Creating Literacy Skills Through Shared Meaning

Julie A. Riess, PhD, is the Senior Advisor on Child Development and Education at Families and Work Institute.

Portions of this article were originally published in the Poughkeepsie Journal through Gannett Publications on 7/24/11 and 8/7/11.

Did you know that from the first moment you speak your baby’s name or sing a lullaby you are developing your baby’s early literacy skills?

We tend to think of literacy as “reading and writing” but more broadly literacy refers to the creation of shared meaning and shared communication. The dance of communication between infant and parent is essential to building a world of shared meaning for the child.

In fact, all the ways that we create shared meaning and communication are various forms of literacy. For example, I think my husband and son actually can speak in a computer language.  Our children at ages 25, 19 and 13 have vastly better music literacy skills than either of their parents; their ability to talk about the creation and production of music across instruments is amazing.  (Imagine dinner conversations that include bantering about improvising in a 7/8 time signature.)

A common element across various types of literacy is the use of a symbol system. In reading and writing, it is letters and punctuation. In computers, it is sets of symbols that comprise separate languages. In music, it is musical notation that includes math symbol systems like numbers. To become literate in a given area, we first learn the corresponding symbol system.

It is this first step of understanding the symbols that can lead us to focus on teaching letters and numbers to young children. The problem is that it is only a step; learning symbols like the alphabet is necessary but not sufficient to achieve literacy in reading and writing. It is a necessary tool to help us create shared meaning, but it lacks the crafting of the process that leads to true shared communication.

Researchers have helped us understand three things that parents can do everyday to make a difference in helping children create rich and sophisticated literacy skills in reading and writing.  Of those three, only one is specifically linked to books.

1)   Use sophisticated vocabulary in conversations with your children and other adults each day. Young children develop language at an astonishing rate in the first five years of life.  They hear new words imbedded in conversations, and work to understand their meaning from context. Children who hear sophisticated vocabulary as part of meal time conversations can have five times the amount of vocabulary words entering kindergarten as children who hear little or mostly directive (“sit down”; “finish your peas”) conversation. Starting school with a base vocabulary of 3,000 words compared to the possibility of 15,000 creates a learning challenge long before a child opens their first Level 1 reader.

A word of advice: exposing your child to a rich vocabulary during meal time is not the same as using flash cards or quizzing children about word definitions.  Children benefit the most from conversations that are in context and help to create shared meaning, including among the adults at the table.

2)   Read with your child every day. This may seem like old news, but let me highlight some important features. The goal of reading with your child is to create shared meaning through the experience of sharing the book; thus, reading with your child is different than reading at your child. Children need to be a part of the process, which can include picking out the story, asking you to read the same story many times, and snuggling near you to see the pages and feel the rhythm of your body as you speak the words. Shared reading also includes asking your child to imagine what will happen next or how a character might feel in a situation. Last but not least, reading with your child includes modeling reading by sitting together and each reading your own books.  Teachers sometimes do this by incorporating classroom time for D.E.A.R.: Drop Everything And Read. In D.E.A.R, it is essential that the adult(s) in the room also drop everything and read (books not papers to grade!).

One of my favorite tips for traveling parents is to pre-record a few of your child’s familiar books so they can listen to your voice and read along even when you are not nearby. These days, it is possible to Skype reading time! Regardless of the source, the message to your child is that reading time together is important and something you treasure doing with him or her each day.

3)  Carry your conversations beyond the here and now, and across contexts. One of the best and most flexible ways to help children develop these skills is to create shared stories. Developing story lines, whether as oral (spoken) stories or written stories, can begin early and last a lifetime. Yet with young children who can pose endless questions from morning to night, adults may find it easier to answer the question than expand the question into a story. Like most of parenting, the goal is to find a balance.

Let me start with an example. In infancy and toddlerhood, children are absorbing information at an astonishing rate. Pointing and eventually asking, “what’s ‘dat?” are key tools that they use over and over to acquire information about the world around them. I remember hours of reading my son Richard Scarry books, which are known for their detailed illustrations. In Scarry’s transportation book, a page about fancy cars might include the hotdog car, the red racing car, and the very long car with teeth driven by the dentist.  We didn’t read the story; we labeled each vehicle on every page. It could easily take thirty minutes to read Cars, Trucks and Things That Go, which would include virtually no plot but labeling hundreds of vehicles (real and fictional).

The labeling phase is an example of reading in the here and now. There is an object or a word and the adult identifies it for the child. The question and the answer are fixed and finite. Building core vocabulary is a necessary step in learning how to communicate. As the rate of labeling increases through the early preschool years, adults can get into the routine of being something like a human dictionary on autopilot.

Thankfully, just when adults start to think about hiding certain repetitious books to maintain their sanity, children begin to ask “why”.  This opens another literacy floodgate: creating stories.

Story starters can come in many forms. Here is a sampling of some of my favorites.

  • Familiar pictures. Copy or scan a picture from one of your child’s favorite books. Ask them to tell you the story in their own words. You can write it down to create a mini book or tape record it and play it back. Remind them that it doesn’t have to be the same words as the author chose to still be a good story. Lots of great stories have been told by different people over many years! This is a good introduction to story starters because it builds on something familiar and enjoyed by your child.
  • Another version of using familiar pictures is to take a photo of your child (or family, friends, etc.) and then have them build a story around it. This might start as primarily a factual recall, but it is a good springboard to extending beyond the context of the picture itself. Change one element of the literal context to go beyond the here and now. For example, imagine a picture of your child building a sand castle on the beach. You might ask: “What if you were building that sandcastle and it started to rain?” or “What if a sea dragon came out of the lake?”
  • Write down story starters and pick them out of a hat. This is a great activity for the dinner table, a long car ride, or waiting at a restaurant. Younger children might need to begin with simple lines such as, “Once upon a time a fairy princess was riding through the forest when suddenly…” or “Once upon a time, there was a child who wanted to ride the longest, fastest train in the world…”  Older children can increasingly add fantasy and surreal elements. “Once upon a time there was a horse who wanted to travel to the moon…” or “Once upon a time there was a robot who cleaned kids’ rooms but he was invisible to all the grown ups…”

The list of story starters/builders is as endless as your imagination yet built on a few simple questions: who, what, where, when and why. And don’t forgot:

“And then what happened?”


Photo/image by: Chris Perriman / Flickr