One of the most effective approaches to helping young children develop literacy skills is having a home environment that supports literacy. Research clearly shows that instructional environments have a powerful impact on children’s growth in reading. While much of the research on instructional environments focuses on classroom environments, researchers believe that the same effects may be found in supportive home environments. Other researchers have concluded it seems clear that home environments for reading and writing should be given at least equal consideration.
Having a literate home doesn’t mean that parents have to be literate in English. Reading and writing in one’s native language sends every bit as strong a literacy message as reading and writing in English. The important point is that parents value literacy, no matter what language they read and write.
In setting up a family literacy area, parents need to consider three things: (1) where the area should be located, (2) what materials should be housed there, and (3) how the materials can best be used.
Any place in the home can serve as a reading area. Ideally, it will be a space that is comfortable and well lit. If the room can be made cozy with cushions, beanbag chairs, and pillows, all the better. The room should also have space for family members’ preferred reading styles—be it nestled on a couch, lying on the floor, or sitting at a table.
A literate home needs books—lots and lots of them. Young children need access to a variety of books. Cloth and cardboard ones are good for babies who like to read with their mouths. So too are “feelie” books, like Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kunhardt, that use touch to teach. Toddlers and preschoolers adore storybooks, especially ones with wordplay and predictable phrases. They also like wordless books like Alexandra Day’s Good Dog, Carl where the parent and child can supply their own text, which builds language skills. Young children are attracted to both nonfiction and fiction. ABC books and informational stories are as appealing as the many wonderful storybooks.
It is recommended that parents build a permanent library, so that children can go back to favorites again and again. Family trips to the public library can augment the collection with exciting, new titles.
Because this is a family reading area, be sure to have reading materials on hand that appeal to all family members. And the inventory doesn’t need to be limited to books—magazines, newspapers, encyclopedias, an atlas, the Bible, and even comic books are all appropriate. The point is that everyone has something they will be eager to read.
Using the Materials
The reading area should be available to all family members 24-7. Anytime someone has an urge to read (that doesn’t interfere with family responsibilities), they should be able to come here for a leisurely reading experience. This means that books need to be accessible to young children, so they can get to them independently. Even if a parent is with the child, it is preferable for children to pick the book they want to look at on their own. Since children this age are pre-readers, try as much as possible to display books standing up so children can identify them by their covers. Storing books in a laundry basket or piling them on a shelf can be very frustrating to young readers.
Young children also need to see their parents and other family members using this reading area independently. Seeing their parents value reading in this way sends children the message that reading is an important activity. Researchers Timothy Rasinski and Anthony Fredericks write: “It is crucial that children see their parents use reading for a variety of purposes, from entertainment to maintaining a job. Parents should show children the many ways that they use reading.”
In addition to using this area independently, families would do well to create a family reading time when everyone congregates in this area to read together. It doesn’t have to be a lengthy amount of time—15 minutes can be effective, as long as it is a daily (or every-other-day) commitment. For many families, the best time seems to be in the evening after dinner has been eaten and the dishes have been washed and put away. The key is to make this a regularly scheduled event.
In addition to, or in lieu of reading together, families may wish to use this time for storytelling or sharing family history. In some cultures, oral traditions are the main form of literacy. Oral language forms a strong foundation for reading and can be encouraged in the same way as reading together.
From the research, it appears not to particularly matter whether parents use this time together to read, tell stories, or let children independently look at books. In examining parental perspectives on literacy from diverse sociocultural groups, researchers concluded the following:
“The home literacy environments of European American and African American families did not differ in the data we have analyzed to date as strongly as those of middle-income and low-income families. Many middle-income parents seem to prefer to provide their children with opportunities for constructing their own understandings of literacy by making literacy materials readily available for independent use. Many low-income parents, in contrast, place relatively more emphasis on structured activities and on ostensible component skills in literacy. Thus, middle-income families tend to adopt a more playful approach in preparing their children for literacy than low-income families.”
Should this finding be of concern? We concur with those who argue that it may be more effective and adaptive to encourage home involvement that is consistent with parents’ existing beliefs than to try to change parents’ views.
How this time is structured, therefore, is not felt to be as important as that it occurs.
In addition to having an area for reading, parents create a literate home environment when they encourage children to write regularly. Even pre-writers need lots of opportunities to practice “writing.” Parents can set up a chalkboard or white board in the kitchen where children can imitate them making grocery lists or writing notes to other family members.
Children also need accessibility to paper, markers, and crayons so they can “write” letters to grandparents or just do scribble writing. With preschoolers, parents might think about giving them a journal so they can make daily entries, even if these private thoughts are just scribbles to the adult eye.
Alphabet letters will likewise support children’s literacy. It’s important that parents have different types of letters that children can move around, such as magnetic letters for the refrigerator and foam letters for the bathtub. It’s also good to have alphabet blocks and puzzles, letter-shaped cookie cutters, letter stamps, and stickers. Children love writing their name; these materials give them the opportunity to do so over and over again.
Audio and visual recordings related to beginning reading and writing also have their place in the home. Concept videos and DVDs that feature rhyming and children’s books on tape or CD can be borrowed from the local library.
Having a literate home develops in young children a love for reading and writing. As Rasinski and Fredericks put it, “A literate home environment doesn’t teach children how to read; rather, it provides children with opportunities to enjoy reading and discover the many ways it can be used to enrich the experiences in their lives.”
Families don’t have to invest a lot of money in materials to have a literate home; they do, however, have to invest their time and involvement.