Here are 4 powerful ways reading with children prepares them to enter school.
1. Phonological Awareness
All of the talk about new state standards can make it seem like we expect kids to be reading War and Peace in kindergarten. Although kindergarten is more skill-intensive than it was 30 years ago, educators still teach reading from the foundation up, focusing on letter sounds and phonological awareness.
Sharing books is a great time to practice identifying letters of the alphabet and their sounds. Parents can make it into a game by picking letters and racing to see who can find their letter first.
Parents also can help children practice these important skills by reciting nursery rhymes, singing songs (even that Frozen song you can’t get out of your head!) and telling stories — all fun ways to build sound recognition.
2. Making Connections
Anyone who has heard a child say, “I’m hopping just like the bunny in our book!” has witnessed synapses firing and connections being built in the brain. Each time a connection is made, the child’s brain grows stronger, and the rate of development is astounding in the early years. According to UNICEF’s panel of neuroscientists, giving children the opportunities to make these connections matters most: “Because the brain is a social organ, its development is dependent on social interactions. The brain needs and relies on experience.”
Each time parents read a book to their child, they provide an opportunity for the child to make connections to her own life and the world around her. Parents and caregivers can enhance reading experiences by asking questions, such as “What do you think the mama bunny is going to do next?” or “Have you ever felt scared like the baby bunny was scared?” These interactions will reinforce knowledge and activate the child’s higher-order thinking skills.
3. Prior Knowledge
As children make connections between books and their own lives, they are building a foundation, called schema or prior knowledge, which will be used for future learning. Good readers automatically call on their prior knowledge to help them put what they are reading into context and better comprehend new material. When children begin school, they are taught to activate their prior knowledge as an independent reading strategy, but parents can give them a head start by practicing the strategy as they share books at home.
Teaching a child to activate his prior knowledge begins with modeling how to make connections through think-alouds. As the caregiver reads, he can express the connections he is making from the text to himself, to the world around him and to other texts he has read. There are ample opportunities for a caregiver to model this behavior as he shares books with his child. For instance, he might stop and say, “This is a silly dog in this book. He reminds me of my dog when I was little. His name was Buster. He liked to play, too, and he followed me everywhere.” As the child becomes more verbal, she will follow her caregivers’ example by expressing her own connections to the book. This ability to activate prior knowledge will be a key asset when the child learns to read.
Lots of fun books teach early math concepts, from counting to shapes to patterns (Stuart J. Murphy’s MathStart series is a favorite in my house). But books don’t have to be specifically about math to teach basic math skills. Children’s books have wonderful illustrations that can be used to teach colors and categorizing (“Let’s find all the red things on this page!”). They can also offer opportunities to discuss size relationships (Look at the big bird. This bird is smaller. He is a small bird.), shapes (“What shape is the sun? Can you find any other circles?”) and numbers (“Let’s count the monkeys!”).