We sometimes hear that the achievement that sets humans apart from all the other animals is our ability to talk. To be sure, articulating and combining—and understanding—different sounds is a magnificent accomplishment. But many animals 'talk' in whatever manner their brains and vocal mechanisms allow. A dog that barks at a stranger or growls at another dog is plainly communicating. And so is a cat that comes and looks at you accusingly if its dish is empty. Even a very primitive form of reading can be demonstrated: a white rat, for example, will learn to push a lever and get food when a circle is displayed and not to push the lever at the appearance of a square.
So where is the real cut between us and other animals? At writing. Man writes and thereby preserves history with a permanency not characteristic of oral history (even though it may not be any more accurate). We have had pictographs (paintings of a hunt scene on a cave wall) for at least 20,000 years and sophisticated ones (Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese calligraphy) for 5,000 years or so. But these achievements don't compare with that of the unknown genius living in ancient Phoenicia before 1,000 BCE who first figured out that you could choose a 'sign' (mark of a given shape) that stood for certain sounds and combine them into any words the mind might devise. This invention—the alphabet—spread like wildfire across the ancient world and greatly accelerated the process of linking one culture with other contemporary cultures and one period of history with those to follow.
But why devote so many words to writing in an article concerned with reading? Well, if you have this utterly magical way of recording ideas and events, you have to produce people who can interpret them—i.e., who can read. And, in the 3,000+ years that have transpired since the Phoenicians gave their gift to the world, the process of education has been largely concerned with helping children and adults learn to read and then to reverse the process and read to learn. The first part— learning to read—takes from birth to about the third or fourth grade and requires a lot of help from us. After that, the child is expected to handle the second part—reading to learn—pretty much alone. And it is interesting that, in the 4,000-year time span between the Phoenicians and today's classrooms and homes, we still don't know exactly how to do it. By far, there has been more educational research concerned with teaching children to read than with any other subject, and we still can't point to a single approach and say, 'This is the way.'
Early Childhood Contributions
The same is not true about the early childhood years between birth and 5 or 6. We know exactly what sorts of things need to be done to facilitate reading—reading readiness, we call it. (Reflect on how similar those words are—read-ing and read-iness.) And note that I wrote 'to facilitate readiness'; we don't just sit around and wait for readiness to appear. If we do that, we are penalizing our children and decreasing the probability that they will plunge into formal reading instruction and truly learn to 'read.' In order to get away from this implication that we should just sit around and wait for a magical signal that a child is 'ready' to read, most people now prefer the term 'early literacy' to describe these prerequisites to formal reading instruction.
I am going to mention several facilitators of early literacy, but they all boil down to one generalization: do everything you can to facilitate language development. Reading is speech that has been converted to a visual code, and it is difficult to decipher that code if you aren't fluent with the words it represents. Getting your child 'ready to read' is but a continuation of the process of helping that child learn to talk. The literacy trail runs from babbling all the way to reading, with talking being but a stop along the way. Let's review the recommendations for helping get your child from babbling to talking and see how they can be applied to continuing the trail from talking to reading. The three facilitators mentioned in one of my earlier articles on this site titled, 'From Babbling to Talking,' are responsivity, modeling, and stimulation. Let's see how they apply to the second leg of the journey.
Responsivity. Responding to children when they talk to us is a vital part of literacy training. Usually we can't wait until our children begin to talk, but then we sometimes wish they would shut up. Think of all the ''Why?' questions we get every day from a 4-year-old! After about the fifth, we're ready to say, 'Go play with your toys.' But it is very important to respond to such questions. We don't always have to answer them. In fact, it is helpful to refer them back to the child frequently—'Why do you think that happened?' And a 3-year-old will try to describe complex feelings. Help out with a verbal response and do everything possible to encourage such attempts. Then, very important, try to find a book that deals with the information, events, or feelings. Read the story and find an opening to make the comment that there are books that deal with that subject and that, one day, he or she will be able to read them. Another type of responsivity is to identify letters or words if you get a 'What's that?' while you are reading a story aloud. Even if you don't get a question, point out from time to time where you are reading.
Modeling. If you want your child to learn to read and to enjoy reading, you need to show that you are a reader. If all she or he ever sees you do is watch TV, the message will subtly be transmitted that reading is not very important to you. And I strongly believe in taking children regularly to the library. Having them see the full array of available books helps to communicate the message, 'Look what is available to you when you learn to read.' And, while you are there, be sure to check out a book for yourself.
Stimulation. Everything you do in being responsive to your child also provides stimulation. A critical component of reading readiness is vocabulary: you can't really read a word you don't know. So frequently introduce your child to new words. 'This piece of furniture is called a breakfront. Isn't that a strange word for a cabinet?' In such comments you not only introduce a possibly new word, but you also relate it to one likely to be already known. From time to time out of the blue, ask him or her what a word means that has just been used. Trips that are later discussed, television programs that are watched together, household shopping, introduction to the work of the adults in the household—all of these provide valuable stimulation that will facilitate literacy.
In that last paragraph I used a word that some of you may wonder why I hadn't used earlier—television. And here I'll add computers. I have nothing against TV for preschoolers (I do for babies and toddlers), provided it is used judiciously. And for me 'judiciously' means: not a lot, and with careful parental screening. Certainly there are some excellent programs which children benefit from and enjoy. There is research evidence that Sesame Street viewing helps children gain pre-literacy skills, but the effectiveness appears mainly with children who live in under-stimulating environments.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education
Parenting advice is given as a suggestion only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider.