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Promoting Child Literacy - Featured June 25, 2010

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Promoting Child Literacy

By: Laquinta Khaldun, SLP

There are several alarming statistics regarding child literacy in the U.S.:
  • 25 to 40 percent of American children have their academic abilities compromised because of reading difficulties.

    Committee on Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children of the National Research Council, 1998
    http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=6023
  • Approximately 30 million adults in the U.S. read at a level classified as “below basic.”
    http://nces.ed.gov/naal/index.asp
  • In the United States, illiteracy is estimated to cost taxpayers and businesses $20 billion per year.
    United Way, "Illiteracy: A National Crisis"


The previous statistics coupled with the ubiquity of young people using social media, “texting” (along with the requisite abbreviated text messages), and the addition of several other factors may seem to explain why illiteracy continues in the U.S. More research must be done.

Until more in-depth analysis of this subject occurs, however, there is much we can do now as SLPs to facilitate literacy among the children we serve. While many people who understand speech-language pathology in a casual way know us “speech therapists” to be primarily concerned with the way someone speaks, our comprehensive job is to promote effective human communication. As such, literacy, language, and overall communication are forever intertwined.

Steps to improving literacy in children

Read, read, and read to the child: As SLPs, perhaps a commonly overlooked, yet simple strategy to incorporate in our work is to read constantly to children. Possibly the most misunderstood part of promoting literacy is simply the failure to engage children in reading activities. More studies continue to show the importance of reading--early, often, and consistently—to children to promote a literate child.

(Note: See the April 23, 2010 issue of the journal Science, which explores literacy.)

Use every possible opportunity to increase the child’s vocabulary: As a corollary to literacy, it is critical that a child have a rich and ever-growing vocabulary. Teaching a child new words at every possible opportunity is important. Such didactic methods need not require the child to practice rote memorization, nor must the clinician use a set of vocabulary cards with the child. Pointing out words in the child’s immediate environment, “wall,” “floor,” or “desk,” can be one strategy for introducing new words to very young children. Older children might be able to develop a more expansive vocabulary by being introduced to words generally not used by most children. Again, these words could come solely from their immediate environment. In a school-based setting, for example, “administrator,” “disciplinarian,” or “procedural” could be used. In addition, having the child write the new words will help the child’s recall ability.

Of course a child’s learning of new words will aid in improving his or her overall vocabulary. In addition, countless studies show that the more a child is exposed to new words, the more the actual physical structure of the child’s brain is altered. In short, this rewiring of the brain and new synaptic connections helps improves the child’s overall cognitive development.

Have children find specific letters or words: For younger children, a great activity is to have them find a specific letter of the alphabet in a reading passage. In general, kids love games, so having a child who is in the process of learning the alphabet go on a “scavenger hunt” and find all the letter As on the page of a book could be both a fun and educational experience for the young child. With such an activity, any book (regardless of the reading level) would be sufficient because the child is only attempting to identify letters—no reading comprehension is required. Moreover, as a bonus, the child could search for both the uppercase and lowercase versions of the given letter.

For older children, having them search for specific synonyms of a word in a passage is particularly effective. A clinician could start with a book that is slightly above the child’s current reading level. Then, a simple, generic word like “good” could be the word the clinician chooses. The child would then search for every synonym of this word. In addition, the child could search for antonyms of the word.

Encourage children to visit their school libraries and find books related to their interests: Although some children don’t enjoy reading, nearly all children have some subject matter they thoroughly enjoy. Consequently, even those children who seem to dislike reading are often “converted” into readers when they find books on their favorite subjects.

A colleague reported that she uses reading as part of the overall treatment plan for a 6 year old she sees for a moderate phonological process disorder. Although the child showed no initial interest in reading to his parents or in being read to, she did find him to be quite interested in rocks, and he was frequently outside, searching for new rocks to add to his growing collection. Using this information, the SLP would bring age-appropriate books about the subject to him, and she would read about rocks and minerals to him for a few minutes at every therapy session.

The child beamed with enthusiasm. Although he at first was interested mostly in the book’s illustrations, over time, he listened more intently as the SLP read to him. The clinician also encouraged the boy’s parents to continue reading to him on a nightly basis, but she suggested they read books about rocks and minerals to him instead of the books they had attempted to read in the past. Through therapy sessions involving various other treatments over the course of several months, the child became a voracious reader of books on rocks and other subjects at his grade level.

Have the child write their own stories: Begin by encouraging children to write sentences, and then expand this activity to have them write stories. Writing the story could be part of the overall therapy session, or it could be an activity done outside of therapy with the help of a parent.

You can further expand this activity by encouraging the child to submit the story online. Some children may find it quite exciting to see their own names and their stories posted on the Internet.

One site that allows children to post their own stories is http://www.kids-space.org/index.html

NOTE: Be sure to have the child’s parent give the child permission to submit a story online.

Use a variety of books as part of your therapy materials: SLPs routinely keep several different books in their therapy bags, but consider updating books every few months instead of once per year. Keeping an ongoing pool of books in a therapy library will not only keep children interested, new titles will also help keep clinicians motivated and engaged. There are several online resources of books for children. One such website offering several children’s book resources, including lists of classic titles as well as new books designed for readers ages 1-12 is http://www.kidsreads.com/

In short, it seems quite simple, but it’s true—as speech-language pathologists, one of the best ways to facilitate literacy for the individuals we serve is to incorporate reading as part of our therapy sessions as much as possible.

This Month's Featured Author: Laquinta Khaldun, SLP

We thank Laquinta Khaldun for providing us with this article for our Newsletter

Laquinta Khaldun holds a Master of Science degree in speech-language pathology from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In private practice for 12 years, she has extensive experience working with a wide variety of speech and language disorders and delays of the pediatric population, treating adults with voice disorders, and providing accent modification services to individuals who do not speak English as a first language.

Active in the community, Laquinta has supported several non-profit organizations and various agencies in and around her city including Seigle Avenue Preschool Co-Operative and Lifespan (both in Charlotte, NC), and Anson Children Center in Polkton, NC.

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Tags: Article SLP Literacy Newsletter 25 June 2010