Showing posts with label Preschool. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Preschool. Show all posts

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Teaching My Daughters to Read -- Part II, Print Awareness

Last week, I began a multi-part series on how I taught my daughters to read. My oldest daughter wryly replied to that entry, suggesting I could have saved a lot of pixels if I had just said that I hired a tutor…. And her son who just had his third birthday (and who did not read that entry) informed me that his goal for being 3-years-old was to read words.

In that first entry, I described the literacy context in which my daughters grew up. Now, let’s turn to the more formal side of the teaching.

When the girls were 2-3 years old, more explicit teaching was introduced. Each child was encouraged to tell stories (often recounting personal experiences—I think this may have started with a family vacation). Essentially, these were language-experience approach stories. They would tell the story and I’d print them out in letters, two-lines high with plenty of space between words (initially on pieces of paper, and later in composition books—which they still have). I’d read the stories back to them, and they would choral read with me.

Over time, they came to recognize some of the words in their stories. This was less direct teaching (I did not set out to teach particular words), but I was just responsive to what they were picking up. If they seemed to remember a particular word, I’d add it to an index card (yes, a flash card); if they forgot it at some point, that word would disappear from the pack.

The point was to build a collection of words that they would recognize at sight. Like most children, they were fascinated by words like mommy, daddy, grandma, grandpa, as well as their names and their sister’s name. They each managed to develop a sight vocabulary of approximately 25 words—words they could recognize out of context—before they could actually read.

This facet of what I did probably accomplished several goals beyond getting some written words into their memories:

(1) it would have developed an understanding of print awareness (including directionality, the idea that letters are used to write words, the concept of word—the idea that words are separable);
(2) it would have further sensitized them to the relationship between language and reading (since they saw language being recorded and read back);

(3) it would have started to sensitize them to the idea of the permanence of literacy, that we could read back the words and that they didn’t change over time;

(4) it may have provided them with some baseline insights into sound-symbol relationships (as I would repeat their words as I wrote them)—however, I don’t think it was particularly powerful in this regard and I did not stress that.

Thus, we built an early base of both word knowledge and print awareness.

Authorities argue over whether you should start with words or letters and sounds. My reading is that here is no convincing evidence on either side; research seems to show that both approaches work and that they do not need to be mutually exclusive.

In our case, the whole time we were meeting the goals listed above, we were also explicitly teaching letters and sounds, and later spelling patterns. Thus, when they were telling these language experience stories, they were also memorizing their letters and learning the letter sounds.

(The same thing is currently going on with my grandson. He is currently learning some words, but he already knows all of the letters—lower case and upper case, and the simple sounds that go with all or most of the consonants. He isn’t decoding yet, but he is gaining the raw materials needed to do that well).

We did many language experience stories and this soon morphed into the kids doing their own writing--they could both "write" before they could read. But let me add one additional "print awareness" activity that we found beneficial.

I have already described the extensive shared reading that we did with our girls. Remember, I was a young professor at the time, still learning lots about my craft. One day I was reading some research studies by Ferreiro & Teberosky. They described how the children they were studying had to learn that the words on the page told the story (the kids thought their parents made up the stories based on the pictures). I'd never noticed that confusion before--whether it had been there or not--but I brought this one home right away.

That evening when I was reading to E., she put her hand on the page as young children do. Usually I would have just moved it away and kept reading, but this time I stopped in my tracks. "What's wrong?" she asked.

"You've covered the words, so I can't read them."

"You read that?"


She was amazed and the rest of that reading was spent with her trying to interfere with it by anticipating where my eyes were going to be looking. Despite having the benefit of outstanding parents, she had no idea what to look at during reading before this. Not surprisingly, I introduced M. to this little game earlier than I had done with her sister. 

Japanese scholars have long believed that when parents point at the text that they read to their children, that they are teaching important aspects of print awareness. You don't always have to print at what you read, but it is a good idea to do that some of the time.

