A Gift for a Lifetime


Some families have a tradition of celebrating three-gift Christmases. In Miss Anastasia’s household, instead of frankincense, myrrh, and gold or a pile of toys, everyone gets 1) something they want, 2) something they need, and most importantly to Miss Anastasia, 3) something to read.
In our technology-driven information age, children need more than ever to be strong readers and writers. Studies show that children with strong literacy skills have a better chance at success in formal education. As adults, they will have better jobs, earn more money and be more mentally and physically healthy than they would be with weak literacy skills.
Are you helping your child become literate, or are you leaving it up to her and her school? If you’re leaving it up to her and her school, you could be placing her at a lifelong disadvantage.
You may never have given a single thought to teaching as a career, but if you’re a parent, you’re a teacher. Your child’s first. Studies show that a child’s immediate family has more influence on her development than her extended family, community, or society. The way you interact with your child has more impact on her development than your income, occupation, education, or migration history.
Fortunately, you don’t have to prepare lectures or lesson plans to be a good pre-reading/reading teacher. Simply talking to your child is teaching him literacy skills. It’s a pre-reading activity, one that lays the groundwork for later literacy. Miss Anastasia, a strong proponent of the Thirty Million Words Initiative, notes, “The first 3 years of life is the most critical stage in brain development. By age 3, children need to have heard thirty million words from a human. Not from a TV, not from a computer, not from a record, but from a human.” According to the Thirty Million Words Initiative, children who hear fewer than thirty million words by the time they’re three have a language deficit. The greater the gap, the greater the deficit.
Miss Anastasia tells parents, “When you’re on the phone instead of talking to your child, you’re not contributing toward those 30 million words. Put the phone away and interact with them.”
Kelly Daus, Program Manager at San Antonio Youth Literacy agrees. Parent-talk is critical to children’s vocabulary development. “When you’re at the grocery store or in the car, point things out to them and name those things. Instead of saying to a child, ‘Can you get me that?’, use the actual word for the object to help develop vocabulary.” Say, “Can you get me that red plastic cup?”
Miss Anastasia explains, “Something as simple as reading the signs on the produce and packages in the grocery store and talking about products and prices is a pre-reading activity.”
Your home environment impacts your child’s literacy development too. A child who is surrounded by books and works of art has an advantage over a child who has none or just a few. A tight budget is no reason not to have these valuable items in your home. Terri Sinclair, a professor of Early Childhood Studies, suggests taking your children to the library and borrowing books. “You can also buy inexpensive books at garage sales, thrift stores, library sales, and even online,” she says. You can find inexpensive posters that are replicas of great works of art at those places as well.
In addition to owning books and magazines, your reading behavior can affect your child’s. A house full of books teaches one lesson. A house with books and parents who are regular readers teaches another. Mary Flannigan, Director of Partnerships and Communication at San Antonio Youth Literacy says that if you’re reading something on your phone or tablet, tell your child, “I’m reading.”
You can do many other things that develop literacy skills. But, Flannigan, says, “Make it a fun, enjoyable experience.”
Sinclair advises, “Do not make learning how to read too structured – no drilling with flash cards. Find fun ways for children to learn the alphabet – play hide and go seek with magnetic letters, write letters in the mud with a stick or form letters with them using Playdough.”
However, the absolute best way to help your child learn about language, reading and writing is to read to her. Miss Anastasia, Daus, Flannigan and Sinclair all urge parents to read to their children. And to start early. In a study titled “The Sooner, the Better: Early Reading to Children” published in October, 2016, the authors reported that their findings indicate that reading to an infant before six months of age helps with language development.
Other studies show that language learning begins in the womb. Miss Anastasia wholeheartedly agrees. Expectant mothers have brought their young children to her story time, and when the new baby is born, he comes to story time, too. Miss Anastasia stated emphatically, “They know me. They turn to me when I start talking. They know my voice.”
Sinclair says about reading to babies, “Of course you need to have infant- appropriate books and know many times you will just talk about the pictures.” She recommends following the baby’s lead. “Sometimes it will be a really quick run-through and at others the child will want to read it over and over again.”
Reading to children helps develop their vocabularies because the words in books are higher level than everyday vocabulary. In addition, Sinclair explains that when kids are read to they learn about story structure and that we read from left to right and top to bottom, that we read words and look at pictures, and that sentences are made up of words. “They also gather alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness skills (the ability to rhyme, the ability to distinguish between sounds) and most importantly, they see that reading is an enjoyable activity.” But don’t limit yourself to books. You can read any- and everything to your child. Miss Anastasia suggests the recipe you’re preparing. Daus mentioned cereal boxes and signs.
Miss Anastasia encourages parents who aren’t used to reading aloud to just do it. “Like anything, the more you do it, the more comfortable you are. Children are not critics. Even if you’re stumbling over words, even if English isn’t your first language, it’s the connection that’s important. When they grow up they’re not going to say, ‘You know, the way you read Where the Wild Things Are was really lame.’ ”
“Even if parents lack strong reading skills, they can be good models for reading,” Daus says.
Whether your children’s Christmas shopping list has three items on it or 300, Flannigan says, “Absolutely give books as gifts.”
Daus adds, “By giving books, you’re sending the message that books are valuable and something to get excited about.” Turning your kids on to reading at a very early age may be the best gift you could ever give them. It is one that will last a lifetime.

Article written by By Margarita McAuliffe.


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