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Not Just Books: How Educators Can Support Families in Promoting Early Literacy

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies…The man who never reads lives only one,” – said George R.R. Martin, the American novelist. Reading is the foundation for exploring curiosity and building the mindfulness that later becomes creativity. But do families understand the foundation of reading itself or is their focus on placing a book in their child’s hands?

That is not to undermine the value of books. However, not all families know that traditional books are only one way to promote literacy and a love of words and language.

Often, families might visualize children sitting down in a circle as the teacher provides direction, but early literacy skills and programs are a much more flexible, interactive, and creative process. To help illuminate learning development programs, we, as educators, can help families recognize that they, through tactics such as conversations with children, storybook reading, and building awareness of the sounds of language, can surround their children with a language-rich environment.

Sharing Tips and Tricks with Families

Educators can pass on many of the tactics employed in a classroom to families, who, in turn, take them back to their own households. For example, families are not always aware of the immense benefit that children gain from being exposed to talking. Talking to children, especially babies, helps them understand the language they will eventually learn and also exposes them to a broad vocabulary. As caregivers describe what they are doing, what they are feeling, and what they are reading, it helps children to understand different concepts and introduces them to things like animals, shapes, and colors. An example of this could be during diaper changes, mealtime, and even while driving.

Another tactic educators can promote is role-playing, which exposes children to writing and narrative skills. Pretending the house is a restaurant and allowing a child to take a meal order builds upon their literacy skills by creating a sequence of orders, listening skills, and cognitive ability. You can suggest any play-based examples, such as holding tea parties or even prepping food ingredients. One study from the Metropolitan State University of Denver illustrated those children will spend considerable time on interactive activities, which subsequently helps them accumulate important literacy concepts and abilities.

Another trick to offer families is using music as a teaching tool. After all, it is often said that nothing is universal and applicable to all people except for music. Everyone has a favorite song they like to sing or hum in the car ride to school or the grocery store. Children love to play with sounds and words: singing, poems, and rhymes all are part of the foundation of increasing a child’s awareness of the sounds of language by introducing concepts such as alliteration (Sally Sells Seashells by the Seashore) and sound matching. Families can be made to feel confident that their favorite song, nursery rhymes, and even imitating a dog barking are components of early literacy instruction.

Environmental Print

We are cognizant of the fact that for many families across the country, access to books is not assured, particularly for children from economically disadvantaged and at-risk backgrounds. According to the Heart of America Foundation, 61% of families living in poverty do not have books in their homes and, subsequently, face the secondary consequence of their children having a less expansive vocabulary than their peers when they begin school.

This disproportionately impacts some children and families more than others. In a study concerning access to books and time to read, published in the English Journal, researchers found that socioeconomic status remained the strongest predictor of reading achievement.

Undeniably, books are one of the most powerful tools to have to build literacy skills – but they are not the be-all and end-all. Families can still build literacy skills by using printed material in their everyday environment, the so-called ‘environmental print.’ Everywhere you look, items such as billboards, cereal boxes, closed captions on a digital device, and menus at restaurants offer opportunities to show children how to read. Through environmental print, children begin to learn the structure of reading (i.e., reading from left to right and top to bottom), bolster their letter knowledge, and asking children to find letters that begin with the same first letter of their name is another fun activity for alphabet recognition.

Extra, Extra – Read All About It

While educators can provide tactics to families to support their child’s education at home, access to a high-quality preschool program significantly improves future performance. For example, the High/Scope Perry Preschool study (1962-1967) divided 123 low-income children into two groups; one received a high-quality preschool education, while the other group did not. The key metrics across education, economic performance, crime, and health were clear. In every area, children who received preschool programs consistently outperformed their counterparts, including on intellectual and language tests – not only in their preschool years, but in later years from ages 19 to 27.

These studies show how important early education is to foster lifelong habits. By promoting early literacy in families and children, ECE professionals strive to ensure that children enter kindergarten with a love of books and a readiness to learn that will continue for the rest of their lives.

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Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning are subsidiaries of Milton Hershey School and will be staffed and operated independently of the Milton Hershey School core model.

Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning admits students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national and ethnic origin in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic and other school-administered programs.