Squiggles Matter!

rotary phoneI was the youngest of four children and spent my childhood in the 1960's. That meant no preschool, few children's television shows on few channels, few toys. My days were long and slow, especially between the hours of 8:30 am to 3:00 pm while my siblings were away at school. 

I have an  early memory of sitting on the stool near our telephone table. Yes, our old rotary phone sat on an end table, plugged into a wall, with a cord. It was not yet a cool '70's color. It was a boring black phone, but I loved it as one of the few pieces of technology we owned.

I always had access to paper, pencils, and crayons. I loved to sit by the phone, which my mom let me unplug so I could play "secretary." I wrote in a steno pad, filling pages and pages with zig-zags, as though I were writing in cursive.

My other favorite game was "librarian." (The "Women's Movement" had not yet broadened my view of potential job opportunities.) For this I would play at my brother's desk, putting cards in books and hole-punching them to create the ubiquitous "crrr-churr" of the librarian's stamp. I had an ink pad to mimic marking library cards with due dates. I would open the books full of print and pretend to read stories to invisible children.

Another favorite game was typing on our manual typewriter. I remember punching away at the keys, filling pages with random letters broken by spaces, pulling the return lever when I finished a line of "text."

Unknown to me, all of this play was doing important work in my brain, building pre-literacy skills that would contribute to my future, successful reading experience. 

Like my mother, parents support emergent literacy when we expose our kids to text in all forms before the ages of 5 or 6 years. When they see us write and know why we are writing. When we express the connection between what we say and what we see on the page. When we encourage preschoolers to pretend to write, to role-play, and to use copious amounts of paper. When we praise children's pages of scribbles and validate their important writing attempts. When we read signs to kids or help them "write" letters to their grandparents, filled with pictures and labeled with squiggles. When we encourage children to sign their name and hang signs on their bedroom doors.

Reading researchers identify two key emergent literacy skills children must acquire to become better readers: 

  1. Text Structure Knowledge—meaning kids understand different types of text

  2. Awareness of Composition—meaning kids understand the purpose behind each type of text

I think of these two skills, usually acquired by age 4-5 years, as knowing the "forms and functions" of written language: kids understand forms of text (types) and the functions of text (reasons). 

Gaining emergent literacy skills is akin to studying a map before embarking on the journey.

narrow road street sign

Young children in the emergent literacy stage, if they are exposed to books, learn some very important concepts. Like me, between the ages of 3-5 years old, children learn the concept of a word in print, even before they learn to read. They understand the difference between a label, a list, and a story. They understand that letters on a page make words, and that words convey meaning. 

We help our children grow in their emergent literacy skills by exploring together the different forms of text they witness; for example: signs, lists, riddles, directions, informational books and websites, brochures, stories, cards, emails, bills, advertisements, and poetry. We can help kids explore the functions of text by asking young scribblers to think about how to best convey their ideas; for example, should they write a letter, make a card, create a list, label their drawings, post a sign, or (as we support in Pinwheels),  add their words to pictures as they tell and retell stories? 

Young children don't need apps and games and high technology to build emergent literacy skills. These may be fine, but should not replace time, attention, exposure, conversation, writing instruments, and writing surfaces. Kids need lots of books to hold and they need to see and hear people holding them too. Children need to explore the forms and functions of text, so that one day, when they are taught the secret code to reading and writing, they are ready to learn!

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