Learning Starts at Home and the Public Library is the Next Stop
Learning starts at home, whether intentional or not. Children mimic what they see done by the adults around them. A baby learns to make noises when he or she watches a parent speak. She knows how to eat from a spoon by watching the family at the dinner table. He learns how to look at a book when he sees his dad reading.
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Don’t kid yourselves, a child starts their education from the moment they are born. Learning to read starts with the primary caregivers in a child’s life. Children learn to read not just when they are read to, but when an adult reads with them. The difference is reading a book to a child, closing it and then leaving it behind, the latter is essentially turning daily life into a mobile book club. Talk about what you read, discuss the pictures. Ask the child if they see the red dog and then point to it. While sitting together or doing an activity, see if you can relate parts of the book to their world. Count your oranges the way The Very Hungry Caterpillar counted his. Say goodnight to the moon…and the stars, and the air.
Children learn what’s important in their lives when they see what’s important in the lives of the adults around them. Are you constantly checking your phone or are you picking up a book (or newspaper or magazine) to read? Do you value art or sports or music? Whatever it is, share it with your child in some small way and they will know that they too are important. When you take your children to the library, go ahead and grab a book for yourself — it’s good for you and good for them.
“Both physical and psychological proximity to books matter when it comes to children’s early literacy skills,” says Susan B. Neuman, professor of childhood and literacy education at NYU’s Steinhardt Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and the lead of a recent study. “Children need access to books in their neighborhoods, as well as adults who create an environment that inspires reading.” The research strongly suggests that if an adult shows that they value books and reading, that a child is more likely to be school-ready, or in other words able to learn the essentials of literacy once they begin kindergarten or less likely to slip a grade in reading level over the summer.
How can a parent build a learning environment at home?
No need to study for a teaching credential or go on an expensive shopping spree. Start with a few simple materials and as with anything else one wants to become good at, practice, practice, practice…
For babies: Start reading to them the week they are born. Let the child hear the cadence of your voice reading and point to big, bold shapes in a book. Newborn babies see best in black and white and red and will do best with nominally detailed graphics. A baby is born only able to see as far away as about eight inches, or as far as a newborn needs to identify the face of the person who is holding him or her in their arms.
For toddlers: Books for this age group need to be durable and quick. Toddlers are on the fast track to explore their world and now they are up and moving. This is the time to sing! The rhymes and rhythms of music help a child explore language. Sing to the songs on the radio, pick a witty musical and brush up on your Cole Porter or go to the local library and get a few ideas of rhymes especially for children from the children’s librarian. And don’t worry about your singing skills. At this age, all toddlers adore their parents and primary caregivers; they could care less if you can sing on key.
For preschoolers: At this age, “learning to read” looks more familiar to the average reading adult. Sing the ABC song, invest (a few dollars) in two or three packages of letter magnets, or enough to get the letters of your child’s name. Here is where picture books get really fun for adults, too. Check out the local library’s selection of picture books and feel free to choose them based on the illustrations. Ask the librarian about his or her favorite books for this age group. I can pretty much guarantee this is one of his or her favorite parts of the job.
For everyone: the library
One of the best (and free!) things to do with all children is to take them to library storytime. Most libraries have a couple age groups to choose from, and an educated and experienced children’s librarian knows what books and games are best for each group. Learn from your librarian! Notice the way he or she points to specific words on the page. Listen to voice inflection and learn the songs the librarian sings with the group; sing along while you’re there!
The most important elements of a child learning to read are printed material and adults. It’s a simple equation that equals a confident and capable child. “Our findings suggest that only having one side of the equation — access to books or adult support — is insufficient,” says Neuman of the the NYU study. “Rather, both are necessary. Without access to books, one cannot read to children; without adult support, children cannot be read to.”
Read with your child, because you are your child’s first teacher as well as the most consistent and most frequent. Parenting is educating and a home is a place to learn.