Developing Early Reading Skills: It All Starts with Sounds

The more we learn about how children develop reading skills, the more we understand that it all begins with sounds. In fact, a child’s ability to play with the sounds within a word (rhyming, inventing rhymes, adding or removing the sounds within a word) is a key indicator of a child’s future success in developing reading skills. This skill is called Phonemic awareness. It is the ability to hear the individual sounds within spoken words. When we think about what it takes to be able to read, it is easy to see why phonemic awareness is so important. In print the sounds within words are represented by letters. These letters can be taken apart and put together in different ways to create different words. A child who is already familiar with the idea that words are made up of separate sounds that are blended together will have a much easier time making the leap to associating sounds with letters and blending those letters to sound out words.

Exploring the sounds within words is something that anyone can do with a child. It requires no special materials and the child doesn’t need to know anything about the letters of the alphabet (learning which letters go with which sounds will come later). Families, caregivers and teachers can help even the youngest preschoolers begin to develop phonemic awareness just by being silly and playing around with words. Here are a few ideas:

  • Read a lot of nursery rhymes or other rhyming text
  • Sing rhyming songs or songs that emphasize initial word sounds (Baa Baa Black sheep for little ones, and “Apples and Bananas” is a great example for older preschoolers)
  • Say the child’s name then change or remove the initial letter sound (Tommy becomes Ommy or Lommy)
  • Say a word and invent a string of rhymes (Hi there cutie, futie, lutie, putie…)

Phonemic awareness “lessons” can and should be fun, simple and short. It is all about sounds and spoken word. Identifying letters to match those sounds is the next step, and this next step will be a lot easier for kids if they have a solid understanding of the concept that words are made up of individual sounds that are blended together. WoWKit activity binders for preschool and downloads for toddlers are full of activity ideas for developing phonemic awareness. You can check them out at www.wowkits.com.

For more info on phonemic awareness and guidance for educators, check out the resources posted on the University of Oregon Center for Teaching and Learning.

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Tips to Help Your Preschool Child Make Friends

Toddlers are very content to sit next to another child and play, each doing their own thing, basically ignoring one another. But as children grow and develop, this “parallel play” transforms into a need for social interaction. By the time children reach the age of 4 or 5, the need for friendships and playing with peers becomes very important to children. But for many children, wanting to play with friends does not mean that they know how to make it happen. When the desire is there, but the skills are not, children get frustrated. They may become aggressive as they try to get other children to interact with them. Or you may notice children becoming reclusive as they try to avoid the frustrating situation.

As a parent or caregiver, you can help. Successful play experiences, and eventually friendships, require important social skills like empathy, problem solving, and communicating. Children who have difficulties in any of these areas may have a harder time making friends. Here are some strategies to support a child’s social development and encourage friendships:

  • Bring your child along as you go out in the world and interact with others. Children learn by watching and seeing you successfully interact with people you don’t know very well can help your child to learn some of these skills.
  • Give your child many opportunities to meet and interact with peers. Whether through play dates, group activities like story time, music classes, etc. or frequent visits to a local playground, the more your child is able to meet and interact with peers, the more opportunities he will have to develop and practice emerging social skills.
  • Pay attention to your child as she navigates play opportunities. Watch her verbal and non-verbal interactions. How does she approach peers? Does he play cooperatively? Is he able to communicate with playmates? Is there a pattern to when and how problems arise? Once you have a better idea of where or why your child is having troubles playing with others, you can better support him in developing new skills.
  • Model the behaviors that you would like to see in your child. Listen to his thoughts, feelings, ideas and stories. Be kind to others, greet them, give compliments, show empathy. Avoid complaining. Have a sense of humor about your own weaknesses.
  • Help your child to see her strengths and feel good about herself.
  • When arranging play dates, start small. Begin with one friend for one hour and then gradually increase the length of time and number of friends as your child’s skills grow. This will help to avoid frustrating or overstimulating your child.
  • Don’t be afraid to guide your child through activities as he learns about social and behavior expectations. You don’t need to be a “helicopter parent” but instead support your child as needed to encourage success.

