Turning Everyday Moments into Powerful Literacy Lessons

I see reading lessons everywhere I look: at the grocery store, driving around town, hiking a coastal trail, waiting for the bus, and of course, on a cozy couch.

Taking advantage of these everyday-reading opportunities, teachers and parents can find engaging teachable moments that foster language-rich environments and help children become more confident, avid and independent readers. Wrapping fun word activities into the daily routine, carving out time for shared reading, and understanding how social and emotional development impacts reading, teachers and parents can help foster a love of reading, even for a student who isn’t self-motivated to read for pleasure.

Your 2-year-old doesn’t jump on your lap because of the book. She’s jumping on your lap to be close to you and she knows you’re going to give her your attention and time. You’re not going to go do the dishes and you’re not going to go on the computer. Over time, she associates that wonderful feeling of being with you with this tool called reading.

In my latest book, Book Smart: How to Develop and Support Successful, Motivated Readers (Oxford University Press 2014), which I co-wrote with Jamie Zibulsky, we focus on the early years as critical for building reading and language acquisition that leads to long-term reading success.

There are powerful things that teachers and parents can do. The idea is that when you’re always bathing your students with language, always asking questions, always sharing information, then those are the children who have the high linguistic background. It’s that background, along with vocabulary acquisition, comprehension and general knowledge that sets them up for success in upper grades where critical thinking and reasoning skills become more important.

I encourage teachers and parents, even those with older students, to read aloud to and with children – every day. Parents and even teachers look at me quizzically, ”you’re telling me to read to my junior high school student?“ Yes!

Everybody needs to be read to two years ahead of their grade level because it is such a potent way to expose students to rare and unique words, phrases, and concepts that will then be familiar to them and in their oral lexicon. So when a reader comes upon that text on their own without any scaffolding or support, it won’t be a nonsense word or completely novel idea or term.

And there is a common struggle with older children who know how to read but choose not to read for pleasure. Yet there are numerous ways to engage students that are not always implemented – finding books that speak to their interests, playing an audio book to build language and background knowledge while the child is drawing, baking, or building with Legos is highly effective.

Whichever activities teachers and parents choose, do them early and often. It will pay dividends later on in the upper grades when the language requirements for reading and writing explode.

I call it the sleeper effect. In the early grades, the text tends to be simpler. The words and the length of sentences are smaller. But around third grade, the text quickly becomes more sophisticated. Multisyllabic words are the norm along with dependent clauses and coordinating conjunctions such as and, but, nor, and however. At an early age, it’s ”Once upon a time …“ At 4th grade it’s ”This proposition is…”

Therefore, the more language the 4th or 8th grader has built up that is automatized in their mind, then the easier it is when they come across it in the text. And all the language work you did through reading aloud to your students and encouraging them to read independently over the years really pays off.

To learn more from Prof. Anne E. Cunningham, sign up for a free webinar brought to you by Scholastic and ASCD and hosted by literacy expert Donalyn Miller. In this webinar, Cunningham will share the rationale for and the cognitive consequences of fostering rich language experiences and reading everyday with and to students.