Every parent across the globe (and especially in South Asian countries like India & China) is obsessed with their child being ahead of the curve in school. While most parents and schools fancy early literacy skills, many of them lack a scientific understanding of this. Here is my humble attempt at simplifying them. My obsession with literacy skills started more than a decade ago. I was working as a risk consultant at the top consulting firm in the USA. I started volunteering at Reading Partners in a public school in my neighbourhood during my free time. Reading partners was a program that depended on volunteers like me to help students lagging behind in their class due to their literacy skills. This was the first time I worked with a 5-year-old boy called Jose. I always knew I would teach, however I thought I would teach as a college professor in a University some day as I could only relate to adults. My naïve self at that time thought I was over qualified to teach kindergarteners and boy was I wrong. After a few weeks Jose and I became good friends as I read to him and encouraged him to read and answer questions. As his literacy skills improved, he became more confident and started performing better not only in English but math, science and all subjects as the content was all in the English language. This is what inspired me to leave an extremely lucrative career in corporate consulting to become an educator and that too in early years!
What are literacy skills?
Literacy skills are the ability to read and write. Unfortunately, most parents and schools only focus on the ability to read the sounds phonetically and write the patterns of the alphabets and words. We don’t focus enough on comprehension and creative writing. Most school’s curriculum is so content heavy and deadline focussed that we don’t have time to spare for reading comprehension and writing. To succeed in life what we need is good communication and this only comes with enough opportunities to read and write. Eventually this leads to analysing the knowledge from reading and then effectively communicating your thoughts.
Milestones for Literacy Skills
As early as 2-4 months children start recognising simple bold and bright pictures.
8-12 months children start pointing to pictures and try to turn pages or give you the favourite book to read to them again and again.
2 -3 year old will have a favourite book and try to tell you the story in their own words. They will use chalk, crayon or paint to do free unrestricted doodles and scribbling.
3-4 year old will narrate a book to you that he has memorised using pictures and words as cues. Can do controlled scribbling and pattern writing.
4-5 year old will be able to read small words and sentences independently. They are able to write the alphabet and a few words.
5-6 year old can read level one books with very simple sentences. They still enjoy you reading aloud to them. They can clearly narrate a story and understand when the next part or section starts. They have much more control of their fine motor skill and are able to control a pencil to write within a defined space neatly.
Who is responsible for these skills?
A child spends only 20-25% of their time in preschool and 75-80% of their time at home. While it is important for schools to develop the literacy skills, it is only possible with the joint effort of the parents. In the early years it is a combination of child, teacher, parent and community working together.
Why do most children not want to read and prefer screens instead? Here are the reasons and solutions with a keyword READERS to help your child develop early literacy skills
R – Role model. Nothing works better than role modelling. Fix a time daily and read with your child.
E – Explain new words and vocabulary. Introducing one new word per story or one word daily is more than enough new vocabulary to your child.
A – Alphabets and their sounds. Children should be exposed to the alphabet and the sounds that are made by the alphabet
D – Direct talk to your child. Talk a lot, about your feelings, what you are doing, why and how you are doing it. A child may not have all the vocabulary and words just yet but they are processing every word you say. They are even understanding the accent you speak.
E – Encourage every attempt of reading and writing. Don’t focus on perfection. The moment the child hears no, not like this or that they are always getting it wrong they will feel embarrassed and not want to try further. Anything you do for the first time is never perfect so they need lots of positive encouragement.
R – Reading programs that make it simple and easy for the child. English is a complex language for a child learning to read. There are so many letters that make multiple sounds for example the letter c – it make c sound in cake, s sound in face, sh sound in ocean. When a child cannot figure this out on his own he loses interest. The Nardagani reading program that I am currently researching and doing a pilot batches on students, teaches reading to children who are 5-6 years upto adults in just 15 lessons of 1 hour each. It works on symbols below the words so a child doesn’t need to follow all these rules and exceptions. They pronounce the words based on symbols. There are 8 storybooks that are coded and by the time finishes these 8 books they can read any regular book. It is like training wheels on a bicycle.
S – success only comes with continuity. This means you have to make it a habit and reading should be like breathing. You have to do it everyday and eventually you do it because it becomes a part of your life you can’t give up. You gain knowledge from centuries of research and across the Globe if books are your best friends.
Literacy in multiple languages is important. We focus so much on English and we feel other Indian languages are inferior or less important. Children can learn upto 6 languages at the same time in the first six years provided they are exposed to them. They will not get confused. They will be able to speak all the languages fluently as they keep getting older. My children speak multiple languages to the extent that when speaking to our house help they speak English with a Bengali accent (not because they are learning it wrong but because they feel she will not understand the right accent).
The efforts that I made to my own children by developing their literacy skills in the early years is really paying up now. My 8-year-old finishes a 200-page book in one evening. She is never bored. She doesn’t go anywhere without a book and she always has a story to tell us. The same is true for the graduates of our preschool Toddlers Nursery as some of them read books above their grade level. They read with comprehension and in primary school they are independent in school as they can read and learn without much adult involvement at home.