I started working in education ten years ago in Texas, as a contract tutor for public schools in danger of closing due to consecutively failing state standardized testing. My other job was being a teacher assistant in a more affluent part of Houston. Even at an early age, you can see the disparity of America’s education system. Underprivileged children are left to their own devices instead of being exposed to a literacy-rich environment, while more affluent parents have the resources to give their kids head starts to facilitate success in school.
After a decade of teaching and constantly witnessing the differences between children of opportunity versus those who must raise themselves, I realize a teacher can work wonders. But it’s also about the world outside of school, where teachers don’t exist. Out in the “real world,” many teachable moments arise. Anyone can be a teacher, anyone can be a parent.
Education is not something that happens exclusively in school, and it’s not up to the teacher alone. We need an all-hands-on-deck approach. Here’s how it can be done.
TURN OFF THE TV, GET LIT-RICH
A literacy-rich environment is a place specially designed to expose children to words and print as much as possible. Lit-rich places are supposed to be inviting and comfortable. Think of a playroom where everything is labeled, maybe in two to three languages, and there are word games, sight word flashcards, Dr. Seuss and I Can Read books everywhere.
Consider decreasing or limiting television time. Studies have shown links between increased TV time and developmental delays. Young people, even babies, need to be talked to. Not baby talk either, I’m talking about having whole conversations. They need to hear and see how people talk in order to mimic and develop language and literacy skills. Kids from families that have the TV on a lot spend less time reading and being read to, and are less likely to be able to read. This may also lead to attention problems and puts them at an academic disadvantage even before they reach school age.
A television in the background could distract babies from play. Playtime is a crucial developmental activity for young people. It develops self-sufficiency, imagination, creativity, curiosity, and contributes to social, cognitive, physical, and emotional well-being.
I’m not saying TV is evil, but everything in moderation. In addition to decreasing passive screen time, incorporate words and language throughout your home to help your child. Here are a few ideas:
KEEP AN ASSORTMENT OF PRINT VISIBLE & ACCESSIBLE
For children to develop a love for literacy, they should be surrounded by all kinds of text to read and explore. Have it everywhere in various forms, such as (but not limited to): books, comic books, zines, calendars, menus, everyone’s chores on a chart, schedules, alphabet toys, signs, labels on everything, lists of things to do, notes to self, notes to each other on the fridge, a dry erase board with various reminders, coupons, birthday cards, postcards, magazines, newspapers, flashcards, etc.
READ IN ALL GENRES AND SUBJECTS
It is important to expand a child’s reading repertoire to all subjects because it increases their vocabulary and understanding of the world. While it would be impossible to list why every genre of writing is important, I will say poetry is of particular importance to young people, because the lyricism and rhyme increases a child’s reading fluency, phonics skills, and ear for language. Moreover, nonfiction should be explicitly explored because it has unique text features such as captions, diagrams, maps, and charts that some children may need help understanding.
KEEP A VARIETY OF WRITING TOOLS AVAILABLE
In a literacy-rich environment, words are not only everywhere in various forms, but also easy to reproduce. Of course, we must consider safety, so no sharp pencils or crayons near the crib. However, having pencils, markers, crayons, sponge letters, letter stamps, paper, easels, and letter stencils around gives young people a chance to write and have fun with words.
Used responsibly with adult supervision, technology can be a good way to practice phonics and reading skills. In my sessions, I like to use an iPad app called Bitsboard to make flash cards. The app also has different word association games to improve overall literacy. I also use Read on Sight, a game where words are presented and read, then scrambled, challenging the child to put the words in order. In addition to apps, there’s also a wealth of educational websites out there. In my practice I use two membership-based sites: ixl.com, which is a website where kids can practice specific skills across subjects from grades K-12, and razkids.com, which is an online library of leveled reading material across all subjects and genres for all skill levels, from beginning reader all the way to high school. They even provide ways to track progress, a great motivator for young readers.
READ MORE (ALOUD)
The positive effects of reading aloud to children cannot be overstated. Reading out loud to young people in an engaging, exciting way that pulls them into the story helps children acquire early language skills, develop positive associations with books and reading, and build a stronger foundation for success in life.
Read anything and everything: a movie with subtitles, the panels on a cereal box, menus, mail, billboards, bumper stickers, building names, and street signs. Look at a calendar and discuss days, weeks, months. Look at the whole year and talk to them about special upcoming events. Google search lyrics and sing karaoke to a favorite song; look up words in the dictionary or thesaurus; use the table of contents in a cookbook, then use a recipe to cook something delicious. Read books at night, read chapter books together. The possibilities are endless.
And in between animated readings, ask questions. While reading aloud, the adult should lead the child into making connections with the text, asking questions such as “What would you do if you were this character?” or “Why do you think the character feels angry?” or “This story takes place in a park. Do you remember the last time we went to the park?”
Sometimes it’s hard for people to remember how much they have to break language down to the most rudimentary level. For instance, one study by educational researcher, Laura Justice, PhD, found that children with parents who explicitly explained how English words are read from left to right “are better readers and spellers by the end of first grade.”
TALK TO CHILDREN MORE
I can usually tell a child that gets neglected at home from a child that is used to talking and being talked to. It’s not enough to give directives and commands to our youth, or to let them sit in front of a screen all day. We need to involve young people in meaningful discussion and debate from an early age.
MORE OPEN-ENDED INQUIRIES
In rural Nebraska and Kansas City Head Start programs (otherwise knows as “Pre-K”), a program called Pre-3T is used to promote parent engagement in early literacy. The teachers help parents learn strategies to increase children’s exposure to language and build verbal expression skills. For example, parents learn to prompt children to share about their day by replacing yes or no questions like “Did you have a good day?” with open-ended inquiries like “Tell me about all the books you read today.” In the latter inquiry, a child is prompted to recall what they read, and perhaps compare one book to the other.
