Six is good: part II

Talk. Sing. Read. Write. Play.   The shift from focusing on six early literacy skills to focusing on five early literacy practices (and, thus, the more practical focus), is my favorite aspect to the second version of the Every Child Ready to Read @ your library initiative.  But another thing that emerged from the research is the differentiation between decoding (figuring out unknown words) and comprehension (understanding the text).

There's a difference between constrained skills (for example, knowing the alphabet and the sounds of the language) and unconstrained skills (vocabulary and general knowledge).  The skills develop throughout the early years, but once a child knows his letters, he's not going to get better at it.  There's a cap to how well he can rock the alphabet.  But there is not a cap to vocabulary and knowledge.  He will (hopefully) learn a new word every day, and learn something new every day, and never be done learning. 

This isn't exactly new (I know that I can still learn new words and concepts), but placing greater emphasis on vocabulary and general knowledge in early literacy is new(ish) way to think about it, and I'm somewhat embarrassed that I didn't realize on my own that not all early literacy skills are created equal.  It makes sense, though, in a 'the more you know, the more you grow' kind of way.  It's a lot easier to decode and comprehend something simultaneously if you have at least some prior knowledge before going into it.  And you need to have a lot of prior knowledge when you get into the upper grades, when the subjects get harder and more complex.

In the years that I've been presenting early literacy storytimes, I honestly only thought about it in terms of getting ready for Kindergarten.  I know that entering Kindergarten with a vocabulary of 5000 words vs 3000 words is a predictor of how well kids will do throughout their school years, and all, but there's more to academic success than entering Kindergarten with a stellar vocabulary set.

I'm starting to realize that we can toss out the idea that you "learn to read, then read to learn," but a) it feels a bit presumptuous of me to toss it out without having a connection to the formal education world, and b) it seems like the library world tossed it out a long time ago, so...what's new?  Most public libraries include something about lifelong learning in their mission statements. We have nonfiction books for babies, toddlers and preschoolers, and we cover all kinds of subjects in storytimes with the books we read, the songs we sing, and the fingerplays we do. We're starting to incorporate more math and science in our early literacy spaces for young children.

So, how could I practice this differently in storytime?  Is it as simple as incorporating the message that we start reading to learn from birth, and using more nonfiction books in storytime?  I could be more intentional in describing what's happening in fingerplays, and deliberately build in more time for kids to talk about (for example) the props that I bring for the letter of the day.  Do I have to start having a storytime theme to help a child build his subject expertise?

(Ugh. That would be hardest for me. If the theme is horses, and the kid doesn't like horses, it's not exactly fun. And who am I to say that the kid should learn about horses that day, anyway? But if I have one book about horses, another about cars, and another about dinosaurs, it might spark an interest in horses for one kid, cars for another kid, and dinosaurs for another kid. You get the idea. I'm not a theme person.  And besides, listening to three books about horses for half an hour is NOT going to help a 3yo develop subject matter expertise. You get the idea. I am NOT a theme person.)

For now, I'll try different things, and probably take some more time to think about the outcomes we can expect to see from participation in storytimes at the library.

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