Next week I’ll get into the home decoding instruction more explicitly.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Teaching My Daughters to Read; Part I -- Context

Hi Dr. Shanahan,

I couldn't help but notice in your latest blog post the mention of how you "remember vividly teaching your oldest daughter to read."  I am writing in hopes that you'd be willing to share - either with me or your readers on your blog - what you did (either in broad strokes or even specifics) to teach her to read.  

I would not expect you to publicly endorse a program or approach nor am I asking you to divulge anything about your family publicly - I'm simply in the same position as a father of a four year old daughter and sincerely interested in how you approached this fun and special opportunity.

Response- Part I:

Yes, we taught both of our girls to read at home before they started school. I’d be happy to tell you how, but that will have to spread out across a few entries to do the topic justice.

Anyone who has had one child is usually a deep believer in the power of DNA; anyone with two realizes that couldn’t be the explanation. Children can be pretty different, and my daughters definitely were not cut from the same cloth. Some of what we did with them was the same, and some of our efforts differed because of their differences.

For instance, language came much easier to my oldest (E), while my youngest (M) was a late talker (or, perhaps, more accurately, her development was slowed by having an older sibling who spoke for her—not surprisingly her spokesperson eventually became a lawyer). When M was three, we took her to the neighborhood elementary school to get speech services, focused on pronunciations and general vocabulary.

Let’s start with context. Most kids don’t “learn to read” just from being in a literate environment; teaching is needed, too. But that doesn’t mean that context does not matter so let me describe that. There were lots of opportunities for our kids to find out about literacy and language and to develop some motivation for it.

Both girls were read to a lot, though E received more of this—mainly because she was more attentive and interested from an early age. Shared reading started within hours of birth for both, and they were exposed to typical picture books (usually read by their mother) and advanced chapter books (my contribution). There was no set schedule for this reading, but it typically took place several times per week throughout their childhoods, including when they were learning to read from more explicit lessons.

E stayed interested in my book sharing once she was a toddler, so reading Charlotte’s Web or Grimm’s Fairy Tales to her was a joyful duty. M, once mobile, made it clear that having her father read to her was something to avoid.

This will sound horrible, but I’d have to “capture” her—that is, I’d grab her up in my arms for reading—initially for very brief periods (often fewer than 15 seconds at a time). She’d wiggle, wrestle, and squirm away, giggling all the way, but resistant to the book sharing.

Over time, she grew less resistant and could sit longer and longer; it was never unpleasant, but at first it was unusually brief and was not something to which she submitted willingly. [Lest this description sound too negative, I would point out that M. and I continued to read together until she was a freshman in high school—and those exchanges and the books themselves are something that we are quite both sentimental about today).

Each girl owned their own little library and books were often given as presents to them. They also had magazine subscriptions, too, and the public library was close. Rarely did a week go by that they didn’t bring home an armful of books.

The books that my wife read to them tended to be these library books (picture books for the most part) and from the girl’s own libraries while the books that I read tended to be in our library (or they were classic books with which they had been gifted).

It can take a long time to read books like “The Yearling,” “Gulliver’s Travels,” “The Hobbit,” or the “Odyssey.” Given that I often tried to follow the completion of these books up with some fun activity. Sometimes we would rent a videotape of the book and pop some corn and make an evening of it. A couple times we even built vacations around particular books (“Tom Sawyer” led to a visit to Hannibal, Missouri, and “Misty of Chincoteague” had us meeting the island ponies in Virginia).
The TV was often on in our house and they would watch Sesame Street often (and there are some reading and language lessons there). Later they became big fans of “Little House on the Prairie” and “Anne of Green Gables” (we read a lot of those books, too).

Lots of toys in the household had literacy or language themes, too, including alphabet blocks, early electronic toys that taught about flags, musical instruments, and flags. And, they definitely saw their parents reading and writing both for pleasure and work.

Not only did we read to the kids a lot (from the first day), but we spoke to them a lot, too. Reading is a language activity and our children had lots of opportunity to hear language, to engage in language—including songs, nursery rhymes, and language games. For example, we used to play Game of Fives. I’d name a category and the kids would try to come up with five examples (5 toys, 5 kinds of jewelry, 5 family members, 5 colors—and later 5 lakes, 5 states, 5 shapes, etc.).

