As an author, it’s perhaps no surprise that reading to my sons is one of my favourite activities (and not just because it coincides with bedtime!) One of my happiest moments in Dubai was discovering story-time at The Old Library in Mall of the Emirates. It took me back to when my mum used to take my brother and I to the local library on a Saturday afternoon. It was so nice to listen to the stories while the rain lashed outside. And while there’s no rain here, every expat will know the pleasure of reigniting and passing down a family tradition. So when my eldest son Zane starting choosing his own books and becoming more engaged with reading, it was definitely a proud-mama moment. Now at three and half years old, the writing process also begins in earnest, as he gets used to holding a pencil while learning the alphabet and phonetics.
While we’ve all gone through the process of learning to read and write ourselves, it’s quite fascinating to watch it in your own child and those in a bilingual home such as ours, even more so. I wanted to know more about the process so I talked to teacher Penny Morton, who has over twenty years experience in education, at Monroe’s Nursery in Jumeirah Beach Residence to learn more about how preschoolers learn to read and write and what we can do as parents and child-carers to encourage a love of language.
Q. Is there an optimum age for young children when parents and child-carers should focus on reading and writing?
A lot happens between the ages of three and four years old when it comes to reading and writing so during this period, it’s a key focus in the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum. Saying that, you can never start too early with books and I know many parents who included story telling in their bedtime routine from a very early age which is a great idea. By reading before sleeping, they start to associate it with something that is pleasurable. The environment stimulates learning so the younger they’re exposed to books and language the better.
Q. What comes first? Reading or writing?
They are interlinked but normally writing comes before reading, although not necessarily with a pencil. Any kind of marking, such as with a crayon (your lipstick!) or even using their finger to make a mark in the sand, are all activities building up to the writing process.
Q. What are the current trends and activities that educational institutions are employing regarding writing and reading in young children?
I wouldn’t say there are trends as such but methods such as Montessori are incredibly effective. It’s based on the belief that a child is naturally eager for knowledge and capable of initiating learning in a supportive, thoughtfully prepared learning environment. It is an approach that values the development of the whole child – physical, social, emotional, cognitive. While I’m Montessori trained, in my classroom I have been using the Jolly Phonics system. Again, this is very a child-centred approach to teaching literacy, which is done in a fun way using synthetic phonics. With actions for each of the 42 letter sounds, the multi-sensory method is very effective. Different schools have different methods but the fundamental thing to remember is that children learn by playing and doing.
Q. If a child is growing up in a bilingual speaking environment, do you recommend reading books in that language as well?
Yes, absolutely. If a parent speaks in French to their child, it helps to be reading books in the same language. I think the general rule of thumb is for a parent to choose one language and stick to that rather than switching between multiple languages.
Q. Is there a recommended amount of time per day to be allocated for reading and what are the benefits?
There’s no hard and fast rule, but I would suggest parents and child-carers aim to read one book a day to their preschooler. In addition to the simple pleasure of books, there are many other benefits. It helps a child to focus, stimulates imagination and creativity, and can also be used to share a moral, skill, or value that you would like your child to learn such as sharing with others or potty training.
Q. What if my child has no interest in books whatsoever?
If that’s the case, then there’s no need to force it. However, think about the types of books your child might enjoy. If they like dinosaurs, choose a book on this topic and gently encourage their involvement by making it as fun as possible.
A. What books would you recommend for three to four year old children?
There are so many amazing books out in the market for this age. Children enjoy repetition as they’re able to predict what comes next and this helps with the learning process. Good titles include Going On A Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen, The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson, and The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister.
Top Tips from Ms. Penny to encourage your child in reading and writing:
1. Consistency is key. Don’t be afraid to read the same books over and over again if your child is enjoying them.
2. When you’re out and about, point out letters to your child, for example brand logos, car number plates, and so on – it’s a good conversation starter.
3. A child won’t be able to write until they have strength and coordination in their fingers. You can help develop this by playing games with clothes pegs or letting your child attempt to do up buttons.
4. Choose an activity that suits the interests of your child. If they enjoy numbers, a dot-to-dot book might be engaging or for those who like shapes, tracing them will stimulate creativity.
5. Make reading and writing accessible by keeping books in a place where they can easily be reached and a little table and chair with paper and crayons already laid out.
Written by British mum Karen Osman, award-winning author of debut novel The Good Mother that was published by Head of Zeus in October 2017. She’s currently working on her second book, which will be published this summer.
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