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Literacy: Fostering and enhancing learning skills in children

Guest post by: Mariana Montes (educational specialist - anthropologist) / Kids-Aware


“Me dijeron que en el Reino del Revés

nada el pájaro y vuela el pez,

que los gatos no hacen miau y dicen yes

porque estudian mucho inglés”

El reino al revés / The upside-down kingdom (Spanish song and book),

María Elena Walsh



“When we talk about reading, it is not just about decoding letters, it is rather about something that precedes it, and it has to do with reading the world, with paying attention to what is happening, with rehearsing the art of inhabiting life” says Michéle Petit, a French antropologist that reflects about literacy in childhood.


Literacy is with us our whole life. Our literacy journey starts from the moment a child is born and continues through lifelong learning. Everyone has a unique story with literacy that is built according to our family, sociocultural conditions, and also our own learning challenges. Moreover, there are some challenges that most people may have faced in their life when the journey of learning to read started, when engaging with reading material or with understanding literacy culture. In this digital age, children may experienced more struggles to learning, focus and dedicating time to reading due to the distractions of digital devices. This could be a challenge for kids that have more difficulty to focus or may have special needs in their learning.


Some weeks ago my psychologist asked me: “Do you ever wondered why and how you first engaged with reading?” In fact, anyone may be asked this simple and interesting question in their life journey. As and anthropologist, educator, educational specialist and booklover, I am always curious about people’s literacy history, especially how children learn and approach reading. As a person diagnosed with ADHD (lately in my 30s) I have had some challenges in academic life. However, I have had the support and care of my teachers, but especially of my mom. This support has been a key factor in my life.


My most beloved childhood literacy memories are, in a stream of flashbacks, fairy-tales, riddles, and the lovely poem-song of Maria Elena Walsh entitled “El reino al revés” (English: "The upside-down kingdom").

Last but not least, different kinds of books and printed resources had a lasting impact on me (such as encyclopedias, handwritten letters from one of my mom’s friends in Germany, and greetings cards). My mom grew up in a context where her family did not have access to a wide range of writing materials like me: they were instead great oral storytellers. Then, wonder tales, folks stories and jokes were presented in my childhood too (Thanks, grandma!). My first approach in reading and writing culture was kind, joyful, and organic. My home made a strong “brigde” of literacy skills before my arrival to school.


Image: El reino al reves - Maria Walsh (source: Good reads book cover)



Several studies say that developing readings skills is a complex process that starts even before kindergarten, at home, during interactions with family, or caregivers. According to Yolanda Reyes, reading skills begins in the first years of life (0-6), this being a key stage of language acquisition. Also, this Colombian pedagogy expert suggests that it is necessary to change the traditional approach to reading, which involves attention on cognitive development and emotional states. As stated by Leah Shafer (Shafer, 2017) strong home literacy practice may particular help those children with dyslexia. In fact, family support may help to reshape the brains of such children by creating new neural pathways for reading, says Shafer. I am pretty convinced that literacy practice in early age definitely benefits all children despite possible challenging conditions.


In addition, families and school counselors face new challenges: the increased use of ipads, iphones, and all kind of devices that influence our new ways of learning. Even though such technology provides us with a lot of benefits in our daily interaction, they also pose some challenges. One of them is our approach to reading skills through technological resources. Several research papers have documented the impact of digital screen use in reading comprenhension. For instance, according to Maryanne Wolf, a specialist in dyslexia and literacy in digital reading, the tendency (likely) in digital reading is to skim information rather than “deep reading”. According to Wolf “deep reading process may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading”. In fact, according to Wolf, there was comparative research in Stavanger, where psychologist Anne Mangen studied how high school students read the same material but using different media. Then they had to answer some questions. The study revealed that the group who read on paperback showed superior comprehension skillsthan their peers who used screen devices. The skills for remembering details and reconstructing chronological order of the storyline was better, she said.


Even though there are not magical recipes to ensure children’s success in reading skills, there are some conditions that may promote and enhance the development of such skills. In fact, family support can essentially lead to improve, promote and share children's experiences related to literacy.


Some tips to promote reading skills at home:


  • Promote a comfy space for reading together in loud voice to your child, not only at night or before their bedtime routine. Sometimes, your child may need some small pauses or that you involve movement or singing, while you reading. Take care of the rhyme and pronunciation of your voice. It is important to develop phonological awareness, then you can do it by singing, through playing with the rhyming and expression of the story or of songs. I did it a lot when I was a child and I loved it.

  • Provide different kind of printed books that address the needs and interest of your child: encyclopedias, magazines, poetry, comics. Give your child a wide range of reading materials, and topics. Then ask questions, make predictions about the story, relate the story to some aspects or experiences of their daily life. Listen carefully to what your child thinks about the story and promote that he/she expresses him or herself in their “own” words or language (even through drawings).

  • If your children want to repeat the same story, this is OK! Then encourage your kids to tell it by themselves (even if they can’t decode it all yet, but just partially, or they guess or mimic). Some studies suggest that repeateldy seeing and hearing can reinforce and enhace language and memory. This could especially benefit kids with dislexia and ADHD.

  • As an adult, try to model appropriate decoding of stories, with good pronunciation, inflexion in your voice, but most importantly, enjoy the reading process. Do not associate reading as an a imperative activity or punishment; just share a memorable, mindful and joyful moment with your child.

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