Why I’m Not Teaching My Toddler ABCs

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As a parent of a 4 and 2 year old, and a professional in speech and language development, I spend a lot of time with young children and their families. One of the biggest trends I have noticed amongst today’s parents is placing a high priority on having their young children learn to identify their ABCs. In my experience this typically begins around age 2, but I have even spoken to mothers of infants who are encouraging their babies to learn letters too. Parents buy flash cards, apps and toys that center around learning letter identification and when I ask families why this is a priority for them the most common answer I receive is that they feel learning ABCs is important for helping their children learn to read.

While it is true that letter knowledge is an important piece in reading success, it is only one small portion of the bigger picture. Reading typically begins around age 5, and just as you need to crawl before you walk, there are certain early literacy skills children need to master before they can become strong readers.

In this post I want to share some information about the building blocks for early literacy and things you can do to help babies, toddlers and preschoolers get ready to learn their ABCs.

Oral language is the foundation for reading

Most people think that speaking and reading are two separate skills, but in fact they are interrelated. Children with strong oral language skills (e.g., speaking and understanding words, grammar and sentences) go on to have strong reading skills. Think of oral language like the foundation of a house. If the foundation is strong, when you build your first floor on top (e.g., reading) and your second floor on top of that (e.g., writing) your house will be strong and stable because it has a well-formed foundation. If your foundation is shaky, when you put your reading and writing floors on, you will likely see problems as you continue to build.

Vocabulary knowledge is directly related to reading abilities

Reading has two distinct parts. One is being able to decode words to read aloud and the other is being able to understand what is read. Vocabulary size is directly related to reading comprehension, where having a larger vocabulary makes it easier for children to understand words they read and provides them with better story comprehension abilities. Babies start building their vocabularies before they even say first words and vocabularies continue to grow into adulthood. When children are young they learn most new vocabulary through daily routines and the interactions they have with caregivers and parents.

Print awareness and early experiences with print are related to reading skills

Print awareness is the understanding that letters combine to make words and that these forms have meaning. This is not simply being able to identify the letter A, but becoming aware that there is print all around us and we use this ‘code’ to communicate messages. Children gain this knowledge by having it brought directly to their attention during interactions with adults in their lives. For example pointing to words while reading a book or showing a child environmental print such as on cereal boxes, clothing or street signs.

Phonological awareness is critical to reading success

Phonological awareness is the understanding that words can be broken down into syllables and smaller sounds, as well as the letter-sound correspondence. Although phonological awareness includes being able to know letter names, it also involves learning letter sounds. Most children are not ready to begin explicit instruction of phonological awareness skills until around age 3 or 4, but these skills can be implicitly taught before this age through songs and rhymes beginning in infancy. In fact, a recent study found that strong nursery rhyme knowledge in preschoolers was related to better reading skills at school age.

Book handling behaviours and a love of literacy

Wanting to read books and understanding how to handle literacy materials is vital to raising a life-long successful reader. Nothing influences this ability more than the experiences children have at home beginning from a very early age. Research continues to show that parent involvement with reading activities at home is one of the most powerful predictors of reading and academic success. We also know that children whose parents demonstrate the view that reading is valuable and worthwhile have children who are motivated to read on their own for pleasure.

How parents can help develop early literacy skills at home

Now that we know that early literacy is more than just letters, what exactly can parents do to help? Here are just a few ideas to get you started. For more ideas access the reference list provided. I also highly recommend getting the book I’m Ready: How To Prepare Your Child For Reading Success by Janice Greenberg and Elaine Weitzman.

  • Regularly engage children in back and forth conversations based on their interests. For babies and toddlers this will be very simple; exchanging single words or short phrases. Conversations should become more sophisticated with age and as a child’s language level develops.
  • Continue to grow vocabulary by constantly introducing new words during daily routines and book reading. Ensure broad vocabulary development by choosing words from all language categories, such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions, pronouns, etc..
  • Tell oral stories to children and encourage them to tell stories to you. Use pretend play as a way to facilitate story telling based on a child’s preferences.
  • Point out environmental print during daily routines, such as showing a child the word ‘Cheerios’ on the cereal box before giving them some, or directing their attention to the words on their favourite shirt.
  • Sing songs and recite nursery rhymes daily. Repeat children’s favourites over and over, pausing and letting them fill in sounds or words where they can.
  • Preschoolers can begin discussing rhymes and syllables. Find fun and creative ways to help them develop these skills, such as beating syllables on a drum or playing simple games like jumping up and down when they hear words that rhyme.
  • Read to children a lot. Beginning from birth children should be read to daily. Create a positive home literacy environment by finding as many natural opportunities to introduce books into daily life as possible, such as having children explore books in the car or stroller while on the go, reading rubber books during bath or stories before bed.
  • Make book reading a time for conversation. Engage children in stories by encouraging them to ask questions or make comments. In addition, strategically ask children a few questions throughout the book that help deepen story comprehension.

References:

Duursma, E., Augustyn, M. & Zuckerman, B. (2008). Reading aloud to children: the evidence. Archives of Disease in Childhood: 93(7), 554-557.

Greenberg, J. & Weitzman, E. (2014). I’m Ready: How To Prepare Your Child For Reading Success. Toronto: Hanen Centre Publication.

Pelletier, J. (2011). What works?: Research into practice. Research Monograph#37. Retrieved online on September 11, 2015: https://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/WW_Early_Language.pdf

National Literacy Trust (2011). A research review: the importance of families and the home environment. Retrieved online on September 9, 2015: http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/assets/0000/7901/Research_review-importance_of_families_and_home.pdf


Lynn is a speech-language pathologist and the founder of Talking Together. She has received a master’s degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders from Western University and has achieved clinical certification from Speech-Language and Audiology Canada. Lynn also has additional certification as a Hanen Centre It Takes Two to Talk instructor, as well as training in applied behaviour analysis (ABA), picture exchange communication system (PECS), augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) and American Sign Language (ASL). Her research has been published in the journal of Memory and Cognition and the Canadian Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology.

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