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Literacy refers to many skills including reading, talking and listening, viewing and writing. Literacy is much more than the ability to encode and decode print, recite the alphabet or count to ten. Children can learn to recite the alphabet but this may not have anything to do with reading.
Successful and fluent reading requires the integration of many complex skills, understandings and attitudes. This learning begins at birth and continues throughout life. By the time they commence school, many children have already learnt a great deal about written text, long before they can read and write in conventional terms. The following knowledge and skills, learnt at The Reading Studio, provide the foundation for later school success in learning to read and write.
- A wide vocabulary containing unusual and sophisticated words. Many children’s picture books, poems and nursery rhymes contain words not usually encountered in everyday conversation.
- Phonological Awareness. This is the awareness of rhythm, rhyme, stress patterns, and alliteration in language.
- Phonemic awareness. This refers to the awareness that speech, which is heard as a continuous stream of sound, is made of smaller units called phonemes. Literature containing rhyme and alliteration, such as nursery rhymes and songs, draws children’s attention to the sounds making up words.
- Concepts of print. Children gradually become aware that print conveys meaning, and that print is fixed and unchanging. Some picture books draw attention to print through variations in size, colour and placement of print on the page.
- Alphabetic principle. This refers to the awareness that each letter of the alphabet has a name, and each letter name relates to one or more speech sounds. In English, there are 26 alphabet letters but 44 speech sounds (phonemes), so each alphabet letter may represent a number of speech sounds.
- Decontextualised language. This occurs when we talk about subjects which are not present in the here-and-now context, including past or future events, or hypothetical situations. Talking about picture books gives children experience using this type of language with a supportive adult. This relates to the later ability to produce written text.
- The language patterns of different genres. Different types of literature, such as narratives, informational books, concept books and poetry, draw on different linguistic resources. Children who experience a range of literature become familiar with the language patterns of different genres. This increases comprehension because it enables children to focus on the words and pictures.
- Visual Images. Children learn that pictures convey meaning different from writing.
- Grammatical Knowledge. Children learn that grammar is a distinctive language different from ordinary conversation which gives pattern and shape to written language.
- Background knowledge about the world. This assists comprehension as well as enabling children to make connections between the meanings in books and their own lives. In this way, children think about their own lives and the thoughts and feelings of others, as well as learning about things they may never directly experience.
Shared reading approach
The term shared reading refers to a form of explicit instruction, which is embedded in the reading of a picture book to one or more children. Shared reading is central to The Reading Studio programmes, especially for the younger age groups. Shared reading occurs when a teacher pauses at various times during the reading, to engage children in conversations about aspects of the text and to encourage them to make connections between the text and personal experiences. The teacher may draw children’s attention to any of the aspects that contribute to emergent literacy awareness (set out above). Many of the objectives set out in the various workshops offered by The Reading Studio are to be achieved during shared reading.
The unique benefits of children’s picture books
Children deserve to experience literature of the highest quality. Modern picture books convey meaning through the interplay between the written text and the visual images. Good quality picture books provide children with subtle “lessons” about how to read. For example, the characters in picture books are often depicted moving across the page from left to write, just as we read from left to right in English.
The picture books used in this program are by highly regarded authors and illustrators. They have been carefully chosen to give children the opportunity to experience a range of different illustrative styles and subject matter, different genres including narratives, informational texts and poetry, and to highlight different aspects of literacy. We do not use commercially produced reading scheme books in our programme, as we aim to expose children to high quality authentic literature and to respect their individual choices and preferences.
It will be clear that teaching children to read and write involves much more than narrow, skills-based, teacher-directed instruction in phonics and the alphabet. It is tempting to see completed worksheets and stencils as evidence of a child’s learning. Yet for most children, worksheets are meaningless “busy work” which have little learning potential. Explicit teaching in early childhood is based on careful observation of a child’s current knowledge and skills, which are then extended in the course of the child’s focus of attention and interest.
Early childhood teachers in our program use the following teaching strategies:
- Create a warm and responsive relationship with each child
- Establish a regular routine (frame) so children know what to expect each week
- Provide variety within the established frame to engage children’s interest
- Use cognitively challenging language with children
- Plan individual and group learning experiences based on observations of individual children
- Embed explicit literacy instruction in playful, meaningful and authentic activities
- Provide a range of high quality picture books to follow children’s interests and to respect individual preferences
- Encourage children to express themselves confidently
- Provide opportunities for children to explore a range of picture books
- Allow for repeated readings of favorite picture books
- Use puppets and other objects to engage and interest children
- Scaffold and model oral language and reading behaviours
- Engage in pretend play based on picture books.