8.2 Reading is Making Meaning

Children at a very young age begin connecting print and other symbols to meaningful ideas. Anyone who has seen a child “read” a sign on the side of the road for their favorite restaurant or store has witnessed this process of making meaning. Children know that when they see the familiar sign, it is marking something meaningful and letting people know what they can find inside. The processes of “learning to read” and “reading to learn” develop concurrently in an incremental and symbiotic fashion. A 3-year-old looking intently at a picture book with characters wearing hats is reading to learn about hats. At the same time, that toddler is hearing sounds /hat/ that match the symbols on the page. They are seeing and hearing it as a whole word, which helps build a foundation for learning to read. Conceptual knowledge about reading can and should happen well before formal reading instruction or the process of “learning to read” begins. Before children can independently read words on a page, they need to know that print conveys a message. This conceptual knowledge about the basic functions of reading is fostered by experiencing print in a variety of meaningful contexts.

Text and text features (e.g., charts, headings, and captions) in books work similarly to signs on the road. When children have guided and supportive experiences in text, they begin to make connections between elements of print and its meaning. Adelyn, in the opening vignette, could not read the words “cookies,” “hot chocolate,” and “raining,” but she could point to the text and indicate that she understood that the words on the page talked about important elements of the story she had heard before. Likewise, children also understand that they can learn from print well before they can formally extract a message themselves. It is not uncommon to see young children locate resources that they know contain information they want or need. In early childhood classrooms, children will often bring a book to their teacher and ask them to read the part about their favorite animal. At home, children may ask a caregiver to read the next step of the recipe so they know what to add to the cake batter. These are all early markers that children are connecting reading with making meaning. There is no arbitrary line when children learn to read and then can learn from reading. When exposed to print and text messages, children are in a continual process of both learning the skills needed to read and learning new information from text.

In this textbook, we are positioning early childhood teachers’ first, and arguably primary, responsibility around reading instruction to be fostering meaning-making experiences to ensure that children see reading not just as isolated skills, but as a process that ultimately shares a message. Early childhood educators support students’ conceptual knowledge about reading and help children understand the purpose of text when they (a) connect spoken words to print, (b) share various types of text, and (c) guide comprehension of text. Later in this chapter, we will discuss a variety of instructional strategies and assessments educators can use to build specific emergent literacy skills, but here we will discuss how to develop a conceptual understanding about print.

8.2a Connecting Speaking to Print

In Chapter 7, we discussed the critical role that oral language and vocabulary play in literacy development. Early childhood educators can build an understanding of reading by connecting children’s language skills to print. This can be as simple as stating a student’s name and then pointing to the name on a chart or having children say or echo read the letters that make up the special friend’s name. Educators also show children how oral words are represented in print when children dictate captions that go with their illustrations or create collaborative morning messages about the day’s events. Even if the children can’t read all of the words being written, the educator is reinforcing that their words can be marked using symbols. Educators can also ask students to orally share their background knowledge on a topic and then turn to a written text to see what the author has to say about the topic. Ultimately, we want children to know that what we think and say can be written down and what we write can later be read and discussed.

 

Child's art work includes a large smiling sun surrounded by blue sky. Notes added by an adult say, "The sun dries up the rain" and "I am happy on a sunny day."
Adults can use words to note the child’s description of their artwork to promote literacy.

8.2b Sharing Various Types of Text

Helping children see that text is part of our world and all around us is a big piece of the early childhood educator’s role in reading development. Using environmental print, familiar signs, logos, and brands to show children examples of text they know can be a powerful learning experience. Educators can also intentionally choose a variety of books to share with children. Ensuring that children have access to various types of books and text, such as board books, cloth books, pop-up books, magazines, posters, labels, etc., helps children see the various forms that print can take. It is also critical that educators read daily to children from books of varying genres. Finding picture books that share engaging fictional stories is just as important as finding non-fiction books about topics of interest. Reading poems and comic books as well as recipes, directions, and lists shows children that text shows up in a plethora of ways for different purposes.

8.2c Guiding Comprehension of Books

A teacher sits behind a child and points out text features as the child reads a book at a table.
Children learn about text features when they share books with educators.

Once children have been immersed in text and see its prevalence all around them, they are ready to have guided discussions about understanding various types of books. Early childhood educators can begin thinking aloud about what they notice as a story unfolds and what they are wondering as new events and details emerge. Helping children develop an awareness of basic story structure (e.g., problem and solution; beginning, middle, and ending; setting and characters) primes them for future independent reading and unlocks some of the mystery around storytelling. These opportunities for guiding comprehension and understanding of books support children’s developing knowledge that reading is an active process. In order to understand the message, they need to engage with print in various ways. Similarly, educators can point out various text features of non-fiction text (such as photographs, captions, headings, charts, etc.) to show children that important information can be found in many places. Comprehending text is a continuous skill that deepens and matures throughout the reader’s life, but the initial keys to understanding text can be nurtured from the earliest years.

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The Early Literacy Journey: Supporting and Celebrating Young Learners Copyright © 2024 by Sandra Carrie Garvey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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