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What the Experts Say

Debbie Glasser, Special to The Miami Herald

After three kids and countless readings of Goodnight Moon, I thought I had fully covered our family's favorite book - and dozens like it.

Night after night, we enthusiastically pointed to the red balloon and those three little bears. We found the mittens and we found the kittens. In fact, pointing out the pictures was a big part of our reading time. And that was fine.

But, according to literacy experts, there are even more ways to enjoy books, nurture a love of reading, and help prepare children for school.

"One of the best ways parents and teachers can help preschool children get ready to read is to introduce them to the printed word,'' said Laura Justice, associate professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Pointing to the letters and words on the pages - not just the illustrations - can go a long way in helping young children understand how print works.''

The ability to read requires an awareness of a unique code: Print runs from left to right. Letters are different from words. Titles tell the name of a book.

"These are basic aspects of reading,'' Justice said. "And these are things children need to understand before they can read.''

But before you assume that pointing out the printed word will take the fun out of reading, think again.

"Kids find print just as interesting to talk about as colors and illustrations,'' Justice said. "Print is all around them. When we start to point out print in the environment - and in the books our kids are already enjoying - they'll begin to view print as interesting.''

Here are some ways to create a print-rich environment and help your young children get ready to read:

Start early. Promoting an appreciation of print isn't an age-based experience. You can start any time, Justice said. "The bottom line is that when kids walk into kindergarten, we want them to have an appreciation of print and a recognition that it's part of their world,'' she said.

Be playful. "Read books that your children enjoy,'' she said. "There are dozens and dozens of print-rich books that you're probably already reading with your child.''

Just as you point out pictures and colors, find opportunities to point enthusiastically to the title or the letters on the page, she suggested. Just be sure to follow your child's interests and read his cues. "For reading to be a high-quality, social-emotional experience for kids, we need to be responsive to them,'' Justice said.

Make it relevant. Lorraine Breffni, early-childhood training specialist at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, encourages parents to look for frequent opportunities to point out print in children's daily life.

She offers these suggestions:

* When ordering food in a restaurant, draw your child's attention to the print on the menu by saying, "This meal looks delicious. I wonder what it is called so I can order it.'' Underline the selection on the menu with your finger and read it out loud. Encourage your child to find the picture of a meal he would like and read the accompanying selection to him.

* When writing the weekly shopping list, ask your child to help think of items you may need. Spell out the letters in each word as you write and read the completed list back to your child. Encourage your young child to write a shopping list, too. Even if her efforts look more like scribbles than letters, you are giving her an opportunity to embark on a journey toward eventual literacy.

* Take your child grocery shopping with you. Read items from your list and ask your child to help you find it: "I need cereal. Can you help me find the Cheerios?'' Your child may recognize the Cheerios box by its logo, rather than the individual letters in its name. Noticing that the Cheerios logo is different from another cereal, however, is an important pre-reading skill.

* When driving your child to preschool or other activities, point out "environmental print'' - easily recognizable traffic signs, store names and symbols.

* Make books, magazines, cards and party invitations with your child. While it's easy to buy ready-made books and cards, by making them together, you teach your child about print conventions: books have titles, authors write words and illustrators draw pictures, text can explain pictures, spoken words can be recorded for posterity by writing them down, text can be fact (the location of a party) or fiction (a story about a fairy in the garden).

Experts agree that the key to promoting early literacy is to provide plenty of encouragement and positive reading experiences, not pressure or criticism. When parents and teachers nurture an early interest in reading and the printed word, children will be more likely to start kindergarten ready - and eager - to learn.

Debbie Glasser, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of NewsForParents.org, an online newsletter for parents. She can be reached at debbie@NewsForParents.org.

Published: August 3, 2006
Copyright (c) 2006 The Miami Herald

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