Before a child can begin to put the sounds together to read about Sam and his green eggs, he must have mastered the concepts of print. In large part, this means that he understands that letters can combine to make words and that written words convey meaning. It requires some abstract thinking, as a child comes to realize that these organized symbols represent spoken words, which in turn, represent actual objects and ideas. Concepts of print also includes directionality (left to right, top to bottom) and function. So how do you go about instilling children with an understanding of the concepts of print? Here are a few ideas:
Hit the Books
Sharing books with children is one of the best ways to help them learn that print carries meaning. We don’t often think about it as a learned skill, but children do need to learn how books “work”. Point out the title as well as the author and illustrator names. Use those terms and talk about how the children are authors and illustrators too! As you read, children are learning how to hold a book, where the text is, that print flows from left to right and top to bottom(if you are following along with your finger or a pointer), and which direction the pages turn. So many concepts in one enjoyable experience! Now, don’t bore your children with these concepts; there’s no need to belabor the point. Simply be aware of them so that you know when and how to emphasize them, and also recognize when children are beginning to master some of these concepts.
The term, “environmental print” does not refer to the Sierra Club’s latest newsletter. Environmental print includes the printed words that children see and interact with on a regular basis. These are often the first words children can “read” by sight, because they become meaningful and familiar. Environmental print can consist of signs, labels, charts, and branding. Yes, as much as we may not like the barrage of marketing towards children, the fact that your child can “read” the word Cars on any Pixar packaging, means he is building concepts of print.
A World of Words. One way to draw attention to environmental print is to create a word wall. There are many ways to use a word wall, but one great way is for collecting environmental print. This means that the children cut out words (and some accompanying pictures) from cereal boxes, magazines, and even fast food take-out containers. Each word is then discussed and analyzed and attached to the wall near the letter of the alphabet that is at the beginning of the word. So, near the letter P, you may have labels for pizza, popsicles, popcorn, and princesses. This not only emphasizes the meaning of the words, the similar beginning sounds, but also the salient features of letter formation in spite of different fonts and scripts.
If you don’t have a wall to devote to the activity, create a binder divided by the letters of the alphabet and insert the words in the appropriate sections. It’s amazing how this type of ongoing, child-driven activity can make children more aware of the words around them. You’ll be amazed at how many words your children can already “read”.
What’s Your Function? Utilizing functional print is another great way to fill the child’s environment with print. Your OCD persona can rejoice as you label shelves, bins, and cupboards with their contents. Create schedules that combine written words with pictures. Put up signs to label rooms, exits, pet cages and aquariums, even doors and windows. Teach children to use functional print like this to communicate with other children, as well as sign-ups to organize turn-taking. Point out the written recipes during cooking activities and written lyrics during singing time– even when they already know the song by heart. Anything that uses print to perform a function. (That’s where that catchy term comes from.) Connecting theses printed words to the words they use and the objects and ideas they are familiar with creates powerful connections.
By Any Other Name
One of the most powerful words to teach a child to recognize in print is his or her own name. Help children to recognize their own names by using nametags, sign-in activities (even if they can’t write their own names conventionally), and cubby labels. Label their artwork in front of them, post their names on job charts, and use their names in mystery word activities (where you write or reveal one letter at a time, causing them to recognize the difference between Ashley and Ainsley, while again seeing that words begin on the left and add on to the right). Names are a source of pride and belonging, and children are usually highly motivated to learn to “read” them.
As you surround children with meaningful print, and engage them with it in useful ways, pointing out how words are constructed and the way print flows, children begin to learn information essential to their reading success. When you recognize what these concepts are and how children can learn them, you can emphasize these aspects during child-centered, playful activities. When you have prepared yourself and your environment, you can maximize the learning that can take place all around you in natural ways.
What do you do to encourage children to learn about the concepts of print?
Top photo by Terri-Ann Hanlon.
Begin reading this series on Emergent Literacy HERE.