As, I said, context alone is usually insufficient to cause someone to be a reader, but it does carry lessons, opportunities to learn, and motivation. My daughters were surrounded by literacy and language and this likely played an important role in the eventual success of the lessons that we provided to them. I’ll write about those lessons next week.

Monday, March 31, 2014

To Play or Not to Play (in K and Pre), That is the Question

During both my childhood and the early years of my teaching career “reading readiness” dominated. The idea was that if you taught kids reading too early, you would do damage. My kindergarten teacher warned Mom not to try to teach me anything, and we were still stalling when I taught first grade.

Recently, a study at the University of Virginia found that we now live in a different world. Most kindergarten teachers believe that they should teach reading and that is pretty common in preschools, too. The headline in Education Week says it all: “Study Find Reading Lessons Edging Out Kindergarten Play.”

I’ve been a big cheerleader for early reading instruction, and why not? The research is overwhelming. Despite theories that teaching reading early would damage kids, there is no empirical evidence supporting those claims. As Head Start kids have ramped up their literacy knowledge over the past several years, their emotional health has improved along with it. Hundreds of studies now show benefits to teaching kids early.

However, that doesn’t mean that kids shouldn’t be playing or that the preschool and kindergarten environments shouldn’t be encouraging and supportive. Too often I see kindergarten reading instruction that doesn’t match well with the research findings.

I would strongly encourage the kinds of play/literacy lessons that Susan Neumann has long championed. Have restaurants, newspaper publishers, post offices, and libraries set up in these classrooms and engage children in literacy play.

Of course, phonological awareness and phonics should be taught explicitly, but the research is very clear that this should be small group work—engaging and interactive. (None of the studies with young kids which decoding instruction was effective presented the lessons to whole classes). Kids can respond in a variety of ways as well. If you are quizzing kids on whether they hear the same sounds at the beginnings of two words, they can jump or clap or rub their tummies to respond. Movement fits into such lessons real well, and various songs and language games can be used, too.

Encourage pretend reading and pretend writing and use techniques like language experience approach to introduce kids to text (and to encourage them to do their own writing). Label everything in classrooms, but involve kids in doing that.

My point is simply this: We should teach literacy in preschool and kindergarten. But play can be the basis of effective literacy lessons. Play more literacy in the early grades and avoid seeming like a fourth-grade class for young’uns. It is not an either or (despite the Ed Week headline); kids can play more and get more literacy instruction.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Early Literacy Questions and Answers

Last week I did a webinar in which I shared the results of the National Early Literacy Panel (NELP), which reviewed research on literacy development and instruction with preschoolers and kindergarten (there is a link to the report in the right hand margin of my site).

I was asked if I would answer questions mailed in by the audience. I agreed, and below have included my answers. Thought they might be interesting to a larger audience, so here they are:

1. In our preschool classrooms, what are the top 5 techniques we should being using?

Staying very close to the findings I would say: (a) definitely teach the alphabetic code; that means working with phonological awareness, letter names, and letter sounds (such teaching was found to be beneficial with kids in this age group and the teaching seemed to have long-lasting value); (b) also, it is a good idea to read books to children daily and to talk to them about what you are reading (ask them questions about it, explain the vocabulary, listen to their ideas, make connections to what they know)--reading to children in this way helps build their language; (c) involve children in writing (pretend writing, writing their names, dictating words/stories/ideas to you); (d) build the children’s language (use interesting and complex language yourself, engage children in activities that raise ideas and that give the opportunity for using language (e.g., cooking, measuring, science activities, arts and crafts), don’t accept vague or weak language from the children, but elaborate on it and get them to speak in complete thoughts, using the right words; and (e) get moms and dads helping in the process, they can help with many of the items above.

2. Is there a literacy readiness test that is highly correlated with actual readiness that you can recommend?

Get Ready to Read! which is made available by the National Center for Learning Disabilities is a good predictor and its design is consistent with the research findings on early literacy.

