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What Do Early Literacy Experiences Sound Like? (The Council Chronicle, March 05)

NCTE's Early Childhood Issues Committee offers the following vignettes to illustrate how everyday activities and a playful approach can help build literacy skills.

Making the Bed

Mom is making the bed. Nine-month-old Alex is sitting in the middle of it. Talking and laughing, Mom swings the sheet up into the air, "Here come the sheets. Ready?" she cries, "Ooop and a whoop. One and a twooooo . . . ."

Alex squeals in delight as she sings out, "Threeeee! The sheet's flying!" The sheet floats down around Alex and he squeals and giggles from under the sheet.

"Wanna do it again?" Mom lifts up the sheet and swoops it high into the air, "Ready, One, two, threeeeeeee" and the sheet gently floats down over Alex. He squeals with pleasure.

"Where's Alex?" says Mom, "Peek-uhhhhh . . . " She lifts up a corner of the sheet and spies Alex, "booooooo!" Alex squeals and laughs.

"Are you like a little puppy? Are you hiding under there? Wherrrrrre's the puppy?" Alex squeals and lifts up the corner of the sheet.

"Where's the puppy?" says Mom. "There he is!" She lifts off the sheet, kisses Alex, and says, "I love you." With more kisses and hugs, she tells him, "Thank you for helping me make the bed!"

"Keh, keh, keh," says Alex.

"Kitty cat?" says Mom. "Are you looking for the kitty cat? I wonder where that cat is? I wonder." And off they go into a new game.

Going on a Bear Hunt!

During summer camp, Shelly Freund gathers her 12 two-year-olds on a carpeted bench. “Who wants to go on a bear hunt?!” she asks enthusiastically, referring to one of their favorites: Michael Rosen's delightful and predictable text. “Meee!!” comes the reply.

“Look everybody, where’s your hands.” Shelly slaps her hands together, making the sound of footsteps; the kids do, too. Her reading is lively and entertaining, chock-full of large dramatic gestures which kids immediately emulate, and laced with pauses in predictable places for kids to join in. “’We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re gonna catch a’—

“’Big one’,’” add a few of the children.

“’Fooful day!” a tiny girl offers, supplying the next line.

“’It’s a beautiful day’—yeah!!” Shelly repeats. “I wonder what we’re going to find. I hope we don’t find anything too scary…” Their bear hunt is filled with challenges: long wavy grass, a cold river, and a dark forest, each of which Shelly embellishes with movements, gestures, and sound effects. Soon, the bear hunters happen upon a blizzard. “This is your favorite part, Hallie,” Shelly smiles. They zip up their imaginary coats, tie imaginary hats beneath their chins, put on mittens, and boots “so our feet won’t get wet.” One toddler’s eyes are opened wide, as if anticipating danger. “Wooooo, wooooo,” they call as they traipse through the imaginary storm.

“Slashlashs!” blurts an eager voice.

“Get your flashlights out—you remembered! What are we going to find now?!”

Shelly gasps, then continues in a dramatic whispery voice. “’A cave. . . a creepy, dark cave’—and we don’t know what’s inside it! So get your flashlights out and click it on with your thumb. Anybody need batteries?”

“I do!” says one child.

“Here’s some batteries. Everybody take your batteries and put them in your flashlight.” Tiny hands grasp at the air and manipulate invisible tools.

“Eek!” comes a chorus of excited voices. “Bew!!” they squeal with delight.

Shelly’s energy matches theirs. “Hurry everybody! Let’s go back through the cave. . . . ” Then there's the blizzard, the river, tall grass, and a flurry of frantic gestures reflecting the feelings of characters. Finally, the bear hunters are home, “under that big pink blankie with Mommy and Daddy,” and the dozen toddlers exhale sighs of relief.

What do these young children know / what are they exploring?
  • Knowledge of narrative structure—beginning, middle, and end; predictability of text
  • Connecting text to what they already know
  • Learning new words and their meanings
  • Connecting objects with actions—flashlights with turning them on/filling with batteries; wearing coats, hats, and boots in a blizzard
What is Shelly doing to support the kids’ literacy learning?
  • Rereads a favorite story
  • Dramatizes the story with movements to build comprehension of the text
  • Reads with expression
  • Pauses for kids to join in with remembered text
  • Highlights new/learned vocabulary by repeating and reinforcing
  • Asks questions so kids can predict what is happening next in the story drama
  • Recognizes individual interests of children throughout the story
  • Connects text to what children already know and remember

Coffee Shop Literacy

Maureen is situating 2-year-10-month-old Adam and his breakfast at a table outside her favorite coffee shop. Shane Thomas, her six-month-old, is asleep in his carriage. At last, Maureen sinks into her own chair to enjoy her coffee and bagel.

