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Help children learn to read: Connect popular culture print to classroom instruction

“…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
Children begin 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 patterns.
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 achievement.
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 . 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 meaningful curriculum.
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.