Simple activities have big result

November 16, 1997|By Sara Engram

A YOUNG MOTHER is cooing to her infant. ''Hel-lo, sw-e-e-e-t bay-bee,'' she says, elongating the vowel sounds.

A dad is asking a toddler to tell the story that prompted her latest drawing. ''What is this yellow circle?'' he asks.

A grandfather is listening to a 4-year-old's account of his afternoon adventure. ''Really!'' he exclaims, and asks what happened next.

Each of those moments can become a precious memory, or even serve as an example of that elusive concept of ''quality time'' with children. But each of these scenes also illustrates crucial steps in preparing young children to become good readers.

New research on reading instruction is important, but what scientists are learning about brain development in the earliest years ought to have truly revolutionary effects on the way we prepare children for success in school.

In the earliest years of life, one of a child's most important tasks is to learn to communicate, to handle language, to listen and to speak.

The sequence of listening, then speaking, then learning to read, then beginning to write is so logical that it seems to just be common sense. But rarely does the process of acquiring and using language rate the attention it deserves from educators.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick says understanding this sequence of language acquisition is pivotal for any efforts to improve the reading skills of young people. Teachers have little training in the building blocks of language acquisition -- something that needs to change as schools of education retool their preparation of teachers.

When a mother coos to her baby, he learns to listen and to distinguish the important sounds in language. Researchers now are finding that ''baby talk,'' in which adults elongate their vowels, seems to be an instinctive way of helping a baby to hear crucial differences between sounds.

Once a child recognizes that patterns of sounds mean something, she is ready to start making those sounds. She learns to talk, first in single words, then in groups of words and simple sentences.

As her language skills improve, the child can explain important things to people around her. She can tell Daddy that the yellow circle in her drawing is the sun.

Patient questions

Simple as it is, this process of talking and explaining things strengthens the skills that are essential in reading and writing. In her eagerness to express herself, to connect with other people, this young child soaks up new words and stretches her ability to use them to explain herself and her world. Those patient questions from Dad, Mom and anybody else willing to pay attention gently push the process along.

The 4-year-old trying to keep Granddad in suspense is further polishing those skills. And simply by listening, Granddad is helping educate that child.

A child who likes to talk and tell stories is more likely to become an eager reader and a good writer than one accustomed to hours of passivity in front of a TV set.

But a child who arrives at kindergarten without that zest for language is beginning school with a handicap. As Ms. Grasmick likes to say, by the age of 5, children are ''geriatric'' in regard to language acquisition. At that point, schools are already playing catch-up with these children.

From ages 2-4, children are soaking up words, expanding their vocabularies, learning correct pronunciation and putting words together.

And yet in many homes, television is used as a convenient baby-sitter or caregivers speak poor English.

But Ms. Grasmick believes parents should worry just as much about the quality and quantity of conversation between adults and children in that program. Are children being encouraged to talk? Are adults listening?

Are their caregivers gently guiding them toward wider vocabularies and better pronunciation, by reading aloud to them and regularly engaging them in conversation? Are parents doing the same at home?

If so, those adults are significantly increasing the chances that these children will become good readers by age 9.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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