Literacy is Like Discovering Language
Lorraine McCune, Ph.D.
is sometimes said that “writing is talk written down”. If this
were true, the major problem in learning to read would be linking
up the message on the printed page with something we might express
in speech or sign language. While speaking and writing are two
modalities for expressing meaning that are clearly linked for
adults, children need to actively forge this link as they learn
to read, since they will not immediately grasp the connection.
Like the initial discovery of language, literacy is a discovery
of its own.
There is a strong analogy between learning to talk and learning
to read. Just as infants do not know what language is or even
that there is language, pre-readers do not know that there is
literacy or that written words are “just like” spoken ones. And
just as we cannot teach children that there is language, we cannot
teach them that there is literacy. To promote language in infants,
we bathe them in sounds, words, song, communication—even in reading!
Adults pair words with fun pictures that little children can enjoy;
children begin to recognize that the pictures match up with fun
sounds that they can mimic at interludes in the story. These experiences
lead to the mysterious discovery: “There is language!”. We can
only be sure that children have discovered language when they
begin pointing to unfamiliar objects and asking, “What’s that?”.
And we do not really know how they do it! My guess is that children
build the notion of language in their minds and spirits in differing
ways. I know what some of the building blocks are, but I believe
children integrate the components of language in different ways,
even if they are all learning the same language.
Reading is another discovery of mind and spirit. Experienced and
successful teachers of Pre-K, Kindergarten and the early grades
know this and use a variety of approaches with children in their
care. For some children, the route to reading is writing. One
preschooler asks her mother how to spell the names of the children
in her class, then laboriously writes them all in a row… no spaces
between! Another reads off fast food and chain store names as
sight words. Both hear stories and pretend to read themselves,
telling the stories in picture books. Neither really knows there
is literacy. Formal instruction will add structure to these playful
efforts, including letter/sound correspondences, writing, reading
for fun, learning labels, and a panoply of other activities that
teachers know about. The magic moment will come when the child
points to a written word, and, like the infant noting an object,
will say, “What’s that word?” From this foundation all of literacy
The best way to help children build literacy is by offering all
of the building blocks they might need, and sensitively watching
each individual little builder, offering the next tools that they
will need on their journey. Since writing is not merely talk written
down, but a discovery all its own, there is no need to hesitate
in offering the written language of the school to English language
learners. For bilingual children, literacy can be a double discovery.#
Dr. Lorraine McCune is a professor at the Rutgers University Graduate
School of Education and serves as advisor to educational toy company,
General Creation. She can be reached at www.generalcreation.com
in the “Ask Dr. McCune” section, or at www.educationupdate.com
Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001.
Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919.Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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