CONVERSATIONS LEAD TO CONNECTIONS
Children must be given multiple opportunities for rich academic discussion in their natural environment. When a child is given a chance to practice new vocabulary or discuss new material they’re learning, they are making new connections in their brain, between what they learned in a book to the world around them. They’re taking what they learned in class outside of school and into the real world. In turn, adults may expand a child’s vocabulary or lead them into deeper understanding of the books they read or math skills they’re learning.
We need to ask our kids for their opinions, thought processes, motivations behind their actions, and ask them to evaluate out loud why they prefer one thing over the other. Young people need to know they have an audience and that their thoughts matter outside of themselves. They also need to be coached through thinking, guided into deeper layers of understanding by caring, mindful adults. A well-educated citizenry would be one in which young people are challenged to be thoughtful and communicate their thoughts from an early age.
MODEL LITERACY WITH CHILDREN
It’s important for children—the earlier the better—to develop a positive connection to words. They should grow up seeing words used regularly and people around them handling words, writing them, and making them come to life with hypnotizing penmanship and candy-colored glitter gel pens.
Take notes, make to-do lists, and make sure your child sees you thinking and writing. Endeavor to send the occasional card, letter or postcard out to a relative who lives far away, or even a friend that lives nearby.
Practice lettering with children! Any kind of writing: daily print, scribble, bubble letters. Cursive is always so hypnotic for children, and adds to their understanding of print concepts.
THE IMPORTANCE OF VOCABULARY
Challenge yourself to expand your vocabulary so the child may also increase theirs. Learn how to use context clues. For some, the best way to learn a language is by immersion. Children need to be exposed to as much vocabulary as possible, and be constantly given opportunities to practice using new words in an everyday setting.
We’ve all witnessed an elderly person struggle to remember a word for something during conversation. For a child, they don’t know the words yet, but I’m sure they must feel a similar struggle—the inability to summon the word for something they are thinking or feeling. Since the child is simply unaware of all the words they have at their disposal, we must demonstrate the use of them, so the child may naturally start demonstrating their own mastery of words.
If we’re going to empower the future generation, they need to be able to read, comprehend, and evaluate what they read to determine its authenticity. Ensuring a kid’s vocab game is on lock will give them the confidence and skills they need to tackle any piece of reading they encounter, and empower them to express themselves in any form, whether vocally or through the written word.
Metacognition is thinking about thinking: thinking out loud, comparing advantages and disadvantages of a situation, alternative courses of action, prioritizing in relation to relevant criteria (time, distance, funds, etc). It also includes fact-checking and the ability to conduct research to ensure if a piece of information is true or not.
Children need examples of how to think through something and persevere through a problem in daily life. Doing mental math out loud or using signage to navigate around a city instead of GPS are some examples of modeling metacognition.
GET INWARD: BOOST THAT EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
Book smarts is not enough to be successful as a society. More than ever, we all need to be more in touch with ourselves, our emotions, and why we’re feeling the way we do. Many experts now believe that a person’s emotional intelligence quotient (EQ) may be more important than their IQ and is a better predictor of success, quality of relationships, and overall happiness. EQ helps us to be buoyant when the sea of life gets choppy.
If we want kids to grow up to be logical, balanced thinkers, we need to teach them how to manage and understand their emotions instead of being quick to anger or fear. There’s so many ways to do this. Activities like guided meditation and yoga can help guide young people through making connections between self and others. Looking at art or reading a poem with children and asking how it makes them feel is a great way to help them explore and understand what they’re feeling. Guide them in some free association. Encourage journaling, dance, and any other forms of creative self-expression. Challenge them to listen: if you sit listening together in a quiet space, how far can your ears hear?
An individual who carries their own peace within won’t need to always be entertained by an endless stream of stimulation. People of all ages—and especially kids—should learn how to listen more and be at home with the quiet moments in life. This ensures a person contains tranquility within themselves and can lead to moments of introspection and reflection.
GET OUTWARD: BOOST THAT SOCIAL INTELLIGENCE
Young people need to be given the freedom to navigate social situations on their own—not giving them opportunities to do so only stunts their growth and puts them in a position of arrested development. Adults need to model good social skills around young people (how to handle stressful situations, surprises, set backs, road rage, etc). In turn, kids need to be given chances to practice social skills and celebrate successes. When teachable moments arise, address them in a constructive, positive manner—tying back to emotional intelligence, metacognition, and self-awareness. Talk them through situations in a calm, non-judgmental manner; guide them in “moving on”: problem-solving and identifying next steps, and actualization.
Enroll a child in whatever they are curious about: chess club, poetry groups, storytime at the library, sports, learning to shine at Girls Rock! Camp, or making zines with Big Class. Arrange playdates. Bring young people to skate at Parisite. Take kids along while running errands. Exposure to as many positive social environments as possible ensures the child is able to fit in with a variety of people, which boosts emotional intelligence and overall success in life. It may even give them an understanding of their place in society and give them an idea of what they might want to be when they grow up.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
No certification needed: all adults are educators. I’m not saying people should commandeer other people’s kids, but on a grassroots, daily life level, people should be more cognizant of their influence on young people around them. Also, the best teachers are the ones who remain students at heart.
That’s what makes living in a city so special—people have more opportunity to mix it up and be exposed to different ideas and ways of living. I think the main problem with people who aren’t exposed to other walks of life is that they don’t realize how we are all connected. They are so quick to separate “us” versus “them,” or themselves from “the other.” A large part of our survival as a free people depends on realizing our similarities, and establishing more community. A well-educated community is a free community.