Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Words Games for Parents

Hooking children on reading and writing. 
If you are reading this blog I probably don't have to convince you that words are pretty important little things. But children aren't born with this conviction. Chocolate before bedtime and needing a new toy at the shops: these are concepts they are born with an innate knowledge of. But the purpose of reading and writing is a vague concept to most kids. That's where we come in. It is up to parents, caregivers and teachers to make the point for literacy loud, clear and irrevocably poignant. Basically, without literacy skills we don't get on well in this world. Words are everywhere. Books are only one place your kids will encounter print, and thus only one means of exposing them to reading and writing. I used to doll out the following suggestions for encouraging literacy skills at parent- teacher interviews, but they are all yours now. Hope they are good food for thought.

Children under Five or Pre-Readers
  • When reading... I'll start here soon as most people think of books when they think of words. Point to pictures. Make comments. Have a whale of a time. Babies get that this crazy thing we do with books called 'reading' is in fact a heap of fun. Later you can trace words with you finger. Even babies can see that when you say a word, you point to some funny marks on the page and it plants the first little seed in their minds that perhaps these pictures and text are actually linked. As children get older (two and up) start pointing out interesting marks near words (question marks, quotation marks, exclamation marks) there's no need to be overly 'teachy' about it, just point out the marks and see if your child wants to ask what they are. If they do, answer in a really simple way. For example,  "Oh, they are marks writers use to show someone is talking"- I use to call them 'talking marks'.
  •  If a text repeats... play 'can you find this word' game on each page. 
  • Have fun with book knowledge...Do crazy stuff like turn the book upside down or start reading from the back of the book. Your child should look at you like you have two heads and laugh and say, "No, Mummy, hold the book like this." Or, "No, Mummy, we start reading here." This is a great way to see what your child knows about text being read from left to right, how you hold books and where you start reading in a book. If they don't see any problem with reading a book backwards then you can say something like, "Oh silly Mummy. That's not the start of the book." Sadly I have seen many kids at the start of school not knowing how to hold a book or where to start reading. It's a dead give away that not much reading is going on at home. Some two year olds will be able to hold a book the right way up, but by three they should definitely know which way to hold a book and how to turn the pages. I have done silly stuff like pretending to read from the pictures. My son use to howl with laughter and say insightful things like, "No, Mummy, the pictures don't tell the words." And then he'd point to the words and say, "See, Mummy, here are the words." Great stuff for teaching about the point of words on a page and the difference between pictures and text. No, this is not immediately self-evident to children.
  • Notice text...everywhere. When you are out and about try doing simple things like pointing out the words in familiar signs. Sadly, my son could read the words 'K-mart' and 'Target' before he was three. Hmmm...we might have gone shopping a few times! If you have boys, road signs and cars with text on them will be very intriguing. I never realised how many road signs  there were between home and Nan's until my son demanded I read them all to him all the time... thank goodness he got over that little habit.
  • Mention that you are reading and writing... Saying things like, "Mummy can't park here because the sign says 'no parking,"or "Mummy's just writing a letter to Nan," or Mummy's making a shopping list, do you want to hold it in the supermarket?" All these comments build up a picture in your child's head that reading and writing are incredibly useful skills to have. Beware; you may find yourself doing a lot of 'reading' in public. My son used to make me read each item off the shopping list as we put it in the cart. And whoa to me if it wasn't on the list...
  • Label stuff... Names on their bedroom doors, Lego labels on the Lego box, 'Jack's toys' on the toy box etc. I'm not suggesting you go writing on everything in the house, but some labels, especially their name, will help immensely with beginning word recognition and once again build the idea that reading and writing are useful skills. 
Children over Five or Readers
  • Let the fun begin...when reading to them (you're still doing this, right?) start talking about meaning behind text. Just posing natural questions will do the trick. What do you think will happen next? Why do you think the pig did that? What would you do if you were (insert book charcters name)? These types of questions start to expose kids to the idea that books can and should be explored, thought about and questioned. Believe me, this is exactly the kind of skill your teacher is desperately trying to drum into them at school. Comprehension questions are boring, so don't make this a teaching type time, just have fun pulling apart plots and characters and making outrageous guesses about what you might do if you met a dragon or owned a magic hat etc.
  • Involve your kids in the writing process. Writing thank you cards, addressing envelopes, making lists of things to buy or do, making wish lists for birthdays and Christmas, labelling their school books or belongings etc. Isaiah and I started this happy little game of writing each other a note before bedtime. We write it on the Magna Doodle beside his bed. He writes first and when I come to check on him before I go to bed I read his note and then write one back. He loves waking up in the morning to find out what I have written.
  • Notice text and let them use this I mean, you now have a little reader on your hands. Let them practise their skills in meaningful ways. Isaiah loves to do the self check out thing at the grocery store which involves reading the prompts. I also let him get certain grocery items and tell him to read the labels. When cooking I let him read the recipe, when trying to find a street, I ask him to help by reading the street signs. I involve him whenever I can in day to day reading and writing skills. After all daily life is where  I mostly use these skills.
  • Play games with words whenever the mood strikes. A couple of Isaiah's favourite words games  are rhyming words, escpecailly nonsense rhyming words.( We have doctor Suess to thank for that!) I'll say 'goose', he'll say 'kfoose'. Silly, I know, but the skills of rhyming, word sounds, word families etc are never a waste of time. The other game he likes is 'find another word'. I'll say 'big', he'll say 'enormous', then I'll say 'huge' and he'll say 'massive'. The game goes until one of you can't think of another word that means the same as the original word. 'Half the sentence' is another crazy game we play. I start the sentence, he finishes it. My dog...has really huge blue legs. Or whatever other silliness you can think of. The point is to have fun and use words. Explore language and expose them to unfamiliar words while increasing their vocabs. I will admit I have increased my own vocab playing these games. Isaiah is getting very good at them and I can't just lose!
  • Older kids might be interested in more meaningful discussions around text, especially where it concerns media and popular culture. The grade nines I used to teach wouldn't be caught dead with a book, but happily used their phones to text and sat on the net for hours. Older kids read, it just might not look like a book. If you stay connected to your kids you will find ways to stay involved with their worlds and thus encourage them as readers and writers. 
Have fun. Most important. Kids have inbuilt radars for 'work'. If that's what your 'games' become they won't be fun. Maybe none of these suggestions are for you. I simply encourage you to find ways to promote reading and writing outside of the classroom. Amazing things like 'fun', 'happy memories',  'building connections' and 'spending time together' will probably happen, if nothing else. What have you got to lose?

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