Friendships areĀ  important to young children and learning how to start and maintain friendships is an important life skill. Like everything else, children are not born with these skills and some will need more guidance than others as they navigate the world of friendships.

Supporting the Learning Process for Babies

Babies are natural learners. They are curious and eager to explore and experiment. As care providers, the best thing we can do is sit back and support the explorations that drive them.

This video was taken by Janet Lansbury, a trained parent educator, and highlights the innate curiosity of infants. In her blog, Lansbury reminds us:

All babies need is a safe, peaceful environment, some basic objects to examine (unnecessary until they are 3 or 4 months old) and many opportunities throughout the day to move freely and make their own choices without our interruption.

As you watch this video clip, notice:

  • the child is free to move about and develop his motor skills
  • the simplicity of the materials that the child chooses to explore
  • the opportunities the child has to problem-solve as he explores these simple materials
  • many of the child’s senses are supported and engaged (visual, tactile, auditory)
  • adults respond to baby when he initiates interaction (getting adult attention through eye contact or sounds), and don’t intrude upon his exploration

As caregivers we want to make sure we are doing all that we can to help our babies learn and grow. What we need to remember is that there really is very little that we need to do! Our babies are experts at doing. All we need to do is have confidence in their abilities as self-directed learners and be there to support them when they need us.

 

Using Play to Boost Academic Skills

The case for play in early childhood gets stronger and stronger every day. The more we learn about how children grow and develop, the more we see that children need to play to flourish- socially, emotionally AND academically.

A recent article in Newsweek’s The Daily Beast, Let Preschoolers Play! says:

a growing body of research supports the very real benefits of exploratory and playful learning experiences. A 2007 study published in Science evaluated a play-based program, Tools of the Mind, against a non-play-based one. After two years in the play-oriented classrooms, children scored better on self-regulation, cognitive flexibility, and working memory. The self-control kids learn through interacting and playing with others has an academic payoff, too; it’s more strongly correlated with future academic success than either IQ or early reading and math skills.

The article goes on to explain that one of the problems with teaching preschoolers in the way elementary school students are traditionally taught is that learning through trial and error is eliminated. Instead children are “fast tracked” by adults to learn basic skills. The result is limited problem solving skills and diminished creativity. The fact that these are essential skills for our children to be competitive in the business world of the 21st century should have parents and the larger community very worried!

It’s an easy fix. Let young children learn through play and hands-on experimenting!

What to Look for in a Child Care Environment

Quality child care can come in many forms, from large child care centers to small in-home child care programs and everything in between. Finding the right situation for your child can be overwhelming and stressful. It is a personal decision. What is right for your family may not be right for your best friends family. Here are some things to consider as you explore your options:

  • Schedule– if your work schedule is outside of the traditional 9-5 Monday-Friday work schedule it is important that you ask about the hours of operation of any program you are considering. Many programs may be eliminated from your list of options based on schedule.
  • Location– if you are like many people, this is a drive you will have to make on a daily basis. Once enrolled in child care, many people find that the majority of the time they have with their child is just before bed and rushing to get out the door in the morning. If the commute to child care is long, it is using up time you could be spending interacting with your child at home. Also, if your commute takes you through heavy traffic areas or other stressful situations, this will have a negative impact on your entire day (and possibly your child’s day too!).
  • Cleanliness and safety– children are notoriously good at spreading germs and young children are always putting things in their mouths. Avoid child care programs that look unclean, where choking hazards are within easy reach of young children or where you are at all uncomfortable with supervision or safety.
  • Learning environment– Children learn by doing. This means engaging in hands-on play. Look for a program where children are playing with open-ended toys like blocks, housekeeping props and dress up, rubber animals, dolls, balls, cars, etc. Watch the way children interact with each other and how the caregivers interact with the children. They should be attentive, but not controlling. Children should be active, but not wild. Children should have choices of what to play with, when and how. Adults should guide children in their choices when necessary. Avoid programs that rely heavily television, computers and worksheets to keep children busy. The kids may look calm and busy, but they are missing out on important opportunities to explore concepts in meaningful ways that will make a lasting impact on their future growth.
  • Discipline– Just as there is a lot of variety in how families approach discipline, the same is true for child care programs. When it comes to discipline, consistency is important for children so choose a program with a discipline philosophy that is in line with yours.
  • Food– some programs provide food, others expect you to bring it. Be aware of what foods will be served to your child. Excessive amounts of juice and other high-sugar foods should be avoided.
  • Outdoor time– all children, even infants, need time outdoors. Ask how often children are taken outdoors and in what situations (weather, staffing, etc.) children might not be taken outdoors.
  • Teacher training/accreditation– are teachers certified? Is the program accredited by a national or state agency? Do the teachers take part in ongoing training or professional development? A program that has high standards and supports teacher’s professional development is more likely to retain staff and be more aware of current best practice for caring for young children. This is good for kids.
  • Communication– how do teachers let you know what went on during the day? How are problems communicated? How do the teachers communicate with the children?
  • Flexibility– if you are likely to need to change your schedule, add, drop or switch days, ask if this is a possibility. Some programs are very flexible and others are not at all.

