Am I doing the right thing? Intuition, experience, and research say yes. Am I doing it the right way? Well, teaching a person to read is both easier and more complex than I thought.
My son is participating in a music program for young children, and we came home last week with a one-page informational from his teachers extolling the virtues of rhyme, rhythm, and repetition. I bought the book that was referenced in the take-home information which was written by former literacy education professor Mem Fox entitled “Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever.” Fox’s stories-first approach to literacy development, in which children first learn to make sense out of print rather than sound, resonated with me.
To read, children must experience print as much as possible; they must experience language as much as possible; and they must experience the world as much as possible. In short, says Fox, direct their attention to print, talk to them incessantly, and take them anywhere and everywhere you can.
But it’s the exposure to print, which occurs in many ways, that most interests me as an educator because while I can facilitate interaction and cultural experience with my own child, we cannot do this as easily for students who attend our schools.
One recent study published in the journal, Child Development, suggests that there may be causal links between print referencing while reading to pre-school aged children and long-term literacy achievement. Print referencing refers to helping children make sense out of print by using verbal and non-verbal techniques while participating in shared-reading experiences. Techniques include discussing book and print organization with children, asking questions or making observations about specific letters or words, and conveying the meaning of print by verbally referencing the context in which the print occurs. Tracking print with one’s finger would be a non-verbal print reference technique.
This study found that students who participated in four shared reading experiences with a teacher per week for 30 weeks in which at least four print references were employed by the teacher during each session resulted in long-term increases of approximately 1–3 standard score points in reading, spelling, and comprehension as compared with children whose teachers used their typical shared reading approach. The authors were building on earlier research (some of it their own) that found children experience significant short-term gains on print knowledge measures when shared reading experiences include adult references to print.
The students who participated in the study were predominately from socioeconomically disadvantaged households and were considered students at-risk for future reading difficulties. The authors note that by fourth grade, the literacy achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students is .76 of a standard deviation. With more students from disadvantaged backgrounds than ever before entering public schools (more than 60% of students in Texas qualify for free/reduced price lunch) and achievement gaps—which can often be traced to early literacy gaps—remaining wide between those who have and those who do not, this perhaps represents, one the one hand, a low-cost strategy for cutting into those gaps (.26 to .31 SD boost), and on the other, a process for facilitating early literacy for all children.
- Piasta, S. B., Justice, L. M., McGinty, A. S., & Kaderavek, J. N. (2012). Increasing Young Children’s Contact With Print During Shared Reading: Longitudinal Effects on Literacy Achievement. Child Development, 83(3), 810-820. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01754.x