Teaching Literacy Skills to Young Learners
Updated: Jan 17
As adults, we often fail to appreciate how big a skill reading is. Blending phonemes together in a language where half of those are not even pronounced or are different in various words can be quite challenging.
So, where do we start? With ABC songs? Actually, not. We start with PRE-literacy skills and concepts. "What are THOSE?" I hear you ask. They include the understanding of how a text is different from an image, the idea of letters and words as literacy units and the knowledge of whether we read from right to left, left to right or top to bottom. Things that seem natural to us are not really so, as evidenced by various literacy systems. For example, the Jews and Arabs write from right to left, in many Asian languages the text is written from top to bottom and the hieroglyphs represent syllables or words rather than phonemes. It, therefore, should not be surprising when your student writes words from right to left or as if seen in a mirror.
Have you started to appreciate the vastness of the task looming over our young learners? You'd better have. So, how do we help them? The research has shown that when family members put children in their laps and read books to them, their literacy skills develop much faster. This also has a positive effect on their further academic progress. To make the process more efficient, the reader allows the child to turn the pages (remember the idea that we read from left to right?), follows the reading with finger, draws the child's attention to the difference between the text and the image.
"This is all well and good", - you will say, -"but how do I read to each child when there are eight and sometimes even more in my group?". I appreciate the toughness of the situation. Of course, we cannot sit each child in our laps but we should strive to create as close a condition as possible. In Pockets resources, there are sections with little stories that can be cut and turned into tiny books. Make sure your students do that. Show them where the title page is. Play the recording and follow the text with your finger. Once a page is over, there is a funny "ding" sound that signalises the move to the next page. Get excited and encourage your students to move to the next page on time. Afterwards, you may learn some parts by heart and pretend that they are reading while following the text with their finger. Choose a small, easy word that is often met in the text and ask the learners to find and circle it. If you have up to three students in the group, you might want to sit on a carpet, have them around you, give them a one-armed hug and read to them. Online resources and videos where the text accompanies the image may also be very useful. Just make sure the pronunciation is a native one.
These ideas come not only from the research but also my own experience. I remember my mum reading me books and asking to find and circle specific letters in the text. Once I was familiar with the concept of print, I started to pretend that I was reading. I would take Anderson's fairy tales and follow each letter both with my eyes and my finger. Whenever I got tired I would "cheat" following each word rather than a letter.
All this being said, we should also remember that literacy is not only reading but also writing, the latter arguably being the more difficult of the two. Yet again I should draw your attention to how difficult it may be to hold a pen or a pencil and draw tiny symbols on a piece of paper or on board. To help your young learners you should do activities that develop their fine motor skills. The research has shown that since the brain centre responsible for the fine motor skills is next to the speech centre, the development of one boosts the other. Thus, not only will you prepare a child for writing but will facilitate the overall speech development.
Again, Pockets have special art and crafts sections which help to learn the material in an engaging way and work with their fingers. Please, resist the temptation to do everything for them. Their imperfect work will bring more good and satisfaction. Once they are done, ask them to stand on the chair and tell about what they have done. For example, if they have made a door, help them say: "This is a/my door. It is red." May then everyone give the presenter a big hand.
The colouring activities in the Workbook are also a great boost for the writing skills. Show the students how to hold a pencil. Once they feel confident colouring, encourage them to stay within the limits and not cross the borderline. Tracing tasks are yet another great way of preparing them.
Now that you have introduced the concept of print, it's time to think about how we actually teach them to read. There are two major approaches which should be used parallel to each other.
You teach your students the phonemes, not the letter names. When I went to school, we learned the graphemes in a specific order. First, we learned ա (pronounced as "ar"), then ս (pronounced as "s") and then ր (pronounced as "r" in robot). Now we were ready to make sentences that made sense: Արա ասա սար։ (Ara say mountain). We do have names for the Armenian letters but we learn them much later. If we learned their names first: ayb for "ar", se for "s" and re for "r", it wouldn't help us read at all.
