Readiness activities have long been recognized as a valuable goal in teaching reading. That’s why, well before they actually start to read, children are offered a range of tasks aimed at smoothing the path to success. You can see the approach in the time and effort spent in teaching preschoolers letter names, letter sounds and other phonics-related activities. There are, however, a number of important readiness activities that receive little attention.
As early as kindergarten, children are asked to do considerable amounts of writing. The guiding philosophy is that since children love to talk about ideas, they love to write about ideas. But as many parents and teachers know well, this isn’t what happens. The children find writing to be anything but pleasurable and they do whatever is possible to avoid it.
Among the reasons for the resistance is the fact that writing requires a kind of consciousness that is rarely required in spoken language. Everyday language rarely requires that a person be aware of what he or she wants to say. The words just “come to mind.”
By contrast, this is not what happens with ideas that are expressed via writing. In that situation, a person has to sit back, contemplate a range of possibilities and then slowly and diligently put those ideas on paper. In other words, there has to be a kind of conscious awareness of language that is executed in a steady, deliberate manner. The failure to prepare children for the much more demanding processes required in writing is one of the reasons why children commonly report that they “hate writing.”
Few children develop the necessary awareness on their own. Happily all this can change if we expand the pre-reading activities to include those that lead to a greater awareness of language. These sorts of not only strengthen key abilities needed for success; they can also be a lot of fun.
Here are some suggestions in setting out on this path:
1. When you have finished reading a story to your child, you can go back to some of the sentences and play with “revising” them. For example, imagine the story said “The squirrel was scared of the big dog.” (We will refer to this as X). You might say, “Let’s think of another animal that is small and might be scared of a bigger animal.” After an appropriate choice is offered, you can then say “So the book said X, and if we used the animals we chose, it would say ….” Then wait for your child to come up with the new, revised sentence. If he or she stumbles, model the correct information and have your child repeat your model.
You can apply this techniques not only to the characters (nouns) in the story but the actions (verbs such as ran) and feelings (adjectives such as afraid) that are applied to them.
2. When you or your child has produced a sentence (e.g., “Daddy used tape to fix the book”), you can say, “Think about those words. Now, leave off the first (or last or second) word and say the sentence without that word.” Then after the revised sentence is produced, you can say “Does it make sense that way?” Sometimes, it will and sometime it won’t. Either way, you are getting your child to think about language –and that is the goal.
3. Put out a row of colored blocks. Say a sentence—starting with about four to six words (e.g., The girl was happy.). Then slowly say it again and for each word, have your child tap on one of the blocks in left-to-right sequence. So in the sample sentence offered above, your child will have tapped on four blocks. (There should be more blocks than words in the sentence.) After the tapping is completed, say, “How many words were in that sentence?” You can then extend the activity by the following: “Add a word so it is a five word sentence,” “Drop girl and use a different second word.” “Which one was the third word in the sentence?”
All of these activities are carried out via spoken, not written, language. That is intentional. Partly it is a reflection of the fact that your child may not yet be reading. Of even greater relevance is that our aim to take the world of spoken language that children know well and have them apply, to that world, the kind of reflection and thought required by written language. As you start working with these ideas, feel free to come up with additional possibilities. Remember–we are in a kind of “play world of the mind” where the goal is having fun with the phenomenal realm of language.