Help children learn to read: Connect popular culture print to classroom
by Debbie Vera and Nancy Compean-Garcia
“…and then he gave me this T-shirt,” says
4-year-old Ernesto, turning so that all the children can see
it. “It says A&M. That’s where he goes to school,
and I’m going there too.”
Looking into his shining eyes, you recognize this as a teachable
moment, a perfect picture, a room filled with children who experience
a connection between the outside world and the classroom experience.
“Amazing! How did this happen?” you think. “How can I keep
this learning feeling from evaporating into thin air!”
Children’s experiences with popular culture items such
as toys and T-shirts have a huge influence on their developing
literacy. As a teacher, you may recognize this influence but
wonder how to use it throughout your daily schedule.
In this article, we discuss how to help children make connections
between their early literacy experiences at home and in the classroom.
We provide a simple and practical step-by-step process of how
children understand the meaning of literacy, and we offer a variety
of activities that you can implement.
What we know about early literacy experiences
to learn the meaning of print at home. This occurs when young
learners observe home environmental print logos such as Subway,® Cheerios,® and
Chuck E Cheese.® These
forms of print provide a window of opportunity for teachers
to help children make connections to print and word recognition
Researchers agree on several points about emergent literacy:
It begins during the period before children receive formal
reading instruction (Stahl and Miller 1989; Sulzby and Teal 1986;
Van Kleeck 1990).
It encompasses learning about reading, writing, and print prior
to schooling (Sulzby and Teal 1991).
It is acquired through informal as well as adult-directed home
and school activities (Sulzby and Teal 1991).
It facilitates acquisition of specific knowledge of reading
(Sulzby and Teal 1991).
Some studies have explored the impact of home-based emergent
literacy experiences in the homes of language-minority children.
For example, Stratton (2005) stated that literacy development
begins in the very early stages of childhood, even though the
activities of young children may not seem related to reading
and writing. The researcher concluded that early behaviors such
as “reading” from pictures and “writing” with
scribbles are examples of emergent literacy and are an important
part of children’s literacy development. In the same way,
Burningham and Dever (2005) reported that reading achievement
in young children is closely related to the children’s
home literacy environments.
Building home and school connections is essential to the learners.
These connections provide children with an opportunity to relate
and understand meaningful information. In addition, using home
environmental print in the classroom gives teachers opportunities
to support their students with scaffolding skills that will promote
understanding and independence in their reading experience (Echeverria,
Vogt, and Short 2000).
Studies such as Senechal and Lefevre (2001) examined the effect
of home literacy experiences, language, and literacy development
in a middle class population. Findings indicated that those children
who were read to by their parents had advantages in spelling,
decoding, and alphabet knowledge. The research continues to show
a correlation between home literacy experiences and student reading
Furthermore, child interactions, daily routine experiences, family
involvement, and home literacy resources have an impact on the
literacy outcome of young children (Nord, Lennon, and Westat
1999). Studies have shown that the home is a powerful influence
on reading achievement (Murphy 2004).
With the support of parents, caregivers, early childhood educators,
and teachers, as well as exposure to a literacy-rich environment,
children successfully progress from emergent to conventional
reading (Stratton 2005). Cooper (2005) agrees with this progress
of reading from one stage to another and explored the stages
of literacy development in young children.
Teachers who help learners connect their personal home literacy
experiences to daily classroom instruction will promote relevant
teaching, meaningful learning, and a positive environment.
Connecting the two literacy environments
Educators and parents share the same goal of fostering children’s
learning and achievement in the classroom. Adams (1996) explained
that when children attend to environmental print, a fundamental
step toward reading has been achieved.
A fundamental question is whether print exists in the home and,
if so, how children attend to it. Compean-Garcia (2007) examined
the effect of home literacy experiences on the development of
pre-reading skills of bilingual preschoolers in one South Texas
city. In this study, 45 parents took part in a parent interview
and a survey about their home literacy environment.
The findings that emerged were all examples of connecting
letters to sounds. Responses were different depending on the parents’ knowledge
and preparation. Nevertheless, 89 percent of parents reported
that they helped their children connect letters to sounds by
connecting letters to objects and pictures. Astoundingly, all
45 parents used environmental print (home items) to help their
children connect symbols to letters. Compean-Garcia found that
the letter recognition skills and alphabet knowledge skills in
all 45 preschoolers increased in the pre-test given at the beginning
of school. It is evident that print awareness begins at home,
and teachers need to help carry this information into the classroom.
In recent years, we have seen an increase in popular culture
cartoon characters on children’s toys, books, clothing,
food, and bedding (Marsh 1999b, 2004), which has amplified the
forms of print found in the home. Vera (2007) categorized the
print related to popular culture characters as Popular Culture
Environmental Print (PCEP). Vera incorporated this print into
literacy centers, small-group literacy instruction, and large-group
literacy instruction. After an intervention that used PCEP in
the classroom, Vera found that the print concepts skills and
alphabet knowledge skills increased. It appeared that the increase
in skills was due to using PCEP as a catalyst for creating a
Using print that is relevant and meaningful to the children connects
the home and school environments. To ensure the curriculum is
meaningful, the print in the children’s homes should be
identified at the beginning of the year. One method for doing
this has been to survey the children and their families about
favorite restaurants, toys, cartoon characters, movies, and videos.
A sample survey appears at the end of this article (Vera 2007).
Because parent surveys are not always returned, teachers have
used other ways to understand the print of interest to the children.
One method uses writing instruction. During writing workshop
or writing centers (Vera 2007), the teacher has given the students
the topic of writing about your favorite cartoon character, favorite
restaurant, or favorite toy. As the children are writing, the
teacher identifies print of interest to the children and begins
to understand the children better.
Furthermore, children can provide examples of the print in their
homes. To accomplish this task, teachers can send home a note
asking for samples of print found in the home. It is important
that the children see the logo with the print for all levels
of readers to experience success. Reutzel, Fawson, Young, Morrison,
and Wilcox (2003) determined that children focus on different
aspects of environmental print when reading it. Children concentrate
on the logo first and then the print. Therefore, children need
to bring both the logo and print with their samples.
Another method is a show-and-tell activity. Children always enjoy
bringing things from home and sharing them with their friends.
Vera (2007) used this strategy during the PCEP intervention.
As children share their objects and corresponding print, the
teacher can have them underline the word, identify the first
letter, or demonstrate other literacy tasks.
Using these strategies assists the teacher in identifying the
print found in the home. Integrating the child’s prior
knowledge, specifically PCEP found in the home, can become the
springboard for expanding the curriculum (Pang 2001). Affirming
an interest in the home experiences can authenticate the learning
and thus become a vehicle for achieving early literacy skills.