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Literacy: Creating a print-rich environment

Rebus charts

Rebus charts or real photos are an excellent way to teach and remind children about step-by-step activities. Make a rebus chart to illustrate the handwashing procedure and post it by the sink. Write the words alongside the pictures.
Use rebus charts for recipes to show children how to make their own snack or do other cooking activities. Illustrate the daily schedule with pictures. A pictorial schedule is meaningful to children and gives them the feeling of being more in control of their day and the environment.

Charts and graphs
Charting and graphing are excellent ways to teach math and science concepts but they also show children the correlation between language and symbols written on paper. If your learning theme for the week is transportation, for example, you can make five categories such as bus, plane, train, boat, and car. Then have children identify which modes of transportation they have used by placing their name markers (made in advance) in the appropriate categories. Responses should stack at even intervals to create a graph. Children can then see which category has the most responses and make comparisons themselves.
Tip: Use charting and graphing in addition to, not instead of, open-ended questions. Each technique teaches a different skill.

Interactive alphabet
If you are teaching letters of the alphabet, use real, concrete objects that children can physically handle. Children learn most effectively by interacting with objects, not by looking at them. If you are using an alphabet chart, place a real object next to each letter. For example, place a flashlight by the letter F and a spoon by S. Or use pictures of real objects that the children have cut out of magazines and glued by each letter.
Other ideas: Buy two of the same chart, cut out the letters, and make them into a matching game. Or collect small items (or pictures of items) for each letter, glue a magnetic strip on the backs of the objects and letters, and let the children match them on a metal cookie sheet. Have a “Letter of the Week” table where children handle and talk about miniature objects that all start with the same letter.
Children are experiential learners. They learn little from an “Alphabet Train” hung near the ceiling. Instead of having children color an apple ditto sheet, have them make applesauce.
Tip: Wait until children are at least 31/2 or 4 years old to begin this formal introduction to letters. Follow a younger child’s lead and interest.

Offer many choices of small-motor manipulatives, such as puzzles, sewing cards, and interlocking plastic blocks. These items will develop the fine-motor muscles a child will need to hold a pencil and begin to write.
Using scissors is one of the best ways to develop small-motor skills and eye-hand coordination. Encourage children to do all their own cutting beginning at age 3. Be sure to give children some instruction initially. Always use round-tip scissors and provide close supervision.

Writing center
Provide a table and chairs and a variety of materials. (See “Equipping the writing center” on page 13.) Set up the writing center entirely apart from the art center to help children begin to distinguish between writing as communicating with words and art as creative expression.
This is the place in your classroom where it is appropriate to post an alphabet chart so that children can have something to look at when they are trying to re-create letters. Make sure the chart is at the children’s eye level. You can also make a wipe-off version by laminating an alphabet chart so that children can practice tracing letters with dry-erase markers.
To help children learn to write their names, make an individual name card for each child. This gives them a model to look at.
Tip: Allow children to choose their writing activities. Requiring them to trace letters or practice writing their names when they’re not interested turns these activities into a chore instead of a discovery.

Paper and pencils everywhere
Set out small pads of paper and pencils in different areas throughout the classroom. What will you see when you do this? Children in the block area drawing “blueprints.” Children in the home center making “grocery lists” or “taking an order” in a restaurant. This spontaneous child-initiated learning and acknowledgement of the printed word is our goal. This demonstrates that they understand and are making the connection between print and meaning.
Tip: Make sure that your group of children can handle pencils safely. Typically children 4 and older can be taught to handle and respect pencils and use them correctly.

When parents want worksheets
If your classroom is print-rich and you can articulate how children are learning literacy skills, you will be better able to answer well-intentioned parents who want their children to bring home daily worksheets. Many parents do not understand that children learn best through hands-on, meaningful play experiences within a prepared environment.
Ultimately the children benefit the most from developmentally appropriate practices. A print-rich environment enables children to build a foundation in literacy in a way that is both meaningful and fun—instead of by rote or by being forced to sit and write a page full of “R’s.” Learning should be spontaneous and fun when you’re 4.

Kadlic, Melanie and Mary Anne Lesiak, “Early Reading and Scientifically-Based Research: Implications for Practice in Early Childhood Education Programs,” National Association of State Title I Directors Conference, February 2003,, accessed July 19, 2003.

About the author
Cathy Abraham is a business consultant currently providing child care management services in Nashua, N.H. In her more than 20 years of experience, she has been a center director, college instructor, classroom teacher, CDA advisor, and NAEYC validator.