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What to expect in preschool: literacy

Through pictures, play, and the printed word, preschoolers begin the reading and writing process.

By Diana Townsend-Butterworth

The ability to read and write, to understand the subtleties of language, to think and reason clearly, and to communicate effectively with others is key to success in school and in life. Researchers have identified a window of time from birth to around age 8 as crucial for a child's development of literacy.

Preschool teachers develop literacy by continually exposing children to oral and written language, and by building on prior knowledge and language experiences. Pictures, play, and the printed word combine with oral language to help your child understand the symbolic representation that underlies reading and writing. Her teacher will use a variety of fun, engaging strategies in the classroom to develop literacy. (You can also find out what to expect in math, social studies, science, and art.)

Reading aloud: A small group of children cluster around their teacher in the reading corner, listening intently as she reads The Cat in the Hat. She holds up the book so they can see the illustrations and talk about them. The teacher asks questions about the story and the children make predictions about what will happen next. By actively participating in the story, preschoolers acquire skills that will promote future success in reading. They learn new vocabulary and gain an understanding of the way stories are structured. They also experience high-level thinking as they form connections between the story and what they know in life.

Poetry: Nursery rhymes, songs, and poetry are a key part of literacy development, says Bernice E. Cullinan, Ph.D., professor emerita at New York University and the author of more than 40 books on reading, including Read to Me — Raising Kids Who Love to Read. Listening to, and repeating, poetry is a wonderful way for children to learn phonemic awareness. That is the ability to notice and isolate the individual sounds, or phonemes, in words, like the "c" in cat or the "b" in bat — a key skill for future success in reading. Preschoolers first learn that speech is made up of sounds, syllables, and words indirectly from listening to stories, nursery rhymes, poetry, and conversations. They gain phonemic awareness, says Cullinan, by "playing with language" — by meowing like the cat in the story a teacher is reading, or making up nonsense rhymes. Rhyming games also help children think about sound and the structure of words.

Storytelling: Listening teaches story structure and helps children learn to predict outcomes, says Bill Gordh, an author, storyteller, and director of expressive arts at the Episcopal School in New York City. He finds children get caught up in the rhythm of his stories and understand them instinctively, without explanation. One advantage of storytelling (versus reading aloud from a book), according to Gordh, is that you can change the story depending on how the children respond. He believes children learn the meaning of the story by responding verbally and with physical gestures. When you tell a story, says Gordh, "it is just you and the children and language. The moment is unique. They have to remember the story because they can't go pick up a book and reread it."

The printed word: To understand how print works, preschoolers need to be surrounded by it — in books and magazines, in signs around the classroom, on bulletin boards, in labels on their clothes and possessions. They need to learn that written words correspond to spoken words, that words are composed of letters, and that sentences are made up of words with spaces between the words. They learn that in English we read from left to right and from the top to the bottom of the page. They are encouraged to incorporate the written word into their pretend play.

Diana Townsend-Butterworth is a former teacher and head of the junior school at St. Bernard's School in New York City. She is the author of Your Child's First School and Preschool and Your Child.

Comments from readers

"it's a great article.... and the best part is, after reading it it just motivates you to do better with your kids... :-) "
"Now, more than ever...research is exploding in early childhood! What we can do as educators profoundly affects our youngest learners! Thank you for sharing this much needed information! I will be planting these seeds on my facebook page at learngrowbloom."
"Thanks! Great Article! Our schools are in trouble and we need help in knowing what we can do at home and what we should expect in the preschool to best help our children. Thanks for caring and sharing!"
"Greetings: Thank you for your marvelous insights to preschool child educational developmment. I am an old grandfather whose children predated your valuable resource. My two preschool grandchildren who frequently indulge me with their attention will certainly benefit from my reeducation. Again, Mahalo "
"I'm glad I read this...We read to our girls all the time but fail to ask questions about what we just read. Will need to do this more so our daughters can really think about what we were just reading!"
"Excellent article."
"That is a very interesting article! I would like to know whether you can suggest any other research on the ideal neurologically-related age for a child to really learn how to read and write."