Literacy and Numeracy before School - 06/06/05

THE AGE Newspaper article of Monday June 6th 2005.

Question:  Should I be teaching my preschooler literacy and numeracy before they get to school? What can I do to help them with that part of their learning?


THE issue of early literacy and numeracy is frequently raised. People make comments such as, "the earlier you start learning, the better the learner you will be". Often advertisements for "early reading' claim that reading early gives children a "head start".

Certainly it is important for young preschoolers and toddlers to be exposed to and be able to participate in a range of what we define as early literacy and numeracy. However, it is important to understand that how we define literacy and numeracy in these early years is much broader and richer than the rather narrow view of reading, writing and counting.

Opportunities for literacy and numeracy are everywhere. Many parents often joke about driving past McDonald's and having their two-year-old recognise the golden arches. This is being literate - recognising that signs symbolise meaning, particularly if motivated.

Literacy and numeracy is about recognising, reasoning, speaking, listening, creating, thinking, analysing and being able to recognise meaning in other things. When a child is making a cake out of sand from the sand pit, when a child acts out being mum or dad in the home corner of a preschool while pasting and creating - all of these actions represent elements of literacy and numeracy.

We don't need or want children to be drilled on the alphabet at the age of two or three. We don't need them to be tracing around numbers or letters or completing worksheets before they go to school. In fact some evidence suggests that this turns children off literacy and numeracy and disengages them before they even get to school. What we actually want is for children to be given lots of opportunities to explore, to experiment and to have fun with language, shapes and colours.

Let's take the pasting table as an example. After negotiating their space around the table next to others, the child then starts to make a series of decisions about their pasting. The child's thinking, as often observed by early childhood staff through the self talk that children sometimes use, goes something like this: "I think I'll start with the big box over there. I want a little one on the top for the chimney," or "I want a round one for the wheel. I will put one on the side and underneath." As the child pulls out metres of masking tape, you often hear, "If s not long enough, I need more." You can hear the rich language practice and the demonstration of literacy and numeracy as the child talks about concepts including the shape of the wheel, the length of masking tape, the position of the chimney, the size of the box etc.

At home, promoting rich opportunities for early literacy and numeracy can become part of everyday life. For example, creating something in the backyard from a cardboard box, perhaps a car that might need a registration plate, might be painted a particular colour or represent a particular size. Painting and drawing, scribbling, and experimenting with different art forms are all part of helping children experience what it means to represent something at a different medium. Sitting together during a meal, chatting about the day, making up nonsense rhymes with children so they experiment and have fun with language are all part of developing literacy skills.

Modelling reading in front of your children and telling them stories and reading to them from a young age is also helpful. Sometimes books with repetitive text, so the children can start to remember and predict what comes next, help them to learn about sequence. Children in these years learn through play and experiences in everyday life: looking at the numbers on letterboxes; the shapes and designs of cars as you walk down the street; the size of the block building or the shape you made with the blocks.

Use positional language as they play in the back garden or park, such as, "over", "across" the monkey bars, "under" the bridge, "up' the tree, "beside" the tree or "through' the tunnel. Using our own language as a model for children's early literacy and numeracy is one of the most powerful tools for understanding later on. There is very little evidence that suggests that promoting the formal learning of letters and numbers in the toddler and preschool years produces greater levels of understanding, more successful learners of the future or happier children.

Effective literacy is intrinsically purposeful, flexible and dynamic and develops over a lifetime. It involves analysis, creative thinking and meaning. Providing lots of these opportunities at home is the most important way to help prepare children to become literate and numerate.

Copyright © Kathy Walker 2005

Kathy Walker is an educational consultant specialising in early childhood and primary years, and a former lecturer at RMIT University