| Sep 04, 2008

Sept 4/08 - Early Literacy

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Early Literacy - September 4, 2008 A lot of talkby Susan Ramsay, Early Literacy Specialist, HFL&A

The Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics are now in the past. We chatted about Canadian athletes, medal winners, close competitions, not thinking much about the power of our dialogue. But parents who visualize their children as successful athletes or academics need to know that dialogue with children is that uncelebrated ingredient that can take their children far.

As soon as parents gaze into the face of their newborn they automatically slip into speech that is slower, more lilting, higher pitched, simpler, and weighted with questions – ideal techniques for helping babies make sense of language. Infants are such language specific learners that by four months of age they begin to only pay attention to the language(s) to which they have been exposed.

As a baby’s understanding of language grows, parents unwittingly shift their speech patterns again. They repeat more words, and increase descriptions of events, objects or actions. Parents start to include more talk about past and future experiences with their little one too.

Parents typically do this without recognizing how beautifully and effectively they are teaching their child to speak. But as preschoolers age, parents become more diversified in how they spark their child’s learning. Studies show that in some households children hear fewer than 200 different words in an hour compared to 4,000 different words in that same time frame in other households. Forty percent of the variance in children’s vocabulary skills in kindergarten and in grade 2 has been attributed to parents’ use of frequent and more varied vocabulary during play with their preschool child (Weizman & Snow, 2001).

And yet providing children with a rich language environment is more than simply talking a lot. Distraction, the behaviour management tool of choice for many parents at the store check out line, may be the best option at the candy counter. But, during much of the day, parents who are able to extend their child’s attention span create great learning opportunities. Through listening to and noticing their child’s interests, using gestures and eye contact, talking together, wondering aloud, and asking thought-provoking questions, parents can extend their child’s curiosity. When children sense that their parents are fascinated by the same things, they are encouraged to consider things more deeply, to problem solve, and to think at a higher level of maturity. Even 1 year olds have demonstrated an increase in one word utterances when parents sensitively respond to and stretch their child’s attention span (Akhtar, Dunham, & Dunham, 1991).

Studies related to extending children’s attention span during story times also show the positive impact parents have on children’s language and reading comprehension skills when parents and children talk about a book’s pictures and ideas together as they read.

It may be a lot of talk, but all that talk can help children become confident learners who want to go for gold throughout their entire lives.

Susan Ramsay is the Early Literacy Specialist for Hastings, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington. You can contact her at 613-354-6318 (ext 32)

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