Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Developing a Literate Home Environment

It is back to school time around the country and with children returning to school, teachers are also gearing up for that great American tradition – Back-to-School Night. One question that always popped up in my Back-to-School Nights over the years was, “How can I help my child in reading and writing?" 

Over time, I developed a list to share with parents of things they could do at home. I share it below. Please feel free to copy and paste and use the list as you wish for your own Back-to-School Night. If you do use it as a printed list, I would appreciate it if you would state that this list was adapted from my new book, A Parent’s Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century.

Developing a Literate Home Environment

Below I list some of the attributes of a literate home environment. This list comes with a caution, however. Not all of these literacy practices fit seamlessly into all families and all cultures. For example, Shirley Brice Heath (1983) found that the way white middle-class family literacy practices with their children differed greatly from African American family interactions. Because the white middle-class family interactions hued more closely to instruction that took place in school, white middle-class students tended to do better in school. This observation does not mean that African American literacy practices are inferior, it means that school instructional practice needs to be more inclusive and more able to build on the literacy strengths that children of all different backgrounds bring to school. The list below, then, is suggestive and not definitive and if some of these are absent in some home environments it does not mean that a rich literacy environment does not exist.

·         Reading is practiced by the adults in the home – When children see that the adults closest to them read, they learn that reading is an important human activity worthy of emulation. It makes little difference what the reading material is, books, magazines, newspapers, in print or digital, as long as children see those around them reading. Adults can drive home the value of the activity by stopping to read something aloud that they found interesting or remarkable, or to share some information they learned from reading.

·         Writing is practiced by the adults in the home – A literate household uses writing in a variety of ways. The important thing that children learn in a household where people write is that writing is a means of communication that can inform, persuade or simply serve as a memory aid. So whether it is letters, emails, grocery lists or post-it note reminders placed on the bedroom door or refrigerator, children should see writing being used to communicate and they should have writing materials readily available for their own writing attempts.

·         Literacy materials are available in the home – When you walk into a Barnes & Noble at the mall you can barely get in the door without tripping over a display of the newest bestsellers. The home should be the same way. Literacy materials should be found throughout the home. Books on shelves and end tables, magazines on the coffee table and newspapers on the kitchen table. For children to grow as literate humans, the “stuff” of literacy must surround them.

·         Children are included and encouraged to participate in family conversations – The greatest ally young students have in learning to read and write in school is the oral language they bring with them from home. Oral language is developed when children are seen and heard. Conversations conducted with children rather than commands directed at children help children develop the oral language they need to underpin their emerging literacy skills in school.

·         Children are read to regularly – Reading aloud is important. Children who are read to from an early age show a greater interest in reading at later ages, have superior reading comprehension skills and have more expressive language abilities. But just as important is the talk that surrounds the read aloud. A read aloud should include frequent opportunities to talk with children about what has been read, to ask and answer questions and to talk about what a story made the child feel and/or think about.

·         Family stories – All families have stories, those stories about the time the cat climbed a tree and refused to come down or when dad or mom did something silly or how grandmother came to be called Meemaw. Sharing family stories around the dinner table or in the car is an important way for children to develop their oral language and their understanding of the narrative structure of stories. Family stories are also a good way to pass down an oral history of the family; an oral history that gives children a firm understanding of who they are and where they come from.

·         Family library trips – Regular whole family trips to the library reinforce the importance of literacy and provide children with a wide array of literacy materials on a wide variety of topics to explore. Many public libraries also have a story time for young children. All members of the family should have a library card and should use it regularly.

·         Family trips to museums, cultural events and historical landmarks – Reading comprehension is built on broad knowledge of multiple topics. Regular family visits to art, history and science museums, and zoos help build knowledge that can be applied to reading and learning in the classroom. For younger children, museums that offer “hands-on” activities offer the best learning opportunities. Many museums offer special programs for children of varying age groups.

·         Share a fascination with words – All of the activities described above will help children develop a rich vocabulary, but parents can also help with vocabulary development by being on the lookout for interesting, exciting, curious words that pop up in reading or in conversation and by simply talking about words used by characters on TV or written on billboards or restaurant menus. We want to develop a “word consciousness” in children – a fascination with words and their many and varied uses. When you see interesting words, talk about them with your children.

·         Combine TV watching with talk – Television is not the enemy of literacy learning. Television viewing can be educational, whether kids are watching something that is informative or merely watching an entertaining cartoon or sitcom. The key to making TV watching a literate experience is talk. During commercials the TV can be muted and parents and children can talk about what they have seen and predict what they will happen next. At the end of the program, the TV can be turned off and the family can discuss what they have seen, summarize the big ideas and each family member can share what stood out for them in the show.

·         Turn the captions on the television – All TVs are now required to have caption capability. Originally developed to help the hearing impaired enjoy television, it has since been discovered that captions help students develop important literacy skills. As Cynthia Mershon notes in an article for the Russ on Reading blog:

Research…reveals that when students read the words on the television screen and hear them spoken by the people in the television program or movie and see the pictures or images on the television screen that tell them what those words mean, their reading comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, and general engagement with reading increases and develops at a higher rate than those students not watching captioned television. In particular, learning disabled and ESL students exhibit dramatic improvement in language skills when captioned television is a regular part of their reading program (2015).

·         Continue all of these practices after children begin school – Once children begin school and begin to formally learn to read and write, good home literacy practices, including read aloud, should continue in the home. Continued emphasis on literacy in the home supports the work of the classroom teacher and the continuing learning efforts of your child.

Adapted from: A Parents Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century, by Russ Walsh. NY:Garn Press, 2016.

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