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Literacy: Creating a print-rich environment

hildren’s success in school depends in part on what they bring with them the first day of kindergarten. Children with a foundation in literacy—language and listening skills, familiarity with books, and experience with scribbling and drawing—are more likely to succeed in all school experiences.
By the end of first grade, these children are reading simple books and beginning to write. By the third grade, they shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” From then on, reading is a fundamental way they learn about everything, from geography and history to math and science.
As a child care provider or preschool teacher, you play a critical role in children’s literacy development. You help them lay the foundation for literacy by what you do every day. Some examples:
Talk with children and encourage them to express themselves. (See “Smart talk: Improving children’s oral language,” , Summer 2003.)
Read stories, sing songs, recite nursery rhymes, and play finger games. (See “Getting preschoolers ready to read and write,” , Winter 2002.)
Encourage dramatic play.
Provide scribbling and art activities.
Provide hands-on opportunities for children to explore topics of interest to them, such as cars, dinosaurs, and butterflies.
Help parents understand that they are their child’s first teacher.
Children gain literacy skills not only by interacting with adults and other children but also by interacting with their surroundings. You can enhance literacy development by providing a print-rich environment.

What is a print-rich environment?
A print-rich environment is one in which “children interact with many forms of print, including signs, labeled centers, wall stories, word displays, labeled murals, bulletin boards, charts, poems, and other printed materials” (Kadlic and Lesiak, 2003).
A print-rich environment allows children to see that reading and writing serve real, everyday purposes. Children observe adults using printed materials and realize that print carries meaning. They explore print and become motivated to try to read and write themselves.

What makes an environment print-rich?

In a print-rich environment, children have specific places to explore reading and writing. They also see and experience a variety of printed materials. Some examples:

Library or book center
Provide a specific place for children to explore books. This might be a table with a bookshelf or a corner with pillows and rugs. You might add a rocking chair where you hold children in your lap and read stories. On the wall hang pictures of children reading.
Stock the shelves with a variety of books, including picture books and familiar books that children “read” from memory. Add simple reference books such as a children’s dictionary. Include teacher-made books and child-made books, constructed by individual children and by groups, perhaps based on shared experiences.
In addition to books, add children’s magazines as well as story tapes and tape player. Provide flannel-board materials and finger puppets so children can re-tell stories.
Tip: Don’t send children to the library area for time out or other disciplinary action. You want children to associate reading and books with positive experiences, not negative ones.

Posted dictation
Take dictation from children using large sheets of easel paper and post them on the wall or an easel. This is an effective way to expand on children’s interests, preferably on the curriculum topic for the week. Ask open-ended questions such as: “What do you think will happen to the beans we planted?” “How did you feel when we laid on our backs watching the clouds?” Write their quotes verbatim. This gives children the message that there are symbols for their words. You will also find that when you write down exactly what children say as they say it, over the course of time they will make real strides in language development.
Tip: Everything written in the classroom should start at the top left-hand corner of the page and be written from left to right. With the exception of a child’s preference on his artwork (see below), all writing should appear the same way in which children will be taught to read. We are training their eyes to naturally look to the top left-hand part of the page.
You can reinforce this orientation when reading by occasionally using your finger to track the words as you read them, illustrating how the story progresses in the text.

Quotes on children’s artwork
After children finish a collage or painting, ask them individually if they would like to tell you about their work. Ask if they would like for you to write it down, and where they want it on the picture. Again, write down what they say word for word. What children say about their own work tells us what they are thinking and feeling and their views on the world.
Tip: Encourage parents to do the same with a child’s artwork. It’s a great way to enhance communication between parent and child.

Labeled items
Make labels for various items in the room, such as “blocks” and “wastebasket.” Use markers and sturdy poster board. Labeling gives children the message that everything can be identified by a set of recognizable, common symbols that are written down.

Tips on labeling
Don’t label everything in the room. It becomes too visually stimulating and overwhelming. Label five chairs, not all 20.
Make sure your labeling is neat. If you cannot print neatly, use a computer.
Use the style of printing consistent with what your school district teaches because that is what the children will be expected to recognize. Big, puffy letters in all capitals may be confusing to children when they are just learning to recognize letters.
When labeling shelves for toys, try to use pictures as well as words. If a toy is off the shelf, the words alone usually are not helpful to a pre-reader.
Allow children 4 and older to label their own cubbies. If Carmela is able to write only a “C,” she knows that symbol stands for her. That is far better than anything we might do to label her cubbie. Using a child’s photo also works well and is meaningful and personal.