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Everyday tips for developing literacy in children

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Literacy in adult life is a requirement for almost all forms of employment, but did you know that low levels of literacy make one in three Australian adults vulnerable to unemployment and social exclusion?

That startling statistic is part of a special SBS report on the hidden costs of illiteracy in Australia and if that’s not scary enough, this ABC report even suggests a correlation between low literacy and poor health.

Whichever way you look at it, it’s clear the link between literacy and an ability to perform in the modern world go hand in hand.

This is why encouraging the skills children need for reading and communicating early in life is crucial.

Why is early literacy important for children?
The first five years are when 80% of brain development happens, so it’s never too early to start laying the right foundations for literacy. Aside from the benefits in later life, developing skills for literacy provides many benefits during childhood too.

As this policy briefing from The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne shows, higher levels of literacy boosts school performance and according to results from a Victorian government study, reading daily to young children has a significant positive effect on both reading and cognitive skills, providing the same developmental benefit as the child being almost 12 months older.

“Early literacy is so important for children,” said Kirsty Brown, teacher and educational leader at Goodstart East Perth.

“The experiences children receive in their educational setting and at home provide foundational skills that have a profound impact on them not only as children but also later on in life.

“Exploring literacy skills even from a young age helps children to feel confident and make sense of their world around them.”

With almost all forms of formal learning requiring the ability to read and understand information, a focus on literacy in the early years makes a real difference for young children.

Is literacy more than learning to read and write?
In a nutshell, yes. Literacy is about much more than simply learning to read and write.

“In a world where the only constant is change, it’s these early literacy building blocks that will forge the way a child will later function as an adult,” Ms Brown said.

“Succeeding in a technological world, children need to be able to adapt their skills in order to have a high degree of digital literacy, which means being able to locate and understand a range of information and make sense of many different signs and symbols.”

While the basic definition of literacy refers to reading and writing, as the Queensland government’s Department of Education and Training points out, the broader perspective reflects the role literacy plays in a person’s ability to not only read and write but also design, speak and listen in a way that allows them to communicate effectively and make sense of the world.

Having low levels of literacy can present many challenges in everyday life. As these findings from Rotary International demonstrate, an inability to read and understand information about health, fill out forms, organise information, follow instructions and understand legal obligations can lead to disadvantage and social isolation.

Being literate is about so much more than just reading and writing.

What can I do to support my child at home?
Parents are a child’s most important teacher and the path to literacy starts, literally, from birth.

Fortunately, encouraging and developing literacy skills in children is simple and Ms Brown encourages parents to use the following tips at home:
  • Read early and often. Reading daily to your child is one of the best ways you can support your child to develop literacy skills, and it provides so many other benefits too.
  • Involve children in your own daily talks that involve literacy. Simple, everyday things like making a shopping list, following a recipe, reading a menu or following directional signs are great for building an interest in the uses of words and their meaning.
  • Respond to curious minds. Children ask a lot of questions and sometimes wear the best of us out! But as often as you can, take the time to respond to your child with an age-appropriate explanation whenever they ask about the meaning or use of particular words.
  • Encourage literacy in play. Making treasure maps, playing I-spy, pretending to be a waiter at a restaurant or creating a supermarket checkout in the kitchen cupboard are just some of the thousands of ways imaginative play can involve literacy. Gently encourage and build on this whenever you can.
  • Use mealtimes for storytelling. Talking about your own experiences and encouraging children to do the same exposes them to a wide range of words, expressions and contexts. Oral language also supports literacy development.
  • Visit libraries. There’s no better way to grow a love of reading and storytelling than by browsing through a library and taking books home to explore. And it’s free, so there’s no excuse!
  • Singing songs and nursery rhymes. It’s a fun and easy way to teach your child language, rhyme, repetition and rhythm.
  • Explore letters and symbols in a range of ways. Use different mediums to encourage mark making or letter formation such as finger tracing in sand trays, moulding playdough or arranging magnetic letters.
“Developing literacy skills in children is simple and fun, and when introduced as a part of a quality play based program alongside strong home collaboration, it has a profound and meaningful impact on their lives in both the short and long term,” Ms Brown said.

“It really is never too early to start, and I see each day what a huge difference it makes to a child’s development.”
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