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Five Books, Five Literacy-Building Ideas!

In time for the holidays, here are some nifty ideas from the Hanen Centre in Toronto, Canada. The article is by Hanen staff writer Andrea Lynn Koohi...

One of the most important things you can do to prepare your child for school success is to help her develop early literacy skills. These skills are the “tools” your child needs to learn to read and write, so the more early literacy skills she has now, the better prepared she’ll be for school.

Here are some fun tips for building the five critical early literacy skills your child needs to learn: oral language, vocabulary, story comprehension, print knowledge, and sound awareness.

1. Oral Language

When you pause during book reading to talk about the story and what interests your child, you provide her with lots of opportunities to think and talk about the story, which builds her comprehension and her oral language skills – key foundations for literacy success.

Tip: Ask questions about the things that interest your child

Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd is about a sneaky cat who steals things from neighbours during the night. Observe your child closely to see how she reacts to the things Slinky does, and then make a comment or ask a question. For example, if your child laughs when Slinky steals a string of sausages, you could ask, “Where do you think he’s going to put all those sausages?”

Remember to be enthusiastic and wait expectantly for your child to respond.

2. Vocabulary

The more words children understand as preschoolers, the better their reading comprehension will be later on. You can build your child’s vocabulary by stressing new words, talking about what the word means and relating it to your child’s experience.

Tip: Introduce a new word by relating it to your child’s experience

Love from Louisa by Simon Puttock is about a disgruntled pig who threatens to leave her farm if the farmer doesn’t clean it up. This book provides a great opportunity to help your child learn a new word: ‘disgruntled’.

Explain what the word means by using simpler words your child already knows (for example, “Disgruntled’ means she’s really unhappy and grouchy”) and relating the word to your child’s experience (for example, “Do you remember how disgruntled you were when we had to cancel our trip to the zoo because it was raining?”). Remember to stress the word as you say it.

3. Story Comprehension

Talking about the important parts of a story (for example, the characters, setting, problem, actions, and resolution) makes it easier for your child to make sense of the story, and it prepares her for understanding the stories she will read later on.

Tip: Get your child thinking about the problem in the story

Mmm, Cookies by Robert Munsch is a story with a big problem: Christopher is making cookies out of clay and giving them to people to eat! Encourage your child to think about the problem by asking him what he would do in a similar situation. For example, “Oh, no, Christopher gave clay cookies to his parents and now he might try to give some to his classmates! What would you do if Christopher gave you a clay cookie?”

4. Print Knowledge

There are many things your child must learn about print before she can read and write on her own. For example, she’ll need to know that print represents spoken language and that print is read from left to right. As you read with your child, you can point out and talk about some of these print ideas to help your child learn.

Tip: Point out print for your child
I’m a Frog! by Mo Willems is about two friends, Piggy and Gerald, who discover how much fun it is to pretend. Since this book is full of speech balloons, it gives you many opportunities to talk about how the text in the balloons shows what the characters are saying. Point to a speech balloon and say, “Look, we read this to find out what Piggy is saying.”

5. Sound Awareness

To be prepared to read, children must understand that words can be broken down into smaller sounds, and that letters correspond to certain words. Sound awareness prepares your child for reading by making it easier for her to sound out the words she will read later on.

Tip: Talk about the sounds that letters make
The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson is about a clever little mouse who outsmarts all the other animals in the forest with the story of a big scary “gruffalo”. This book offers great opportunities to build your child’s sound awareness because it’s full of alliteration (back-to-back words beginning with the same sound).

Point out two words that start with the same sound and ask your child to think of another word that starts with that sound. For example, “Look, ‘scrambled’ and ‘snake’ both start with the sss sound. Listen. Ssscrambled sssnake. Can you think of another word that starts with the sss sound?” Remember to talk about the sound the letter makes rather than the name of the letter.

What Else Can You Do to Help Your Child Learn?

Whenever you spend time sharing books with your child, you’re helping to build her early literacy skills. But frequent book reading is just one part of helping your child learn – exactly how you share the book also makes a difference.


This article draws on content from the Hanen guidebook, I’m Ready!™ How to Prepare Your Child for Reading Success. Based on the most current research on early literacy development, I’m Ready! provides parents with a complete guide to giving their child the best possible start at literacy success.

Learn! more about I'm Ready

The Hanen Centre is a Canadian not-for-profit charitable organization with a global reach. Its mission is to provide parents, caregivers, early childhood educators and speech-language pathologists with the knowledge and training they need to help young children develop the best possible language, social and literacy skills. This includes children who have or are at risk for language delays, those with developmental challenges such as autism, and those who are developing typically.

Special Needs Project is the US and Latin American distributor for the Hanen Centre.

