originally appeared in the October, 2000 issue of Early Childhood Today.