The magical thing about knowing a young child is seeing how their world is full of, well, magic! They are constantly fascinated by everything around them. Their minds remind me of roses - little tiny rosebuds when they're born and with each new experience an unfolding of the petal blossoms.
In the last few months, my 5-year-old daughter, Nina, has entered an exciting new phase of her life: learning to read. I didn't quite realize how fascinating this milestone would be. As I watch her enjoy this discovery and embrace the challenges of it, I am filled with gratitude to witness the blossoming of a beautiful mind.
Each stage of a child's life is a layer upon which a new level of awareness is achieved, and learning to read is a perfect example of that. Now that she has arrived at this place, it's clear to see how the process of learning how to read starts when a child is born.
Telling stories and singing songs to infants and toddlers establish deep roots about the power and joy of words. One of the first songs many 2- and 3-year-olds can sing is the ABC's. At first it's just a fun song to sing, but then it evolves. They come to understand that the song is really about letters and that letters are symbols for individual sounds.
Many early educators incorporate literacy activities into the curriculum of their programs. In Nina's classroom this past year, her teacher created a plan that allowed the children to discover and explore the
Throughout the two-week period, the children did many activities to continually practice using and hearing the letter sound. They brainstormed and kept a running list of words that began with the particular sound, the books they read together often had titles and characters with the letter in the name, and the children were encouraged to bring something from home for their "share" that began with that sound. Having activities like this in place helped us as parents reinforce at home what she was surrounded by at school.
About half way into the school year, we decided and declared to her "you can read!" and since then she's been practicing with more and more success. At first, it was very slow. We sat on each side of her, encouraging her to sound out each letter. Then, the magic happened. She'd hear herself say the sounds, a pause (during which we'd do our best to keep our lips sealed and not say the word for her), and then it would click. She'd make the connection and shout out the word. She would be very proud of herself, as she should be! As a parent, this really was a beautiful thing to watch.
Learning to read is more dynamic than just practicing letter sounds. It's also a lot about context and surrounding images. A few weeks ago, she picked a bedtime book that she got on her first birthday called "First the Egg." Each page either starts with "First the ..." or "Then the ...." Having heard this story and feasted her eyes on the beautifully painted pictures for years, reading this book on her own for the first time turned out to be easy and very rewarding for her.
She knew the pattern well and she could identify the pictures. At times, it was almost like reading backwards. For example, when she got to "First the caterpillar ..." page, she saw and said the image, and then glanced at the long line of letters that made the word. The image was informing the word. It's an incredible dance of the eyes, the memory and the mind.
My co-worker Emily and I were recently chuckling about how when young children are given a choice of books, they will typically choose one that is familiar. Windham Child Care Association was recently giving away free books at an outreach event and Emily, who administers our Early Learning Express (bookmobile) program, was telling me how many parents could be heard saying "honey, you have that book already, why don't you choose one that's new to you?"
I've been that mom, too. At my girls' child care center, there is an annual book exchange. Families are encouraged to bring in books that they'd like to donate and they're then invited to take home a few books.
Both my girls have circled the room only to grab the very books that I brought in to donate and exchange! In the past, I've had the inclination to encourage them to find new books instead. But now, seeing how the familiarity of a book can have such a powerful impact on learning, I'm inspired to take their lead and foster those connections.
It's important to remember how fortunate we are in this community. During a conversation with my sister-in-law, who is a social worker in Brooklyn, N.Y., I was reminded that not all children and families have access to the information and resources that support literacy skills at an early age. She said that many of the families she works with don't have an overflow of children's books in their homes like many of us do. In fact, some of them have none.
My reaction of disbelief was telling. In our happy little corner of Vermont, we live in a place where there is access to books everywhere we look. We have an abundance of opportunities for young children to get excited about learning and for parents and educators to have resources available to them: pediatricians hand out new books at well-baby visits, elementary school principals remind parents how important it is to read to their children, Windham Child Care Association's Early Learning Express program visits child care programs throughout the county, bringing books, literacy activities, information and resources to early educators. I am thankful to live and work in this community.
When my 3-year-old daughter recently asked Nina to read a birthday card she received, Nina took it and starting reading out loud as if it's nothing new. But it is. It's new and incredible and magical. My heart swells with pride and gratitude as I dream about the opportunities that await her with this new discovery.
Sarah DiNicola is the Communications & Events Coordinator at Windham Child Care Association, and the mother of two young children, Sylvia, age 3, and Nina, age 5, who both spend time in a local child care program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-5332 ext. 310.