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Why Interaction Must Come Before Language

mother son imitatingby Elaine Weitzman
Executive Director, The Hanen Centre

Every parent is eager to hear their child use words and start putting sentences together. But did you know that the road to successful communication begins long before children start using words?

In fact, there’s a long list of things a child must learn about communication before he can begin to communicate with words. And these important “pre-language” skills are best learned in one context – within the fun back-and-forth interactions the child has with the important adults in his life. That’s why, when a child has a language delay, the speech therapist assesses both the child’s ability to interact with others as well as his ability to express himself and understand what is said to him. The therapist will usually help parents encourage the child’s interaction skills before moving on to language skills.

It’s within these early back-and-forth interactions that the foundation for all of a child’s future conversations is built.

What is interaction and why is it so important?

From birth, children communicate using sounds, actions, eye gaze, and facial expressions. They don’t realize that these sounds and actions have any meaning until their caregivers consistently respond to them. In this way, children gradually learn that the messages they send without words have an effect on other people, and they start to send these messages intentionally.

Any time an adult responds to a child’s message, either verbally or non-verbally, and the child responds back, an interaction has started. And it’s within these early back-and-forth interactions that the foundation for all of a child’s future conversations is built.

What children learn during these early interactions

When children have fun interactions with an adult, they learn a number of skills that help them become good conversation partners. They actually learn the basic rules of conversation – and all this happens long before they say their first word. They learn how to:

  • initiate interactions with another person
  • respond when another person initiates towards them
  • take a turn at the appropriate time
  • give the other person a chance to take a turn
  • pay attention to the speaker
  • continue the conversation by taking additional turns on the topic
  • send clear messages
  • clear up misunderstandings by repeating what was communicated or communicating in a different way
  • stick to the subject
  • initiate a new topic, when appropriate

Since children learn language during conversations in everyday situations and activities, it makes sense that the better the child’s ability to participate in interactions with caring adults, the more opportunities he has to communicate and learn language.

Tips for encouraging interaction

Here are some things you can do to build your child’s interaction skills:

  1. Make sure the interaction is fun and interesting for your child

    A sink full of soapy water or a broken cupboard door can make for a fun interaction that goes back and forth a few times if your child shows interest in it. Watch him carefully. What is he looking at? What’s he playing with? Which activities or routines does he like best? What’s he trying to tell you? It doesn’t matter what you communicate about – what matters is that your child is interested and engaged.

  2. Respond with enthusiasm when your child communicates with you

    Research shows that when an adult responds promptly and enthusiastically to the child’s message, saying something that is related to what the child has communicated, this encourages the child’s language development. Here’s an example:

    • 2½ year old Jacob, who has a language delay and uses about 10 words, tries to open a low cupboard in the kitchen, but can’t because its handle has come off.
    • He communicates by looking at Dad, pointing at the cupboard, saying “Duh!”.
    • Dad immediately goes towards the door, points to the broken handle and says, “The door is broken. See? We can’t open the door.” He tries to open the door.

    In this way, Dad validates and encourages Jacob’s attempts to communicate by letting him know that he heard Jacob’s message and he’s interested in it.

  3. Keep the conversation going when your child responds again

    The longer the interaction, the more opportunities a child has to practice communicating and to learn from what the adult says. For example:

    • After Dad responds about the broken door handle, Jacob raises his hands, giving Dad a questioning look, as if to say, “What happened?”
    • Dad says, “The handle came off! It’s gone!” and he gestures “gone”
    • Jacob replies by pointing to the handle again, imitating the “gone” gesture and saying, “Ga!” for “gone”
    • Dad responds, “Yes. The handle is gone. I have to fix the door.”

    If you take a look back at the list of conversation rules a child needs to learn, you’ll see how many of these skills Jacob was able to practice during this simple 6-turn conversation with Dad. And all because Dad responded with enthusiasm to something his son was interested in, and made an effort to keep the interaction going.

  4. For more tips and strategies on building interaction into every part of the day, take a look at It Takes Two to Talk, the Hanen Centre's guidebook for parents of children with language delays.


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Tip #22 from the Hanen Centre


Literacy Tip

Build your child’s vocabulary:

When you come across a new word in a book, explain what the word means and use actions, gestures, facial expressions or sounds to demonstrate its meaning. For example, if you come across the word “exhale”, you could say, “‘Exhale’ means breathing out and making a loud noise”, and then breathe out to show your child. Explaining and showing are powerful ways to build his understanding of new words.

Tip drawn from the ABC and Beyond guidebook and featured in our holiday promotion.  Special Needs Project is the authorized distributor of their outstanding materials for the United States and South America.

Early literacy skills prepare your child for learning to read and write. These skills include print knowledge, sound awareness, vocabulary, story comprehension and conversation. This week’s tips give you some helpful ideas for how you can expand your child’s early literacy skills to prepare him or her for school success.

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