Choosing the right child care situation is important for your own peace of mind and for your child’s well-being. Take your time, ask questions and make the choice that is right for you.

Making a Difference Every Day

Whether you are a teacher, a parent or a child care provider, your simple, every-day interactions with children are powerful. The way you say “good morning”, the way you show your support, the simple questions you ask or comments you make can build confidence, self-respect, inspire learning, provide motivation and build a stronger relationship between you and your children.

These “powerful interactions” don’t have to be complicated. Simple moments like these can do wonders for a child’s self-image and interpersonal relationships:

  • Say good morning with full eye-contact and your full attention. A hug is great too!
  • Sit quietly next to a child while the are absorbed in a task or project and watch with your full attention. You don’t even have to say anything. A simple smile of awareness or appreciation for their efforts lets them know you’ve noticed them and value their abilities.
  • Catch a child being good and thank them for their actions.
  • Ask permission before joining in a child’s activity.
  • Acknowledge children’s emotions- you don’t have to agree with their behavior, but let them know you understand or are aware of their feelings.

These simple actions can help you to make a difference in a child’s life every day. Do you have a favorite simple moment to share?

Encouraging Self-Control in Young Children

Whether you are a teacher or a parent, nothing is more frustrating than trying to manage a child who struggles with self-control. To be successful with friends, in school and in life, children need to learn how to control their bodies and manage their impulses. For some children this comes naturally, but for many others, it takes work. Here are some strategies for parents and teachers:

  • Make sure your home or classroom is safe– close off areas of the room that you don’t want children to access. Put away objects that you don’t want children to touch. If some things can’t be removed from your space, teach children how to handle things carefully and praise them when they do.
  • Be reassuring and supportive– no matter how independent or “tough” a child may seem, all young children need to feel confident in the love of the adults in their lives. Be aware of the subtle (or not so subtle) signals that your child sends you to let you know they need your support. Take the time to snuggle often and don’t make fun of them for needing a hug. Lots of love when they are young will help them develop a stronger sense of self and confidence.
  • Show confidence in your child’s abilities– “I can do it myself!” is a phrase young children say often. Take them at their word and set up the experience to be successful. This might mean having non-breakable cups and small pitchers on hand so that children can pour their own drinks, or setting aside more time to leave the house so that children can put on their coats and hats by themselves. If they make a mistake, help them to fix it without judgment. Offer a sponge to clean up spills. Don’t chastise the child for spilling. We all need to practice new things.
  • Offer choices that match a child’s ability– If your toddler doesn’t want to get ready for bed, offer a choice of 2 pajamas to put on. Invite your preschooler to pull a wagon or ride a tricycle when you go for a walk. Giving children the power to make choices shows them that you are confident in their abilities. Even discipline can be accomplished through choices. “Would you like to use a quieter voice and stay here with us, or would you like to leave? Your job is to set up appropriate choices and follow through. Start with just 2 for toddlers and more for older children.

Children are a lot like adults. When we feel we have no control over our situations we get frustrated. Children often act out just to have a voice. With these tips we can let them know we hear them, we love them, we trust them and we can give them the opportunity to be successful with some appropriate responsibilities.