Tackling literacy at home

Tackling literacy at home

Hi there, it’s great to see you at the Building Bridges Blog. I can tell you’re a dedicated, loving parent who wants the best possible outcomes for your child. I know this because you’re taking the time to read this post. I can probably guess a couple more things about you, too. Being a dedicated, loving parent, you read to your child every day. Fantastic! Your child is on the way to being a reader, just because you’ve shown him/her how awesome reading is.  You’re also demonstrating which way up to hold a book, which parts in the book are words or pictures, how to read aloud so that it “sounds like talking”, which way to turn the pages, and that books contain many different types of texts.

But… (you knew there was a “but”, didn’t you?) Did you also teach your cherub the ABC song? You know, the one you sing to “Twinkle, Twinkle”, and which only rhymes if you sing “zee” instead of “zed” at the end? I bet you did. That’s great, too – the ABC song has some very important uses. They are:

  1. To teach the standard letter names of the letters of the alphabet.
  2. To teach the standard order the letters are found in throughout useful books like dictionaries, encyclopaedias, phone books and filing systems.
  3. To be exposed to and learn some of the conventions of Western music.
  4. To understand and use abbreviations used in text messages, like “R U OK?” (no, really, that’s super-important!).

These are useful things for a child to learn. I agree. Absolutely go on singing that song with your child. But it’s the next step I want you to think about.

When parents have taught this song to their children, the next logical step seems to be that the shapes associated with the letter names should then be taught to their child. In other words, they learn to associate “A” or “a” with the word “ay”, “B” or “b” with “bee” and so on. However, letter names are probably the least useful association to make with a letter shape.

Take the word “cat”, for example. If letter names were used to try and read it, it would sound like “see-ay-tee”. Can you see where I’m heading now? When you teach your child to associate a “word” or sound with a letter shape, teach them the sound it makes in a word.

I know this could present a fairly major problem, if you’re teaching your child to read words in English. We’re all well aware of the number of different sounds a letter can make when it’s actually placed in a word. So early childhood teachers stick to the most common sound for each letter, and explain the alternative sounds when they come up in a word. For example, the letter “c” can say /k/ as in cat, or /s/ as in ceiling. The /k/ sound is far more common, so we call “c” “Curly /k/” (“k”, of course, is “Kicking /k/” – remember that one?). Vowels are even worse, with any number of different sounds existing with a huge variation in spelling. So we stick to the short vowel sound, which is used far more than any long sounds, thusly:

/a/ as in cat
/e/ as in leg
/i/ as in zip
/o/ as in lock
/u/ as in bug
Also, /g/ as in goat, which is much more common than /j/ as in gem.

And as mentioned above, ‘c’ should be /k/ as in cat.

Now, in case you think this is all teachers’ mumbo jumbo, I want to tell you about a child I once taught. He was extremely bright and mature, and although he was only 6, he read as well as an 8 or 9 year old. But when I asked him what sound the letter “y” made, he told me it was /w/. He made similar errors with “w” = /d/ and “f” = /e/. So although he could read heaps of words fluently, he didn’t have the tools to figure out how a word should sound if he’d never seen it before – and this problem also showed up in his writing, where he had difficulty “sounding out” words when spelling. And over the years I have seen this happen repeatedly.

Give your children the tools they need to become independent readers and writers. Please teach them sounds, not letter names, when you are teaching them what all the strange shapes are in the books that you read to them every day.

There is a series of songs that I use to do this, since I know your child loves singing. No-one seems to know who wrote them or where they came from, and there are a few different versions of some of them, but they do the job they’re meant to do extremely well. They’re sung to the tune of “Skip to my Lou”, and they go like this:

Ants on the apple, /a/, /a/, /a/
Ants on the apple, /a/, /a/, /a/
Ants on the apple, /a/, /a/, /a/
/a/ is the sound of “ay”.
(I like to remove the last line and just sing /a/, /a/, /a/, /a/, /a/, but since there is a purpose for knowing standard letter names, you can leave it in if you like. But tell your child not to get tricked by the letters like “y”, “f”, “g”, “w” and so on that have misleading names. Children love thinking that they’re too clever to get tricked.)

Here are all the songs, in order:
Ants on the apple
Balls are bouncing
Caterpillars coughing
Dolls are dancing
Elegant elephants
Five flamingos
Goats are giggling
Helicopters hovering
In the igloo
Jellybeans jumping
King kicked a kettle
Lions licking lollipops
Monkeys are munching
Nuts in a nutshell
Old orange octopus
Popcorn is popping
Queen waiting quietly
Rats are running
Sausages are sizzling
Tiger on tiptoes
Up umbrellas
Violent volcanoes
Wibble Wobble Walrus
foX in a boX (“x” makes a /ks/, but never when it starts a word. X-ray starts with the sound /e/, xylophone with a /z/)
Yak is yawning
Zig-zag zebra

And here is a link to a video of me singing the song.

There is one more EXTREMELY important thing you MUST do if your child is to be a successful reader and writer. Talk to them all the time, and encourage them to talk to you.  Oral language is the foundation of written language.  They have to know the words and what they mean before being able to read or write them can be of any use to them.

And for even more literacy tips and tricks, why not bring your child to the Building Bridges Play School?  Visit www.BuildingBridgesECS.com.au for details.


Current literacy practices in Australian schools are informed by the Rowe report.  Check it out here: http://research.acer.edu.au/tll_misc/5/

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