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Early Literacy Skills and How to Encourage Them

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What is literacy? The basic definition is that it is the ability to read and write. Simple, right? Not for children who suffer from a communication disorder.

Literacy is so much more than just being able to read and write; it’s about understanding, listening, speaking, spelling, and vocabulary. If there is a weakness in any of these areas, a child will display difficulty with literacy based tasks, such as spelling (you know those weekly spelling tests? Those are a nightmare for our kids), verbal expression, and writing. 

Unfortunately, most of the time, kids who struggle in this area are often labeled as “lazy” and “unmotivated” because they shut down at any sign of having to use these skills. I work with high school students and see this on a daily basis – write a 5 paragraph essay and the student fails because he/she doesn’t turn it in. It’s not because they don’t WANT to do the assignment, it’s because their disability in one of the literacy areas PROHIBITS them from completing it! 

This blog will go over the main components of literacy, what they encompass and what are some practical strategies you could use to help your child’s skills. 

Comprehension – What is Comprehension and Why is it Important?

Comprehension is, very simply, the ability to understand what is spoken or what is written. Children who struggle to comprehend information struggle to perform in every academic area that they encounter: they can’t absorb information, have difficulty solving problems, and fail to express their ideas effectively or clearly. 

Read To Your Child from a Young Age

According to The Literacy Cookbook, by Sarah Tantillo, children from families of higher socio-economic status hear over 1,500 more words per hour than children from low-income families. These equivalates to a thirty-two-million word gap over a four year period. This is why reading to your child from a young age is very important. It is, in fact, the biggest suggestion that I give to all of my parents who come to me for private speech therapy. READ. READ. READ. Ask your child to point to vocabulary words, have them repeat the words back to you, ask them questions about what you read (e.g., Where did the fairy go?). These questions and vocabulary tasks will all help with their comprehension of information. 

Answer Their Questions With An Explanation

Another way to help your child with comprehension is to explain ideas or arguments. I know. I know. My toddler is in the “why” phase and at the end of a long day, all I want to do is say “because I said so.” The speech pathologist in me tells me to take a deep breath and EXPLAIN. The reason why explaining is so important is because it involves so many more words than just giving a basic response. You’ll find the more that you explain information to your child, the more they will ask questions, which shows their comprehension skills are growing!

Ask WHY and HOW Questions to Nurture the Skill of Inferencing

Another way to target comprehension is to work on inferencing skills. These skills involved predicting, solving problems, making connections, etc. The easiest way to work on this is, while reading or conversing with your child, ask questions like, “How did the girl feel,” “What do you think happened?” 

For example, my daughter was watching “Garfield.” There was a part of the movie where Odie is left on the front porch by his owner, paced around for a while and then laid down.  As an adult, we can infer that Odie is very sad because his owners didn’t want him. Without skipping a beat, my daughter said, “Mommy, the puppy is very sad” and then she started to cry. I was amazed at her ability to show empathy at such a young age, but was also surprised by her reaction. I decided to ask her why Odie was so upset and she responded, “his mommy left him.” That skill of inferencing is being shown by her being able to say WHY. It wasn’t outwardly stated in the movie, but by his actions, she knew that he was not happy. Even if your child doesn’t have a reaction like mine did, you can still take the opportunity to work on this important skill! 

Repeat New Words as Frequently As You Can

Finally, another way to work on comprehension skills is by reviewing and reinforcing words that your child has been exposed to. The first way you can do this is by making sure your child can actually SAY the words. If they are producing words that are unclear, they won’t be able to use them when writing or reading. It’s never too early to focus on this because, let’s face it, our school curriculums start writing in Pre-K with those basic pre-writing skills.

What I have done with my own child, as well as my students, is that I will say the word, and then ask them to repeat it. I do this THREE times to ensure that she/they are understanding. I use the words as frequently as I can and monitor if the word is coming out clearer every time exposure occurs. Keep in mind – certain speech sounds are developed until a certain point, but you can still say frequently used words three times so your child gets the model and knows what is expected. 

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Be Confident with Your Skills

I know this is a lot of information and you are probably feeling overwhelmed since this is the first literacy skill that can be addressed. Don’t be nervous and be confident with YOUR skills. Chances are, you are doing some of these recommendations already. If you aren’t, pick ONE suggestion that I wrote about and target that skill first! It’s all about breaking down this information and taking it one step at a time.

My suggestion? Work on vocabulary to start. Read to your child before bed for at least 5 minutes – ask them what pictures are being seen to see where their comprehension skills are! From there, you can decide if you need to break things down further or if you could make the reading more complicated (e.g., asking those inferencing questions). Before long, you’ll see those skills blossom and develop!

Feel free to download Speech Blubs, where you can get even more fun activities to boost language development.

Did you know that early exposure to reading leads to better transition into the school setting? It also increases vocabulary, writing and verbal expression!! For more information, take a look at the next article, which is all about READING.

In the last blog of my literacy series, I go over the rest of literacy elements and provide you with some easy, practical strategies that you can start implementing now to boost your child’s literacy skills.

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