* By Catalina Covacevich
Children formally learn to read in first grade. However, this is not achieved overnight. Instead it requires the mastery of pre-reading skills that begin to develop in the first months of life. For that reason, we should promote these skills before entering school. In that way, we can improve the reading ability of students.
Our first thought when we talk about teaching pre-reading skills is preschool and, indeed, preschool attendance develops and even improves academic performance in later grades. However, the fact that children enter school ready to learn to read is not the sole responsibility of preschool education. This is an issue that can and should also be addressed by the family, stimulating the pre-reading skills of their infants and children.
The term “pre-reading skills” seems to refer to abstract skills that are only understood by educators and professionals. Indeed, it seems difficult for parents to understand them or to instill them in their children. However, in reality, this is the technical name for ordinary life skills that many parents spontaneously teach their children.
A group of pre-reading skills has to do with the domain of spoken language. Since writing is basically coding oral language, a child must have a certain mastery of the spoken word to be able to read and learn; the more you master it, the easier it gets.
A central element of oral language is the vocabulary. The richer the vocabulary of a child, the greater her exposure to language and the more varied are her experiences with it, it will be easier for her to learn how to read. As my colleague Horacio Alvarez points out in his blog “How does the brain learn to read?” although our brain is not wired to read, it is wired to learn spoken language. Therefore, there’s a very simple way in which parents and caregivers can develop children’s vocabulary: talking to them.
To acquire vocabulary, children need to listen and participate in conversations with adults and other children, and they must be exposed to stories, tales, poems, and songs. Adults should also talk to babies, so that they can learn how to speak and develop their vocabulary. The opportunities to do so are almost infinite: while changing their diapers, feeding them, or taking them out… You can tell them stories, describe them the activity they are carrying out or recounting the activities that they have performed during the day. When your baby makes sounds, you can answer their noises with words, using an appropriate tone and making gestures and pauses to simulate that they are in a conversation.
Some parents do not talk to their young children because they believe that they cannot understand what they are saying and some even feel ridiculous telling a baby of a few months of age things like “now let’s wash your little hands.” Also, it is often perceived as a waste of time. Others, however, find it natural. The truth is that talking to them does make a difference. In fact, one of the variables that best predicted vocabulary acquisition in young children is how much their mother speaks to them. Therefore, it is worth the effort.
*Catalina Covacevich is a specialist in the Education Division at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), based in the country office of Chile.