The same goes for English. Imagine reading "cat" when you know these graphemes as /si/, /ei/, /ti/. What on earth does /sieiti/ mean and how is that related to the image of a cat? For this reason, I strongly recommend teaching the ABC songs after your students have learned to read. Unfortunately, many parents think that the ability of their child to sing the ABC is a criterion of their intelligence and education. Hence, our students come with the existing knowledge of the letters. The explanation I have come up with for these cases is the following story: "My name is Diana. But my mother calls me Nanaka, my grandmother calls me Dika and my brother calls me Dinok. But I am the same person, right? The same is with the English letters. The name is /si/ but their mother calls them /k/ and their grandmother calls them /s/ but it is still the same letter". My favourite tools for teaching phonemes are the Phonics Song and Teach Your Monster to Read. Speak and Spell by the British Council is yet another valuable resource.
Teach several phonemes at a time, then help them to blend them into words. I like to start with c,a,t, i, s, x then blend them into easy words they know, e.g. cat, sit. six. Teach Your Monster to read does this in an ingenious way.
Storytelling and Memorising Words as Images
As good as the phonemic approach is, it fails to accommodate for English where "eight" is read as /eit/. What do we do then? Go back to storytelling and use their visual memory. I have come up with a story of "g" and "h" being secret agents, sitting there and pretending they are invisible. Apart from this, children are able to memorise words as they do with images. The same way children can learn to say: "giraffe" when seeing this:
they can learn to say "giraffe" when seeing this:
The activities used to develop these skills are the same as when teaching vocabulary. I use flashcards a lot. You may print or write words on flashcards with a marker.
The Bring Me Game
Show flashcards with the words/graphemes. The child that says it right (or the one you choose) takes it and puts it somewhere in the class. When all the flashcards are placed, sit down, close your eyes, stretch your hands and say: "Bring me the giraffe, please". Once they have placed the flashcards onto your hands, open your eyes and look at the flashcard. If it's the right one, get excited, hug the child and say: "Thank you!". If it's wrong, say: "Sorry! This is wrong. Take it back, please".
If you want the game to be exciting, turn it into a competition, so they all try to bring it first. You can also divide them into two teams and ask them to stand in rows. With your eyes open say: "Bring me the giraffe, please". To develop their executive functions make them wait until you say: "Go!". The students standing at the front of the row from each group run to bring the word. They then go to the end of the row and the next pair continues the competition.
On the other hand, if you want more order and some peace and quiet, assign a specific student to bring you the card: "Chinar, bring me the giraffe, please".
The Card Game
Sit in a circle. Hold the flashcard in a bunch as if they are cards. You can see what is on the flashcards while the students can only see the back. They then draw a card and look at it. If they can say which word/grapheme it is, they keep it, if not, they give it back. At the end, you count and see who has more flashcards. The students can play it with each other as well.
One important thing to bear in mind when teaching writing is that letters are different in terms of how they are written on a line. Do not be surprised if you see something like:
To help my students overcome this I have divided the graphemes into three groups: tall (l, t, k, b, d, f, and h), short (a, c, e, m, n, o, r, s, u, v, w, x, and z) and monkeys (g, j, y, p, and q). Why monkeys? Because they hang down their tails from the line like monkeys sitting on a branch. I then play a game with them: I write a grapheme and they say whether it's tall, short or a monkey. Using the TPR, I ask them to show it, for the tall ones they stand on the tips of their toes and raise their arms, for the short ones they crouch and for the monkeys they hang their arms as if they are tails. Do not expect your students to remember this overnight. Keep reminding and encouraging them to do this right.
The universal tic-tac-toe is a great way to practice both graphemes and words. You may assign each student a letter and ask to use it instead of an x or an o. Alternatively, you may give them a range of words or graphemes and divide the groups by colour giving a specific marker to each.
Matching tasks are also great. Create handouts where they need to match a grapheme or a word with an image (m-monkey). Colour the words/graphemes grey, so they both match and trace them. Make sure you use words they are familiar with.
Disappearing Words: write words/graphemes in a column and sing or chant them to help students memorise. Then ask them to close their eyes. Erase one unit, ask them to open their eyes, find the missing one, write it where it should have been.
Quizlet Dictation: Show them an image and ask them to write the word or the initial grapheme.
To conclude, teaching literacy is by no means an easy task. However, it is extremely rewarding to be the one person in your students' lives who taught them to do this. Of course, your work gets much easier once your students have learned to read in their native language. In our reality though, English is often the first language children learn to read in.