3. Did the survey find any longitudinal studies of very early decoding? What I have in mind is children who learn to decode at age two, say--how do they do later on?

No, and there are very few studies of younger children (none of 2 year olds, and only a handful with 3 year olds). Generally, we found that the children younger than 5 (meaning the 3s and 4s) who did well with decoding, also did well with later reading (both decoding and comprehension). It is clearly valuable to get them started early, but no info on the 2s.

4. Does RAN (rapid naming) correlate to the use of flash cards? Are you recommending flash cards, and if so, at what age levels? What is your opinion about using flash cards with very young children?

I know of no studies connecting RAN to flash card use, and I do not believe that the evidence in any way suggests that you should even try to teach RAN. (Flash cards with words or pictures or letters are okay to use with young children at any age, BUT if you spend a couple of hours a day engaged in the types of activities noted in item 1 above, proportionally it would make sense to work with flashcards only for a few minutes of that time (in other words, it wouldn’t even get 5% of your literacy time). Flashcards can be a useful tool for memorization (I use them myself when I am trying to learn this kind of information), but their use has to be lively, quick, and brief to have much value.

5. What are the most important early childhood teaching implications for this research?

That you can provide young children with supports for their literacy learning from the very beginning. I vividly remember when “experts” (without data) were claiming that either young children would not be ready to benefit from such teaching or that such teaching would do harm. What the research overwhelmingly shows is that young children clearly benefit from such teaching and the benefits can be long lasting (if the schools build on these children’s early learning). A second important idea is that there is not one thing that has to be done (different activities had different outcomes and young readers need support in various literacy-related outcomes to be successful).

6. What are the teaching implications for older students who may not have these pre-requisite skills to be able to use reading for learning? grades 4-8?

There were no implications for those kids at all from this analysis. However, the National Reading Panel (NRP) looked at such issues (there is a link to that report on the right as well) and they found that teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, and oral reading fluency to struggling readers in those age ranges resulted in improvement. However, in all cases, the NRP concluded that such learning was slower and more difficult (so definitely try to accomplish it early) and some of this teaching (such as phonics) didn’t have the same impact on other aspects of reading that it did when children were younger (again, it is critical that these skills get accomplished as early as possible, but when that has not happened it is important to try to build that foundation later on--though that effort will likely be difficult).

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Great New Resource for Little Ones

How can parents and teachers increase their young children's knowledge of the world, as such knowledge propels reading comprehension? Certainly, it is a good idea to talk to your child a lot, pointing things out, defining them, and explaining them.

It is a terrific idea to read to your children, too. That is a great way to get them beyond their experience and to help them develop language for what they are learning. Similarly, watching (some) television shows together and talking about it as you would personal experience can increase what children know.

Now there is a new resource that my friends at the National Center for Family Literacy have been engaged in. It is a website called Wonderopolis, and every day there is a new short video aimed at preschoolers and early schoolers that exposes them to information about the world in cute and engaging ways. If you've every had to explain to a 4-year-old why jello wiggles or why grandpa has old hair, you'll appreciate these child-friendly explorations and explanations. Check it out at:

Monday, February 22, 2010

What Counts as Preschool Literacy Teaching?

Becky Schaller recently sent the following note to this blog:
I am struck by how different literacy instruction for preschoolers is by your description here than it was ten years ago. Back then, we also included teaching literacy by encouraging pretend writing in the different areas of the room. In the dramatic play area, children might pretend to write out a grocery list. In the block area, they might make a sign. Does literacy during play time count any more? Or is the focus more teacher directed now?

Her question as to "what counts as literacy instruction?" is a fair one. It is easy enough to block out time for activities like writing, but what can be in that space and what can't?

Teaching includes teacher telling and teacher explanation. Indeed, when a teacher stands before a group and shows the children a letter and tells them the letter name is an "R" that is obviously teaching. However, it is also teaching when a teacher leads students in some kind of guided doing (such as when the teacher and students do choral reading with a chart while the teacher points at the words). And so are more independent practice activities, such as the idea of students trying to write grocery lists in the dramatic play area.

