Thursday, July 6, 2017

8 Skills Every Literate Child Must Master

Although defined as the ability to read and write, literacy itself is a complex combination of skills. It goes far beyond simply reading and writing. In reality, literacy is the root of all human communication. It requires an ability to identify and interpret messages - spoken or written -  and the ability to effectively formulate and communicate a response.

For children, part of becoming literate requires learning - and mastering - the following skills:

  • print awareness
  • letter identification
  • phonemic awareness
  • phonics
  • reading fluency
  • vocabulary
  • comprehension
  • writing
  • spelling & punctuation

The first step for children is to learn print awareness. This is simply their ability to understand and use print as a communication tool. Kids learn that books are for reading; the words relay information and tell a story. Signs in our environment provide directions, information, or warnings.

Letter identification comes next. Teaching letter identification should begin in preschool at the latest. Really, parents should be reading to their babies and toddlers daily, pointing at words and letters, and creating a print-rich environment for their children through toys, books, artwork, posters, puzzles, alphabet blocks, and more. There are also countless activities dedicated to developing a child's ability to identify the letters of the alphabet. You can find many fabulous ideas on my Pinterest Letter Identification Board.

Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness in which listeners are able to hear, identify and manipulate phonemes, the smallest units of sound that can differentiate meaning. Separating the spoken word "cat" into three distinct phonemes, /k/, /æ/, and /t/, requires phonemic awareness. In simple terms, it is associating specific sounds, called phonemes, with specific letters. English is a bit crazy since it often associates multiple sounds to single letters. We have 26 letters in our alphabet, but we have more than 44 phonemes. For example, the letter Y makes four sounds, as seen in the following words: sky, gym, yoyo, baby. And once you begin combining letters, the number of sounds explodes!

Phonics is the ability to put those phonemes, or letter sounds, together to create words. Teachers always say, "sound it out" to children learning to read. It is a system for learning to read written language. Phonics is closely linked to decoding, the skill associated with interpreting symbols - in this case: letters and words.

Fluency is the ability to read a text accurately, quickly, and with expression. Fluency, in my opinion, takes more time and practice to master. Children who read fluently don't focus on one word read it out loud, and then move on to the next in a choppy manner. For example:

"Maya. The. Cat. Is. Black. And. Traps. Birds. In. The. Yard. And. Eats. Them."

By the time the child has gotten to the end of the sentence, they don't remember what color Maya was because they were focused on decoding one word at a time. Fluency is much smoother and develops after decoding has been mastered so that the child is already looking ahead to the next word and/or thinking about what they just read.

It is important because it provides a bridge between word recognition and comprehension. Over time and with practice, fluent readers automatically recognize words and quickly group them together to gain an understanding of the information being relayed.

Other elements of fluency include rhythm and emotion. When fluent readers read aloud, they sound like they are having a conversation. There's no hesitation and they emphasize certain words. Their voice rises and falls. Listening to audiobooks is an excellent way to help a child learn inflection and rhythm. Reading poetry is another great way to develop these skills.

Developing vocabulary is the next step. If children have a limited vocabulary, it can be hard to communicate effectively. Vocabulary goes beyond decoding to the actual meaning of words. The more words you know and whose meaning you understand, the greater your vocabulary, the better you are at communicating.

Reading comprehension is the ability to read text, process it, and understand its meaning. How well a child is able to comprehend text is influenced by their traits and skills, one of which is the ability to make inferences. An inference is basically an educated guess. You come to a conclusion based on something you read.

"María drove her car to the panadería to stock up on pan dulce."

From this sentence, I would infer that María is not a child and that she has a sweet tooth. Why? Because she must be old enough to drive her car and she is buying a bunch of sweet bread. (Of course, she might be buying it for another reason, but I would need more information.)

Developing a child's reading comprehension skills requires the parent/teacher to stop and ask the child questions about what they've read.

  • Why do you think he did that? 
  • What do you think will happen next? 
  • How did he feel about what just happened? Why?

The questions need to require more than yes or no answers. They should require the child to think about what they've just learned and recall important events or information.

Equally important to reading is the ability to write well. Literate children not only know how to read, but also how to respond and express their own thoughts or relay valuable information in written form. Children should be able to transfer their thoughts to paper in an organized and sequential manner.

And finally, we have spelling and punctuation. These go hand in hand with writing because a misspelled word can either distract the intended reader, or worse, relay the wrong information. Remember María? What if she walked into the panadería and saw this sign:

"Don't touch the pan dulce with your hands - please use tongue"

While María might actually enjoy tasting all of the pan dulce first, the abuelita waiting in line behind her might object and prefer that María use the TONGS instead.

Correct punctuation also provides the reader with guidance for decoding the information being presented. We've all seen the following meme on why grammar matters:

Carlos loves cooking his dog and his family.

No, Carlos is not a cannibal. He actually enjoys cooking, and he enjoys his dog, and he enjoys his family. But punctuation can change the meaning of a sentence dramatically.


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