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Fostering Early Literacy at Home (in Normally-Developing and At-Risk Children)
Written by:
Carole Peterson, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Memorial University of Newfoundland
Published online:
2006-08-31 14:53:26
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Although formal training in literacy usually starts when a child begins school, literacy acquisition is built upon a foundation of language skills that are learned at home. Recently, increased attention has been focused on these important early literacy skills because of large variation in children's mastery of these skills at school entry. This variation has important implications for how easily children acquire literacy skills, and parents are crucial contributors to this variation. Here, some preliteracy skills are first described, followed by discussion of some ways that parents can help children acquire those skills. These can be helpful both for children who are developing normally as well as for children who are at risk because of impairments in language or because they live with environmental stressors such as poverty.


In the early years of children's lives, parents are their most important teachers and the verbal environment they provide sets the stage for children's language learning. However, this linguistic environment varies substantially between children. For example, one to three year old children in some families hear several times as many words spoken to them per week as do children in other families; extrapolating these data, some children enter kindergarten having heard as many as 32 million more words than other children (Hart & Risely, 1995). In fact, a number of characteristics of children's verbal environments differ substantially between families (Pan, Rowe, Singer, & Snow, 2005). Children's language skills at school entry are important because they lay the foundation for later reading and writing, and children with poorer language skills are more likely to have difficulties learning to read (Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998). As well, longitudinal studies have shown that children who have difficulty learning to read in the earliest years of schooling tend to continue having difficulties over time (Scarborough, 2001; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998).


There are few longitudinal studies relating preliteracy skills to children's subsequent mastery of reading. However, the relationship between reading ability and a couple of early literacy skills has been heavily investigated, specifically phonological awareness (described below) and vocabulary. But more research is needed that empirically relates preschool oral language skills to later reading success.

Research Context

The skills involved in learning to read are commonly seen as falling into two main categories: (1) code-related skills and (2) oral language skills (Storch & Whitehurst, 2002). Code-related skills include knowing the alphabet, knowing what sounds the letters make, print knowledge, and most importantly, phonological awareness (understanding that words are composed of several sounds and that, for example, bat begins with the /b/ sound). Oral language skills include vocabulary, grammatical knowledge, and narrative discourse skills. A familiar type of narrative discourse is the story, either a fictional one or an autobiographical account of an event that has happened in one's life (for example, visiting grandma last weekend or a trip to feed the ducks at the park). Autobiographical event narratives in many ways mirror the characteristics of the written texts that children read while acquiring literacy: (a) They involve decontextualized language (talk about things removed from the here-and-now, by using words to convey information about things that happened at another time and place). (b) They use multiple statements to construct a story about related events. (c) They orient the listener to the context of the events by explaining who was there, and where and when events took place. (d) They provide information about the order of events and how one event influenced another. (e) They use more complex grammar, which is typically required for narrative discourse. For example, the sentence "I cried because I fell down" uses complex grammar common in narratives. The clauses "I cried" and "I fell down" are linked by the connective because that indicates the relationship between the clauses. Overall, oral event-narratives that children learn to tell as preschoolers are similar to the texts that children learn to read in school. As a result, learning about and using narratives help children form expectations about how written texts are organized.

Although these two main categories of skills, namely code-related skills and oral language skills, are related, they are clearly distinct (Speece, Roth, Cooper, & de la Paz, 1999; Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998). Furthermore, they seem to play their most important role at different points in the process of learning to read. Code-related skills are especially important during the first couple of years of school when children are learning to decode written words while oral language skills play their most important role from grade 3 onward and especially contribute to reading comprehension (Frost, Madsbjerg, Niedersøe, Olofsson, & Sørensen, 2005; Storch & Whitehurst, 2002).

Key Research Questions

1) What are important preliteracy skills?
2) What are the activities that families engage in that help children acquire them?
3) Can these activities be successfully taught to parents?
Some of these helpful activities are described below, although this list is by no means comprehensive.

Recent Research Results

There are a number of at-home activities that foster children's code-related skills. Children can be encouraged to learn the alphabet, including what sound a printed letter stands for. Recognition games for alphabet letters can easily be played with children, and research suggests that such print knowledge helps (Beck & Juel, 1999; Foulin, 2005). As well, rhyming games support the development of phonological awareness, which is one of the best predictors of children's success in reading in the early years of schooling (Ehri, Nunes, Willows, Schuster, Yaghoub-Zadeh, & Shanahan, 2001), and remains a predictor of reading success as far into the future as grade 8 and 9 (Frost et al., 2005; Wood, Hill Meyer, & Flowers, 2005).