However, practice requires that something taught is being explored. Ten years ago a preschool teacher may have had writing opportunities arranged across the classroom, but there would be little direct teaching (the kids would practice writing based on what they learned elsewhere). Now the teacher introduces letters, sounds, words, and shows students how to write. The knowledge from such lessons is secured as children try to use that input within their play.

Practice is part of teaching. Practice needs to be articulated in ways that it leads to more learning, including providing kids with guidance from a more knowledgeable person (some of the time), collaborative practice opportunities, and eventually independent practice). It should include opportunities for feedback and review, too.

Many activities themselves don't differentiate teaching now from teaching 10 years ago: pretend reading, pretend writing, dramatic play, teacher book sharing were all part of the landscape then and they can be now. How connected these practice opportunities are to intended learning outcomes has changed, however.

Ten years ago, many preschool and kindergarten teachers were afraid to tell students stuff or to show them how to do things. Now, perhaps, the fear has shifted, and teachers may be afraid to have kids play with what has been presented. Good teaching includes both didactic lessons and opportunities to practice and play.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Amount of Preschool and Kindergarten Literacy Instruction?

I just received this request for information from a friend:
The question being posed is, "how many minutes of literacy instruction is
recommended for early childhood, ages such as preschool and kindergarten?"

The amount recommended in our district for grades 1-8 is 120 minutes, so we obviously need to rethink our message to the early childhood program. I'm not sure if you are familiar with or if this is relevant, but the early childhood program (preschool - kindergarten) uses Creative Curriculum, which incorporates center choices with whole group reading and writing instruction.

Thank you in advance for your advice!

My response:

There are no data that I am aware of on that issue, so anything I can tell you will be conjecture.

When I answer this question (and I do with some regularity), my first response to is ask a question back: “how long are the preschoolers and kindergartners there?” The answer to that usually varies from half day to full day. Because literacy and language aren’t the only issues that need to be addressed in instruction, it is important that literacy be a good curricular neighbor (not crowding everyone else unnecessarily).

If it is a whole day situation, then I would argue for the full 2 hours that you are spending in grades 1-8, and if it is half day, then about 1 hour will have to do it.

What should go into that 1-2 hours? Your curriculum does a good job of supporting teachers in some of these categories, and you might consider supplementing where it does not. We don’t provide children with much oral language stimulation in grades 1-8 (except incidentally across the day), but with young children some direct attention to oral language instruction and stimulation is appropriate as part of the literacy time.

In 2 hours, I would expect some code work (with letters and sounds), some fluency work (like pretend reading, choral reading, fingerpoint reading), some listening comprehension (or reading comprehension if the kids have started reading), some language work (including vocabulary), and some writing time. For a smaller amount of time, I would teach the same things (just not as much of them, but I wouldn’t leave any of them out).

Your curriculum presents letters and sounds whole group, and that is iffy. While juggling times with small groups can be tricky, the studies of code instruction have only been done with small groups at these age levels. This means it will take more than two hours to deliver two real hours of instruction and experience.

Finally, 2 hours does not necessarily mean a block of time. This does not have to be done from 9-11AM; with young kids, short time spans for activities is necessary and these various activities can be interspersed through the day. A little harder to keep track of whether you have hit the time goal, but a lot more sensible to deliver.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Don't Miss Your Chance to Discuss Early Literacy Report

I just agreed to participate in an asyncronous online discussion of the National Early Literacy Panel report. This is the report that reviewed the research on preschool and kindergarten literacy that has been getting so much recent attention. The discussion in being sponsored by the National Institute for Literacy and will include Laura Westberg, from the National Center for Family Literacy (she was the PI on the report), Tori Molfese, a panelist from the University of Louisville, and me.

