By Diana Ballon
I recently watched my four-year-old son intently as he ripped open the envelope containing a birthday card from his granny. “I think this one’s in Chinese,” he said, poring over the long message scrolled in cursive across the inside. I related this anecdote with amusement to his kindergarten teacher the next day. While I didn’t expect Felix to be “reading” exactly, I expected his class was learning to recognize the English language… weren’t they?
The answer, of course, was yes. Each week in his split junior/senior kindergarten a class is devoted to a different letter of the alphabet. They practise writing the letter, with arrows to prompt them; they use scrunched-up pieces of coloured tissue paper and other materials to map out its shape; and they sound the letter out, coming up with words that start with it.
Early childhood educators commonly rely on a range of approaches to teaching reading and writing, but the most important thing parents can do is simply read to their child, says Dr. Dale Willows, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Child Study. Here’s what she says parents should expect at this age:
Children should be read to often. Rhyming books and picture books are a great place to start, says Dr. Willows. Give your child opportunities to handle books and to pretend to read them.
Expose your child to books with more words. “Many four-year-olds are ready to start learning the letters and sounds of the alphabet and decoding little books.” Dr. Willows also recommends starfall.com, a website that eases kids into reading in a playful way.
Nearly all children can learn to read and write at this age with appropriate instruction. “Research shows that focusing on the sounds in spoken words through rhyming and playing with the individual sounds in words — known as phonemic awareness — provides an essential foundation for learning to read,” says Dr. Willows. And rather than pushing children to develop reading and writing by kindergarten, it’s more important that children experience motivating instruction at school and have playful engagement with print at home, she says. Fortunately, even if your child was not exposed to effective instruction in kindergarten, he’ll still learn fine in Grade 1, assures Dr. Willows. “Reading is a learned skill, not something that develops naturally, so timing is not critical for it to be effective.”
Read to your child every night: It doesn’t matter where you do it — in their bed or a comfy chair — but do it as part of your evening routine, emphasizes Paul Kropp, author of How to Make Your Child a Reader for Life (Random House Canada). And even if you’ve read your child’s favourite book several hundred times, don’t hesitate to read it again.
Keep it light: “Kids love wordplay,” says Kropp. They love repetitive songs with structure, like “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,’ where they can predict and then change a song.” Make a storybook for your child, writing out the stories he tells you and getting him to do the illustrations. Or dig out his favourite toddler book and see if he can read it to you now.
Use the words around you: Dr. Victoria Purcell-Gates, a professor in the faculty of education at the University of British Columbia and the Canada Research Chair in Early Childhood Literacy, says kids don’t necessarily need fancy kids’ books or reading programs. Get them to notice the “s” on the stop sign, the “h” for hospital or words on the cereal box. Dr. Willows also encourages parents to teach children to print their own name and words using both upper- and lower-case letters — and only use upper case where it is appropriate to avoid confusion.
If you are worried that your child is well behind his peers, speak to your pediatrician. He may need a hearing test or an assessment to address potential processing or memory issues.