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I remember the day that I considered my son an official “reader.” He was in second grade and we were visiting Santa Claus at a local mall. There were banners detailing the history of Santa strung along the path on which we waited. I watched in utter amazement (and with a flash of pride) as he quietly mumbled the words (even the hard ones) that were on the banners. These weren’t the simple readers he brought home or the familiar children’s stories we read every night, this was him drawing meaning and enjoyment from words he found in his world.
I am proud to see that both of my children are voracious readers. The ultimate goal of reading is to draw meaning (and hopefully enjoyment) from the written word. However, before one can just curl up with a good book, there are many steps to take to arrive at this stage. And, each new bit of development is valuable, important and to be celebrated.
When a toddler holds a shoe to her ear and talks into it as if it were a phone, she is showing a beginning understanding of symbolism, the idea that one thing can represent another. In reading, a child first builds an understanding that a picture can tell a story and will often “read” a story based on those images. Sometimes, the child makes up a story based on the pictures he sees. Other times, if he is very familiar with a story, he will recite the words he has memorized and appear to be reading the actual story. In this stage of reading, the child thinks that the story is in the pictures, and does not yet really attach a meaning to those squiggles that appear on the page (the words).
When we provide an environment in which children see and interact with words, we help them develop print awareness; the idea that the printed word carries a message to the reader (just like a picture does). As this knowledge blossoms in your child, you may begin to hear a lot of “what does that say”? This is an indication that your child understands that the written word means something and encourages a thirst to build the skills to decode those wonderful messages.
Once a child becomes intrigued by the idea that print needs to be decoded to be understood, he or she is much more likely to attack the task of decoding with more enthusiasm. Decoding calls on children to begin to connect specific letter symbols with the sounds they represent. By blending those sounds, children begin to make sense of the written word. There is nothing like viewing the pride reflected in a child’s face when “What does this say?” becomes “This word says ‘cat.’”
Children also build the tools they need to become strong readers as they gain more experience with books. As children observe how others use books and have hands-on experiences with reading materials, they move from the infant who chews on one to the preschooler who carefully turns the pages and runs her finger across the page.
The road to reading starts the day your child is born and focuses on your face. With patient guidance and teaching, some brain development, and a lot of experience and practice, a child puts all of the necessary skills and knowledge together and like my son (oh so many years ago) becomes a reader.