Reading with Providers, Part 3: All Our Kin co-founder Janna Wagner on how child care providers can promote literacy in their programs

This is the third post in our “Reading with Providers” series about how the family child care providers in our network promote literacy in their programs. On Friday, you learned about Rosella Herrera, a family child care provider who has been with All Our Kin since 2005. Today, you’ll read about All Our Kin’s co-founder Janna Wagner’s perspective on the role of child care providers in literacy promotion.

The importance of pre-literacy skills

pic1Parents are babies’ first teachers, but child care providers are also an important presence in a child’s life. According to Janna Wagner, All Our Kin’s co-founder and Chief Knowledge and Learning Officer, “Providers play a key role in promoting literacy and cultivating a child’s love of learning.”

Parents and child care providers can use a variety of different strategies to help children gain these skills and have fun at the same time. For example, one key pre-literacy skill is phonological awareness, the ability to hear the different sounds that make up words. Adults can encourage children to pay attention to individual sounds by playing word games or reading books that incorporate rhyming or alliteration. Once a child has a strong phonological awareness, it will be easier for her to understand that sounds can be represented by letters on a page, and that words can be built by combining different letters together.

Other related pre-literacy skills are print awareness and motivation, the ability to know how a book works and to notice print in one’s surroundings. “Child care providers can foster print awareness by creating a print-rich environment at their child care program,” says Janna. “They can point out the words in a book that they’re reading out loud. They can call attention to signs in a child’s environment and make sense of print.” For example, a parent or provider might say, “We drank the last of the milk. Let’s write milk on our grocery list so we don’t forget it when we go shopping.” The provider or parent would bring the list to the grocery store, engaging the child in purchasing the needed items and referring to the list often. “The provider helps connect the written words to real life and introduces the idea that print has purpose,” Janna explains. Finally, parents and caregivers must model pleasure in reading and read to children often; research shows that reading aloud to children is “the single most important activity for building knowledge for their eventual success in reading.”[i]

Expanding vocabulariespic2

Child care providers can also promote language development by using three strategies – called self-talk, parallel-talk, and expansion – to expand children’s vocabularies.

  • Self-talk is narrating what you are doing when you are around a child. For example, as you are making a snack, you might say “I am cutting the apples into eight slices.”
  • Parallel-talk refers to describing what the child is doing: “You are stacking the apple slices on top of each other.”
  • Finally, expansion is responding to what a child has said and expanding on it. For example, if a child says “Big dog,” you might respond “Yes, the dog is very big. She has brown fur and white paws.” Expanding does not mean correcting: “You want to support a child when she uses language, even if her grammar isn’t perfect,” Janna says.

Janna acknowledges that if you’re not a talkative person, engaging in these three talking strategies all the time might be a challenge. “You might feel kind of silly,” she says, “and it can be exhausting, especially at the end of the day, to think of new things to say.” However, self-talk, parallel-talk and expansion really can help children understand their world.  Plus, in addition to allowing children to learn new words, the three strategies also reinforce social bonds with adults.

The Read, Count, Grow program

This year, All Our Kin designed a program called Read, Count, Grow, offering one-on-one educational consulting focused on early literacy and numeracy to over forty-five family child care providers in our network. “We infuse literacy throughout our professional development offerings,” Janna notes. “Even our workshops on nature and the outdoors stress the importance of shared reading, writing, language development and language-rich experiences. But Read, Count, Grow allows us to deeply explore literacy and numeracy. It encourages providers to be thoughtful and intentional about their program choices so that children can have high-quality learning experiences every day.” Read, Count, Grow gives program participants children’s books for their libraries, literacy materials, and hands-on support. “You don’t necessarily need expensive materials or the fanciest bookshelves to have a great environment for emergent literacy,” Janna tells me. “What you need is a stack of high-quality children’s literature, and, most importantly, a curious, and responsive adult who reads and engages enthusiastically with a child. Read, Count, Grow helps providers play that role successfully.”

What makes a good book?

pic3So what are the ingredients for a good book to read to a child? “It really varies by age and child,” Janna says. “For infants and toddlers, a good book is, first of all, sturdy, washable, and easy to carry around – toddlers really like to carry books around. It should have a simple story, and it should focus on the sounds of words; rhyming books are great for this.” Janna advises parents and providers that they must be prepared to read a favorite book over and over again. “Your young child isn’t trying to drive you nuts. She’s actually learning about language, sequence, plot and new vocabulary. This repetition lays the foundation for her love of reading and early literacy skills.”

Books that relate to young children’s daily lives – with stories about family, other infants and toddlers, bathtime, eating, etc. – are often good choices. Why? “Young children don’t always have the words to describe their daily life. Language is a way to understand our world and connect with other people. Books introduce language that babies and toddlers can use as they try to make sense of their experiences.”

Although the word “literacy” usually conjures images of printed words, Janna tells me that wordless books can be also fantastic resources for very young children. “Recently, I’ve been excited by Tana Hoban’s wordless books thanks to Read, Count, Grow. They’re beautiful and engaging, and they’re very open-ended. They encourage lots of discussion and questions, and they let children imagine and problem-solve without imposing a ‘right answer.’”

When I ask Janna what her favorite children’s books are, she immediately begins pulling books off the shelves in her office. “My new favorite is Iggy Peck, Architect. But I also love William’s Doll and Chrysanthemum.” She also mentions Black is Brown is Tan (written in 1973 by Arnold Adoff and Illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully), the first children’s book about a mixed-race family to be published in the United States. “It is so, so important to think critically about whether children’s books represent diverse perspectives,” she emphasizes. “Children need to see themselves, their families, their communities and their experiences in print.”

For more resources on great children’s books, click here for a list of recommendations from the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and click here to see Zero to Three’s tips on choosing books for kids of different ages.

Come back on Friday to learn what our other staff members’ favorite children’s books are!  

[i] Becoming a Nation of Readers, a 1985 report by the Commission on Reading.

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