Early Literacy at Home

Early Support for New Families in New Zealand

Providing support for new mothers (including allowing them to rest) can make all the difference in creating a healthy and nurturing environment for children from the very start. Parents and caregivers who can care for themselves and provide for their children are better able to look beyond the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter to create a home environment for learning and exploration.

Even though I come from a family where reading and higher education were top priorities and literacy lessons were sprinkled throughout my growing up years, I was completely overwhelmed at the idea of teaching my child anything when I became a mother. Sleep and survival overshadowed everything else. I had trouble sleeping even when my baby slept and every day seemed monumental. I needed support and daily assistance to get a handle on this thing called parenthood. I was actually one of the luckier moms, because I wasn’t living in the United States at the time.

profile-pic-w-bbmyaI gave birth to my first child in Auckland, New Zealand, where the birth and all medical visits and medications were free. You read that right, American readers—free, as in cost absolutely nothing. The other amazing thing about having babies in New Zealand is that all young mothers are welcome and encouraged (practically required by family, peers and community) to go to the Plunket center. Says the website, “Plunket works together with families and communities, to ensure the best start for every child.” It is a non-profit organization that provides services free of charge to every mother and child in the country. There are Plunket centers in most communities and when I lived in Auckland, I could walk to mine.

My daughter and I would go there every few weeks or so when I would weigh her to chart her growth progress and received breastfeeding advice and tips from a lactation consultant. A couple of times, I even went there for a nap! I took my baby to the center, fed her and then handed her off to a nurse who tucked her into a little bassinette and rocked her to sleep while I went upstairs and took a nap in a twin bed in the attic. This is heaven for new mothers—sleep, uninterrupted by mewling babies.

If more mothers had this sort of community-based support, then making it through the early weeks would be less overwhelming and families would be able to create healthy and comfortable habits for everyone. Starting at the beginning to nurture families means creating a community of caring, and as children grow and learn a community will be able to offer them a multitude of experiences. A community cares for one another. Don’t we all need a little bit more community in our lives?


The Home Literacy Environment

If I were to teach a workshop for parents to help them incorporate early childhood literacy skills, I would focus on making it a part of their lives, forming good literacy-rich habits and including everyone and anything that’s already in their environment. An ‘early and often philosophy’ is also vital to growing life-long learners and children confident in their reading skills.

img_1391To create a literacy rich environment, reading to children of all ages can be done at the same time of day, every day. We read at bedtime and nap times at my house, to snuggle and relax before sleep. When we read, we share the book, discussing the pictures, talking about the characters and taking note of whom the author and illustrator are and what they do.

Age appropriate books should be located in the house and accessible—board books on low shelves or in baskets, with just a few to choose from in each location. Sometimes too many choices can overwhelm a toddler. Children can select books and flip through them and experience them on their own this way. More delicate paper books can be shelved higher for preschoolers and elementary age children. If a child has been enjoying books and flipping through them since infancy, they are less likely to be destructive with paper books once they get to about three or four. Even if there are only a few books that the child owns, library books can be rotated on these same shelves and explored at a child’s leisure.

Once a child becomes familiar with letters and the knowledge that letters on pages form words and words form sentences, ideas and storylines then the whole printed world becomes alive with meaning. This is known as print awareness and is just one important aspect of early literacy. My preschool children, as well as my third-grader will read the cereal boxes at breakfast, the road signs and just about anything else with letters. The preschoolers will ask what the letters on the box spell and we’ll sound it out. They are well aware that S-T-O-P on a red octagonal sign spells the word ‘stop.’ Families can encourage these questions, spell out words, sound out the letters within the words all throughout daily life. Good opportunities are bus stop billboards and road signs while out and about, food packaging while at the store or making a meal and storefront windows while walking down the street. Many children’s books also make specific words prominent within the story.  (The Alphabet Tree, shown below, is a great book to teach letter and print awareness as the insects group letters together to make words and words together to make sentences).


Once families have established a habit of regular storytimes and encourage children’s curiosity about the words in their environment, the acquisition of early literacy skills and a love of reading can be child-led. From here, families can relax a little and let literacy and learning come naturally. Older siblings can read to younger siblings. Drawing pictures can turn into writing and illustrating their own stories. If television choices are limited by time and sensible learning programs, children will naturally choose those shows and be less disappointed when television is denied.

Literacy, like healthy diet and exercise, is a lifestyle and once you move towards healthy levels and encourage good choices it becomes a way of life.