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The Importance of Family Support for Beginning Readers

How good school-home partnerships strengthen literacy.

Key points

  • Children find learning to read easier when it is reinforced at home as well as at school.
  • Making reading part of your relationship with a child can help turn it from an obligation into a joy.
  • Take any opportunity to strengthen a child's working memory by reading together in different contexts with different people.
Steffen Eckart/Pixabay
Source: Steffen Eckart/Pixabay

As soon as the local library re-opened, Sam and his grandmother resumed the "Library Wednesdays" routine they had started just before his second birthday. She was an avid reader, and Sam was always “borrowing” (or hiding) her books. To get Sam some of his own books, his grandmother took him to the public library.

They started with picture books, bringing favorites home for two years, and then the pandemic hit. That did not, however, end "Library Wednesdays." Sam’s grandmother decided she and Sam should make their own picture books. They fell into the habit of numbering their handmade books (which were drawings with labels) because when she asked Sam what happens next, it led naturally to a sequel.

As Sam encountered the pre-literacy curriculum in pre-K, he didn’t miss a beat. His grandmother had built a platform with him strong enough to firmly launch his reading appetite and ability. She had made reading a part of their relationship, not just something she felt obligated to do. By asking that wonderful “What happens next?” question, she was setting the stage for dialogic reading—terrific training for Sam’s working memory.

Working memory is the holding of a sound or thought just long enough to begin integrating it into what happens next, whether it is a subsequent syllable or an idea that completes a thought. It is sometimes called the "learning engine" because of its ability to pull the train of thought down the track of learning from a dead stop to steady forward progress that helps it stick in one’s memory. Whether it’s the sound of a vowel or the color of a car, this particular brain capacity is strengthened by the school-home reinforcement of reading together in different contexts with different people. Grandmothers typically have more one-on-one time available than most parents or teachers, but any family member or close friend can be part of this foundation building.

Here are four activities for building a good home-centered system that can support the reading experiences children are having in pre-school and kindergarten:

1. On a whiteboard (pre-Ks love dry erase!), copy simple family names, including theirs.

Do not worry if they are upside down, backward, or hieroglyphic in nature. It’s the use of writing and reading to aid in communication that you’re after, not penmanship. That comes later, if at all.

2. When you are outside together, help your child not to be the "last child in the woods."

Grab a stick and together draw letters in the dirt. Help them sound it out, and then engage that working memory by asking which other words start with that letter. Then let it go when it stops being fun.

3. Give them a chance to "read" a page or two to you, even with picture books.

Upside-down pages are OK to start. It’s the sharing that matters, not the vocabulary (just yet). Go easy on the correcting at this stage.

4. Ask for their help in making a shopping list.

Symbols, pictures, and hieroglyphics are all fine. It’s connecting their writing and reading efforts to relationships that matter to them, and most kids love being helpful to the people they love. Let them cross off the items, too. That is another working memory building block.

Throughout my consulting role at The Goddard School over the years, I have shared the message that early literacy isn’t taught through a specific, one-size-fits-all formal curriculum. It occurs whenever particular children are talking—and listening—to their caregivers. Even the fetus listens from the moment its inner ear is formed—and it never stops. And teachers never stop appreciating that parents belong to their tag-team for beginning readers.

More from Kyle D. Pruett M.D.
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