It's kind of neat: you can submit questions or comments that get posted, but then throughout next week, Laura, Tori, and I will be posting our responses, etc. It is a nice opportunity. Here is the address for subscribing to that discussion, hope I see you there:

And here is more information about it:

The Impact of the Findings of the National Early Literacy Panel March 9 - 13, 2009

The Family Literacy Discussion List will facilitate a panel discussion about the recommendations of the National Early Literacy Panel (NELP) and their impact on educators, parents and other children's caregivers. Three members of the NELP will participate in the discussion. The discussion will take place March 9-13, 2009. Please read the details below, think about the questions, raise questions of your own, and prepare for an exciting look at the findings of the National Early Literacy Panel.

The National Early Literacy Panel (NELP) was convened in 2002 to conduct a synthesis of the scientific research on the development of early literacy skills in children ages zero to five. The objective for convening the NELP was to identify interventions and practices that promote positive outcomes in literacy for preschool children.

The National Institute for Literacy (Institute) acted as the lead agency in this project, in consultation with cooperating agencies from the Partnership for Reading. The National Center for Family Literacy, working closely with the Institute, coordinated NELP's work in the completion of the synthesis.

The panel's report, Developing Early Literacy: Report of the National Early Literacy Panel, was released on January 8, 2009. Developing Early Literacy serves as the basis for several, research-based recommendations for parents and the early childhood community, including educators, caregivers, and Head Start providers on promoting the foundational skills of life-long literacy.

Guest Panelists
Laura Westberg is Director of Special Projects/Research at the National Center for Family Literacy. In this capacity, she oversees research and evaluation across the organization for determining the effectiveness of products and services that contribute to the literacy development of young children through adults. Her responsibilities include project management and supervision, project design, product development, research and evaluation, and proposal and grant writing. Ms. Westberg directed the work of the National Early Literacy Panel and coordinated a meta-analysis on parent involvement in children's reading acquisition for the National Institute for Literacy.

Victoria Molfese is the Ashland/Nystrand Chair in Early Childhood Education at the University of Louisville and Director of the Center for Research in Early Childhood. She received her PhD in Developmental Psychology from the Pennsylvania State University and has published journal articles, books, and book chapters in the area of cognitive development in infants, children and adults. She has received grants in support of research activities, including an NIH funded longitudinal research grant on brain and behavioral predictors of language, reading and cognitive development in children from birth through age 13 years. She currently is conducting research on early predictors of reading and mathematics abilities in infants and preschool children, efficacy of mathematics intervention in preschoolers on improving skills of children at risk at kindergarten entry and the development of interventions for infants and preschoolers to mitigate development of learning disabilities. Dr. Molfese served as a member of the National Early Literacy Panel.

Timothy Shanahan is the chair of the National Early Literacy Panel. Dr. Shanahan is also a Professor of Urban Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Director of the UIC Center for Literacy. He has served as Director of Reading for the Chicago Public Schools, and is a former first grade teacher. His research focuses on the relationship of reading and writing, the assessment of reading ability, family literacy, and school improvement. He has published more than 100 articles, chapters, and books on these topics.

Discussion Questions
1. What were the questions that the National Early Literacy Panel (NELP) answered?
2. What types of interventions did the NELP look at?
3. What are the implications of the NELP findings for the instruction and assessment of young children?
4. What do the findings of the NELP mean to adult/parent educators?
5. How can parents best utilize the findings of the NELP to bolster the learning of their children?

Read the Executive Summary of the NELP Report, Developing Early Literacy: Report of the National Early Literacy Panel, to enrich your participation in the discussion. It may be downloaded from

A copy of the full report can be downloaded from

Free print copies are available from EDPubs at

A powerpoint presentation of NELP:

Thursday, January 8, 2009

National Early Literacy Panel Released

Today at the National Press Club, the National Early Literacy Panel Report was released. All of us on the panel were relieved to have this work completed and that it is now available to everybody. If you would like a copy, click here:

This report focuses on what works in improving the literacy skills of preschoolers and kindergarten children. It got a lot of attention from the press and various policy people (including someone from the Obama Transition Team). This is important work and it is sure to be a widely cited and used work in early literacy. More details on this later, but for now, read the report!