Parents also play a key role in fostering children's oral language skills. First and foremost, it is important to talk with children frequently, and about a range of topics. A large-scale longitudinal study of families found that although all families engaged in similar amounts of parent-child talk about behavior management and child socialization, dramatic differences occurred in how much families engaged in other talk: about past events and future plans, about causal and temporal relationships, about emotions, and about explanations. When these other topics were discussed, parents used a wider variety of vocabulary and more complex grammar, and these in turn were related to better language skills when children were 9 years of age. In particular, children's vocabulary in kindergarten is one of the best predictors of reading comprehension in grades 3 and 4 (Sénéchal, Ouellette, & Rodney, 2006; Storch & Whitehurst, 2002), and even up to grade 8 (Wood et al., 2005). However, prediction is better if other oral language skills in addition to vocabulary are also included (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2005).

Some research on oral language has especially highlighted narrative talk (Snow & Dickinson, 1990). Although children have difficulty making up fictional stories in the early preschool years, they can begin talking about past events in their lives as early as age 2 (Eisenberg, 1985; Miller & Sperry, 1988), and such talk about past events is an effective way to foster narrative skills in young children. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that parents play a key role in helping children develop good narrative skills (Fivush, 1991; McCabe & Peterson, 1991; Peterson & McCabe, 2004).  The following types of parental behavior and discourse have been shown to foster good narrative skills in their children: frequently talking with their children about past events in the children's lives; asking lots of wh- questions (who, where, what, etc.); elaborating on what their children say by adding more information themselves; prompting children to provide causal and temporal links (why did that happen? when was that? what happened next?); and encouraging children to provide narrative accounts that have beginnings, middles, and ends (provide context for the events, tell the sequence of events that occurred and then how it all ended). Parents who do these things have children who enter kindergarten with more complex narrative skills, and these in turn are related to subsequent literacy achievement (Reese, 1995), even up to grade 7 (Tabors, Snow, & Dickinson, 2001). An intervention program has demonstrated that low-income parents readily learn the discourse tools that help children construct better narratives, and that children's narrative skills are significantly improved as a consequence of such parental training (Peterson, Jesso, & McCabe, 1999; Peterson & McCabe, 2004). Although there is as of yet no longitudinal research that explicitly relates the efficacy of this intervention program for improving reading skills in later elementary school, two such research projects are currently underway, in Canada and the U.S.

Reading books with children is also an important activity. Children who are exposed to more books not only have better vocabulary, but they become better readers, particularly in later elementary school (Bus, van Ijzendoorn, Pellegrini, 1995; Sénéchal, 2006; Sénéchal & LeFevre, 2002). Recently, the value of a particular style of reading picture books (called 'dialogic reading') with 2 and 3 year olds has also been demonstrated, with both normally developing children and those with developmental disabilities (Dale, Crain-Thoreson, Notari-Syverson, & Cole, 1996; Hargrave & Sénéchal, 2000; Whitehurst et al., 1988). Dialogic reading of picture books is a technique where parents pose questions to children about the story, the pictures, what children expect to happen, and so on. Thus, children are brought into the 'reading' task in a more active way and contribute to story construction. Parents across socioeconomic strata have been readily taught to read in this manner, with resultant gains in the oral language skills of their children (Lonigan & Whitehurst, 1998). Again, more research is needed on the longitudinal benefits of dialogic reading.


The path to literacy begins long before children begin formal reading instruction, and experiences occurring in the home influence the later course of children's reading success. Thus, parents play an important role in helping children acquire the preliteracy skills that lay the foundation for subsequent literacy acquisition. There are a number of ways that parents can help children acquire relevant preliteracy skills. Some assist children with the task of breaking the code of written words, and others help children develop the oral language skills that foster better reading comprehension in the later elementary school years. Both normally-developing as well as at-risk children profit from these sorts of parent-child interactions that foster preliteracy skills, but at-risk children may benefit even more. These parent-child activities include helping children acquire phonological awareness and print knowledge, fostering vocabulary growth, reading to children (both standard story-reading as well as dialogic reading of picture books), and helping children develop narrative skills through frequent talk about past events in the children's lives. The preliteracy skills with which children enter school make a difference as they traverse the road to literacy.
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