Adam takes a large bite of his bagel and chews, studying the print that adorns the storefront window. “There’s a A,” he observes, placing his finger on the familiar letter.

“Do you know what it says?” asks his mom.

“What it says?” asks Adam.

“'Breads’,” she replies, taking a bite from her own bagel.

Adam now points at another word in the collection that describes the store’s offerings. “What dat says?”

“'Scones’. That’s like a muffin,” his mom clarifies.

“What dat says?” Adam asks, pointing to another word.


“What dat says?” he asks, pointing to still another word.

“'Bagels’,” his mom answers. “B-A-G-E-L-S.”

“G /E/ /ah/ /A/--bagels,” echos Adam, and he and his mom continue chewing as he continues to study the print.

What does Adam know?
  • The first letter in his name
  • Once provided a demonstration that indicates that a word expresses meaning, recognizes that the others probably do as well. He asks about them.
  • Tries on Mom’s name-the-letter strategy for fit. And even though it is imperfect, he gives it a try.
How does Mom support his literacy learning?
  • Provides specific response to her child’s questions.
  • Provides additional information that helps Adam see that the letter is situated within a meaningful context.
  • Accepts his attempts to communicate, responding to the meaning of his request, not its form.

Cene (Age 3 years 8 mos) with Day Care Teacher

Three-year-old Cene is making a page for a going away book for his friend, Patrick, when his teacher joins him. “Happy summer, Patrick,” Susie reads slowly as she makes a sign for the book-making area that also provides conventional spellings, should kids choose to use them.

“I writed the P. Could you write the –“

“You can write the rest of it,” Susie assures him, showing him the sign. “Here are the letters so you’ll know how to do it.”

“Susie, I can’t write that letter,” Cene says, pointing to the A. Susie knows Cene well. She listens to the kind of help he’s seeking, then provides it, giving him complete ownership of the product.

“What’s this letter?” Susie asks, pointing to the A on the sign.

“I don’t know,” Cene tells her.

“It’s an A,” she informs him.

“A,” he repeats, trying one. “No, that’s not how you make an A,” he decides. He tries again, this time satisfied. “A.”

Susie does not intervene as he places the A far to the left of the P; she applauds his effort: “That’s right.” Pointing to the T, she asks, “Now, what’s this letter?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s what /T/ed/ [Ted] starts with,” Susie offers, supporting Cene to make connections between his best friend’s name and the letter T.

“Tuh…,” he says, pausing. “T!”

“Right,” she smiles, watching as Cene confidently writes. Susie continues to help him keep track of where he is as he finishes “Patrick.”

“Good! You made ‘Patrick!’” she exclaims. “Can you find your P? Find your P.”

Cene quickly points to it. “Okay, now where’s your A?” Cene points to each letter as Susie reviews the name letter by letter.

Finished, Susie hugs him tightly, celebrating his success as a writer/reader.

“’Patrick’! You wrote ‘Patrick,' Cene! That’s great!”

But Cene has not quite finished yet. As if to explore his independent use of her point-to-a letter-on-the-sign-and-find-it-on-your-paper strategy, he begins asking Susie to locate letters. “What about the …uh…R?”

“There’s your R.”

“And what about…” Cene’s voice trails off for a second as he inspects his aborted A. “That’s Patrick’s mom,” he decides, attaching new significance to his “mistake.”

What Kids Know and are Exploring:
  • Knowledge of individual letters and how to write them
  • Print has meaning
  • Sound-letter relationships
  • Conventional spelling of words and names
Adult Strategies:
  • Provides intentional demonstrations by making and pointing out signs/texts with conventional spellings
  • Acknowledges and celebrates Cene’s attempts/accomplishments
  • Knows capabilities of this child and encourages risk-taking based on that knowledge
  • Uses sound-letter relationships and connects to what this child knows and is familiar with
  • Reinforces letter names and recognition by applying a strategy that works for this child in this context

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Most Recent Comments (1 Total Posts)

Posted By: Anonymous User on 12/20/2011 11:25:13 AM

This is a wonderful and helpful tool for a Teacher Intern. So many times I have asked myself " How do I provide engaging and meaningful discussions in the classroom" This is the Answer!!!!

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