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A girl peeks through a circle of doughs she's making with her father.
Cognitive skills related to overall reading success can be nurtured by engaging in activities that develop social skills and positive self-regulation. (Shutterstock)

5 ways to support children’s early literacy skills and build family connections this summer

With the end of the school year here, parents, caregivers and educators may find themselves reflecting on another turbulent year in education.

For researchers of children’s literacy, year-end reflections may prompt discussions of the “summer slide” — children’s loss of knowledge over summer break, particularly in literacy and numeracy — and what can be done to mitigate this learning loss.

Everyday activities that promote early literacy skills can be pursued in ways that don’t involve imposing rigorous summer academic work. Harnessing children’s interests and experiences and prioritizing their social and emotional needs are critical to learning and can nurture early literacy skills.

Prioritizing family well-being

Although the maintenance of academic skills gained during the school year is important, discussions of the summer slide should be carefully situated against the current backdrop of pandemic-related parental burnout, ongoing concerns of learning gaps and the need to prioritize children’s mental well-being.

Within these discussions, a focus on parental supports and resources must also be included. When parents are supported, they are better able to support their children. This is particularly critical for parents with fewer resources or supports than more advantaged parents.

In the classroom, the most effective way to develop early literacy skills is through explicit, systematic and evidence-based instruction. At home, these skills can be reinforced in subtle ways that don’t interfere with children’s desire and need to enjoy the summer.

Parents and caregivers can nurture early literacy skills in ways that do not place heavy expectations on the domestic responsibilities of parents, often mothers, that have already intensified during the pandemic.

A group of children are seen running outside.
Children’s early literacy skills can be nurtured without interfering with their much-deserved fun in the sun. (Shutterstock)

Fostering connection, supporting literacy

The list below details some ways parents or caregivers can foster emotional connection and support early literacy skills when children are home this summer.

1. Offering children space and opportunities for independence. Research shows a connection between children’s self-help skills, self-regulation and reading comprehension. These skills help promote the development of executive functioning skills such as organization of thought and working memory.

These critical skills are required in the process of reading comprehension and decoding — the process whereby children rely on what they know about letter-sound relationships to read words.

These activities can look like encouraging independence in daily routines, cooking together or engaging in pretend play.

(A child seen washing dishes)
Encouraging independence in daily routines is important. (Shutterstock)

2. Get moving. Mid-20th century pioneers of the Orton-Gillingham approach, Dr. Samuel Orton and educator and psychologist Anna Gillingham, highlighted the importance of motor development in learning to read. Subsequent research also shows a positive correlation between motor development and emergent literacy skills.

Children who engage their bodies while learning sounds of letters significantly improve their ability to recognize individual letter sounds. This summer, revamp traditional games such as hopscotch, and add letters. Children can be encouraged to identify the letter and/or corresponding sound while hopping along. Practising drawing letters using a range of arm motions can also engage gross motor movement.

3. Visiting a library. Many public libraries facilitate free literacy programs that aim to support early literacy skills and also offer virtual read-alouds of children’s favourite picture books. When children can select books geared to their own interests, it promotes an intrinsic motivation and desire to read. Books can then be enjoyed at home together, which can strengthen reading fluency, build vocabulary and foster a sense of connection.

Enjoying books together can involve what’s known as a “picture walk”: You focus on a book’s pictures, and based on these, invite your child to make predictions about what the story may be about, or engage your child in questions like: What do you think is happening here? Picture walks can also help strengthen background knowledge (a child’s sense of bigger situations or contexts associated with the words) which helps facilitate overall comprehension.

4. Multi-sensory experiences. Learning that connects and entices children’s senses generates greater neural connectivity and strengthens neural pathways. Engaging multiple neural pathways is beneficial for all readers, and crucial for struggling readers.

A chlid's hands seen working on play-dough.
Multi-sensory experiences can strengthen early literacy skills. (Shutterstock)

When children are learning letter names (graphemes) and their sounds (phonemes), a multi-sensory approach enhances the neurological pathways involved in key early reading skills. The skill of phonemic awareness is the ability to understand that spoken words are made up of individual sounds, and is one of the best early predictors for reading success.

Phonemic awareness can be encouraged by making letters with blocks, rocks, sticks, lego or other easy-to-manipulate loose parts, or by tracing letters in sand or dirt outdoors. Invite a child to say the letter sound. If done outdoors, children also reap the benefits of engaging in literacy activities while in nature.

5. Literacy on the go: Letters and text are all around us and this includes the print that appears everywhere in our environments in signs, labels and logos.

A boy is reading a label in a supermarket.
Literacy on-the-go can look like encouraging children to pay attention to letters and words that appear in labels or logos. (Shutterstock) (Shutterstock)

Paying attention to this helps children bridge early reading skills. While on an errand, invite your child to identify the letters, sounds and/or words you see. Pointing out letters on license plates can also reinforce letter recognition skills.

It’s important to undertake these activities with the goal of nurturing emotional connection at the forefront. Parents can also know that during the school year, schools must provide support for students to help all learners develop their reading skills.

Focusing on social-emotional needs and connection are paramount to enriching a child’s love of literacy at home and school — during all months of the year.

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