Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Decoding the Literacy Language

Picture a world full of symbols and signs that you do not recognize or understand. (Maybe you have visited a country in which they speak a different language, so this is not difficult to imagine.) For a child who does not know how to read, this is how the world looks. Imagine your frustration if everyone around you seemed to make meaning from their environment based on a sign system you could not interpret. Learning to read
and write is an exciting time in children's lives; they are gaining a path into an adult world. They will use this skill for the rest of their lives, and the way they are introduced to the reading world can have a significant impact on how they view reading for many years to come. Although there are challenges that can accompany learning to read, families and teachers should focus on positives and give children plenty of opportunities to practice pre-reading skills.

The building blocks of words are individual letter sounds - phonemes. A crucial skill for learning to read is phonemic awareness - the understanding of letter sounds and the ability to use them to create or break apart words. (For example, the sounds in the word back are b, a, k.) Studies have found that children who have stronger phonemic awareness tend to have better early reading skills than those who do not understand letter sounds. These children will also be more skilled in spelling based on letter sounds they hear within words.

There are many ways for families and teachers to support children in their journey toward fluent reading and writing. Children often gain phonemic awareness naturally, through hearing songs, rhymes, and word plays. Families and teachers can encourage this by singing, reading poems, saying rhymes or using alliteration in their daily activities.

When children begin to write, it is important to remember that they are making their way through a long process that will last well into elementary school. It takes time to learn to write the "right" way, which we call conventional writing. Allowing children to write independently, spelling words as they choose, gives them the opportunity to explore language and learn through experience. Resist the urge to correct children when they use invented ("made-up") spelling or write letters backwards; this is an important part of the process of learning to write conventionally. Children are making their way into our complicated system of communication. It is important for families to understand that "success" is relative to the environment; "successful writing" at the kindergarten level is very different from what we consider to be successful for ourselves or for older children.

Just remember to continue to support and encourage the children in your life as they begin their lifelong journeys into literacy. Realize as you help them through these potentially challenging beginning stages that you are helping them become successful and confident readers and writers, roles they will fill for the rest of their lives - what an exciting job to have!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Digging into Literacy

One very important aspect of literacy development is recognizing that literacy is all around us. An excellent way to help your child or class learn this is to take them into their community to find literacy. We often hear about classes going on field trips, but I would like to introduce the idea of "field work" for elementary classes. Using this term helps children see that, even though leaving the school is a fun break from the regular routine, they will also be doing important learning.

One idea for literacy field work is to create a scavenger hunt so that children have specific items, letters, or words to search for. The children would become "literacy detectives" and would carry clipboards with checklists so that they can check off found items and make notes about their discoveries.

Another way to explore and observe literacy in the world is to do a community literacy dig. The class visits a location in their community, such as a store or city building, and children work in teams to record observations about the environment. Roles in each group might include:
~making a map of the environment ~describing the surroundings
~observing people and activities
~observing and recording talk
~recording vocabulary unique to the location
~collecting print samples ~taking photos and video

If a class is unable to go into the community, a teacher might do a community literacy dig on his or her own and bring back as much information and sample literacy as possible so that children can experience a part of the location in their classroom. I recently went to a local store where I found an incredible amount of literacy:
~labels ~price tags ~advertisements ~signs ~books
~cash registers ~employee aprons
~carts and bags

Bringing back samples, photos, and videos of these things helps children understand the print environment, even if they were not in the store.

Literacy field work gives children a chance to explore the scope of literacy in their world. It provides a chance for a new kind of meaning-making by showing them that literacy exists outside of the classroom and outside of books. So head out into the community with your kids or students and see what kind of literacy you can find!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Literacy as a Lifelong Process

What is literacy? How is it learned? At what point in our education have we mastered it?
Is it when we can read a whole book? Is it when we can write a story or a letter? Is it when we finish school; are we then done with literacy?

Literacy is all of these things and more.
We are never finished with literacy...
It is a lifelong process.

Literacy is about learning to read and write. But it is also about communication - expressing ourselves to others, and listening to others in order to understand them. When we define literacy as a process of communication, it broadens our previous understanding of literacy.
Now we can see literacy in everything:
~conversation ~word games ~television shows & videos
~environmental print ~music & nursery rhymes
~photographs & cartoons ~gestures & facial expressions
~graphic novels, such as The Arrival, by Shaun Tan

Any process intended to communicate can be seen as literacy. Often we overlook these parts of our daily lives and do not identify them as literacy learning. What makes these natural processes noticeable is when they suddenly become different than what we are used to. This is certainly the case for second-language learners. When children move to a new country with very different customs and school practices, they might shut down and seem entirely uninterested in learning to adapt to the new culture. Children who could read and write in their home country are suddenly unable to express themselves or understand others; this can be extremely frustrating and frightening.

What we as teachers and families need to do is try to find a common ground - create a third space, or some kind of universal literacy - that can be used to bridge the gap between what a child knows and what the new culture expects. This might come in the form of a wordless picture book, a video or video camera, a book on tape, or a sharing of literacy from a home country. When children use some process to create meaning and expression, they are learning literacy. Teachers and families who work together to learn about each others' usual practices will likely help children adjust to the new culture while continuing to value their home culture through continued literacy learning and sharing. Building trust, earning and giving respect, and working at the pace of each individual student are essential for creating a comfortable literacy learning environment.