Wednesday, August 24, 2011

7 Essential Skills Every Kindergartener Needs: The Role of Children's Books

As Labor Day approaches, and the end of summer draws to a close, our thoughts turn to the first day of school. And while parents of children of all ages worry about their kids as a new school year begins, parents of soon to be kindergartners are particularly susceptible. For many, kindergarten is the official start to their academic career and will set the pace for how they progress through school. The good news is that one of the best ways to prepare our children for kindergarten is through exposure to books and read alouds, something many parents have likely been doing since their children were born.  Here is a look at seven essential skills every kindergartner needs, and how children’s books play a critical role in helping to build those skills. 

Teachers at every level look for students who ask questions and are eager to explore and discover. Picture books play an essential role in helping develop this curiosity in young children. Start by reading books focused on your child’s favorite topic, and follow the connections and tangents that organically occur. For example, an interest in Cinderella might lead to reading about Cinderella stories from other cultures and countries, which in turn might lead to learning about those countries or plotting them on a map. It might also lead to an interest in other fairy tales- classic and modern versions as well as fractured fairy tales. Or, it might spur an interest in ballerinas, leaning about ballet steps and terminology, and discovering the stories behind the classic ballets. Exploring a variety of books and topics is a fun way to build enthusiasm towards learning.

Reading (and read alouds) is the perfect way to develop the attention skills necessary for success in kindergarten- the ability to listen to the teacher, follow directions and focus on learning. These skills are learned through time spent with parents enjoying books, and are built up gradually. Do you remember the first time you read to your child? Think of how far you have come! Children who enter school without these skills are at a distinct disadvantage, both academically and behaviorally.

Exposure to children’s books and read alouds is essential for vocabulary development. At its most basic, the more you hear words, the better your vocabulary, and the easier it is to learn new concepts and information. On a deeper level, books expose us to a different and more specialized set of vocabulary words than we hear during every day conversation. For example, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle, includes the word “cocoon.” When was the last time you worked cocoon into a conversation with your pre-schooler? The more books you expose your children to, the better prepared they will be for kindergarten.

Books are a fun, non-threatening way to foster basic letter and number recognition, as well as introduce shapes and colors. Favorites such as “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom” and “Mouse Paint” directly teach young children these basic concepts. However, these concepts are also learned indirectly through repeat exposure to the printed word and spoken word. Again, children who enter school without being exposed to the above are at a disadvantage compared to their peers.

This is the most obvious benefit from early exposure to children’s literature, an intuitive understanding of how books work. How do you hold a book? Which way does a page turn? Pre-readers must understand that there is a word / text correspondence (what you are reading is what is written) as well as a picture/text correspondence (the words directly reflect the pictures). These are essential pre-reading skills that are easily picked up by children who are frequently exposed to books.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and break down the subtle sounds in words. The foundation for this skill is built through exposure to rhyming and repetitive refrains. Dr. Seuss’ nonsense words help children focus on the individual and changing phonemes of each word. And, repetitive refrains in nursery rhymes and books based on favorite songs allow children to accurately predict the next word or rhyme. By calling attention to the subtle sounds in words, we are teaching our children valuable skills for reading and academic success.

Through the sharing of books at a pre-reading stage, children learn to think critically at a very basic level. Modeled by their parents, and reinforced through discussion, they learn to ask themselves questions such as: What do you think happened? How would you feel if that happened to you? The ability to ask and answer these questions builds the foundations for more complex critical thinking skills.

Whether you are preparing to send your child to kindergarten next month, or in a few years, you can be confident in knowing that the time spent browsing through libraries and books stores, the nights curled up re-reading a favorite story, and the hours spent searching for yet another book about trains have been wisely spent. Children’s books are an essential element in the preparation for kindergarten. So, the next time your child asks for “just one more story” be sure to say yes!


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