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Sowing the Seeds – Harvesting Readers

SIMCOE, ON,APRIL 7, 2008- A celebration took place at the Greens at Renton on Saturday, March 29. On the course, the sun was shining and birds sang spring’s praises. But inside the conference center, the newly formed Haldimand Norfolk Literacy Team was setting up to welcome participants to the Sowing the Seeds – Harvesting Readers Forum and getting down to the serious business of emergent literacy skills of preschool-aged children in our two counties.

Among the participants were speech-language pathologists, supportive personnel, literacy coaches and specialists, library personnel, teachers, teacher consultants, parents, early learning providers (including early childhood educators in child care centers, in-home child care providers, and providers within Ontario Early Years Center sites), and others whose business is the education of children age 0-6. A common mission for the day was established: to work together to encourage emergent literacy. Emergent Literacy is defined as the skills, knowledge and attitude needed for a child to be able to learn to read and write. It begins at birth, and emerges over time, just like language development. There is no magic time when children “are readers and writers.” Children are always becoming readers and writers.

Participants listened attentively while Lori Holstein, Speech-Language Pathologist with the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit’s Preschool Speech and Language Program, and one of the founding members of the H-N Literacy Team, outlined the key skill areas:

  • Oral language: Research shows that children who begin to use words, combine words, use sentences and tell stories early are most likely to be able to read easily in the primary grades.
  • Emergent writing: Children go through six different stages in learning to “write.” In the early stages, they “write” through drawing, then scribbling. The pictures and scribbles represent a message.
  • Print knowledge: Children can tell the difference between pictures and printed words, and know how to handle books.
  • Alphabet knowledge: Being able to recognize letters, such as the first letter of their name, and the ability to name letters.
  • Phonological awareness: Understanding the concept of a “word,” that can be manipulated. Hearing rhyme and being able to sort words by their beginning sounds (big, baby, ball) are skills that demonstrate beginning phonological awareness.

Lori explained: “The best way to help children develop their skills with the ‘big five’ is in playful situations. Many toddlers can be turned off by book activities if adults try to force them to ‘sit and listen’ while they ‘read.’ A better approach is ‘sharing’ the book; not reading the book” Establishing a positive interaction around books is the key to enticing children to want look inside. “Once children have the idea that books can be a fun way to play (building towers with books, driving over books) and pretend (eating the food, petting the animals), then you can name the pictures, point out the words.”

“We want to give children the opportunity, or the knowledge about books,” said Lori. “We want to develop their skills. Most importantly, we feel, is the positive attitude we want to give kids that books are fun, enjoyable, a source of pride and excitement.”

Marg Calder, Early Years Literacy Specialist with the Ontario Early Years Center (a division of H-N REACH) concurred with Lori on the proper attitude to convey with young children. “It’s the interaction or the conversation around the book – or shopping list, or sign, or birthday card – that matters more than the words, more than ‘reading.’ ”

Forum participants learned the importance of following the child’s lead. This was illustrated in a video example of a mom reading the Very Hungry Caterpillar to her son. “She was so focused on reading, she missed his interest,” Marg said. “He wanted to pretend to eat the food.” Marg has some advice to parents and other adults in a position to present literacy activities to children: “Don’t kill the book.”

Video examples proved the point. Shauna Barrow, Speech-Language Assistant, demonstrated fun ways to share books and explicitly point out the targets with children with the book, One Grey Mouse. At the same time, she was able to respond to each child’s interest (there’s a mouse hiding on each page). The promotion campaign, “Stories in Circle,” courtesy of the Preschool Speech and Language Program, was featured in the presentation. Most of the preschoolers were four or five years old. They informed Shauna when her book was upside down and pointed out the words in the title (good print awareness). They conjured up rhyming words, and noticed the first sound in the word mouse. They were also able to name the letter that makes the ‘mmm’sound (great phonological awareness and alphabet knowledge). Their oral language abilities were encouraged when the story was extended to a song and matching activity.

A key strategy was demonstrated on the clip: responding positively to all children’s early attempts with literacy. Shauna tells the children, “You are such good readers! You are so smart.”

By the day’s end, participants had learned a lot about what is already happening and resources already available to support their work with children. “We should really celebrate all that we are doing right in our two counties,” Marg pointed out. “But there is definitely more work to be done. We have recruited new players for the team and gained ideas for how to proceed. We will definitely work to promote existing resources – such as early literacy suitcases, workshops and training programs – that are available for parents and early learning providers to support them in helping their kids and those in their care.”

If you would like more information on the work of the H-N Literacy Team, contact Lori at the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit, 519-426-6170 or 905-318-6623, Ext. 3244, or Marg at the Ontario Early Years Center, 1-866-463-2759.

Media Contact:
Lori Holstein
Preschool Speech-Language Pathologist
519-426-6170 Ext. 3244 or 905-318-6623 Ext. 3244