January 27 marks Family Literacy Day in Canada, a national celebration highlighting learning and literacy in the home, at schools, libraries and learning centres from coast to coast.
Early exposure to language in everyday activities – whether it’s reading the back of a cereal box, helping Mom measure ingredients for a recipe or learning the words to a song – can become invaluable learning moments for children, and foster close interactions between them and their parents and caregivers.
For Pamela Oakley, a freelance writer and editor living in Toronto, reading with her sons throughout their childhood became a magical retreat for their minds – a place to escape, to grow and to explore. Whether it was snuggling together with a book before lights-out or a survival strategy on a long road trip, reading was their time spent together as a family.
“I literally started reading to them when they were first born,” says Oakley. She began with typical children’s picture books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Guess How Much I Love You and The Paper Bag Princess.
The words “bedtime” and “stories” eventually went hand-in-hand. “Reading books was the incentive for getting ready for bed,” says Oakley. “If they wanted books they had to get pajamas on and teeth brushed. It was the highlight of my day and I think they felt similarly. We read every single night.”
Why is early literacy important?
Research shows that when children and their parents read together frequently, children develop broader vocabularies, learn new things, discover different ways of seeing the world and develop a strong belief that reading is both important and enjoyable.
The building blocks of language and literacy form in the first 3 years of a child’s life, says Mack Rogers, Director of Programs at ABC Life Literacy Canada. Developing these skills makes it easier for children to learn to read in school – an essential skill that’s vital to educational success and an advantage they will carry with them throughout their lives.
“Study after study has shown that a person who has a higher level of literacy is more successful in school, employment, and life overall,” says Rogers. “It doesn’t matter if it’s reading or numeracy, being engaged and learning creates an active mind and is fundamental to functioning in today's society.”
Shockingly, 42% of Canadians between the ages of 16 and 65 do not have the minimum literacy skills (the skill level typically required for high school completion in Canada) required for coping with everyday life and work in a knowledge-based economy and society, according to Statistics Canada.
Rogers says literacy is becoming “a bit of a lost art,” with parents finding it more challenging to fit spontaneous reading time into schedules already crammed with organized sports, video games and homework. Each year, he says, it seems we’re moving farther away from a culture of literacy and learning, critical thinking and using our imagination. “The drive and motivation for literacy and numeracy is lowering because we’re in a culture where we Google everything or watch videos for answers. We don’t really take the time to figure something out,” he says.
How to make reading part of your family’s lifestyle
ABC Life Literacy Canada suggests that simply reading aloud to children for 15 minutes a day, combined with giving them opportunities to express their imaginations through arts and crafts, can boost their brain power dramatically, and can help parents improve their own skills as well. These ideas for you and your family to try together this Family Literacy Day and beyond will inspire and engage even the most reluctant reader:
- Read together. “Aside from being the obvious 1st step towards literacy, reading with your child is a great activity, a lot of fun, and one of the best ways to spend time together,” says Rogers. Talking about books can open the lines of communication between parent and child.
- Let them see you reading. Because "monkey see, monkey do,” one of the best ways to get your child interested in reading is by taking the time to read yourself. “Our daughter reads every night for at least a half hour, and during that time, my wife and I also read. The idea is that this becomes the norm and the inspiration,” says Rogers.
- Read from a variety of genres. “Read something that your kid wouldn’t normally read or understand,” says Rogers. “Poetry is something a child may not naturally gravitate towards, or even song lyrics. Even something that’s considered strange is an exciting way to engage kids.”
- Turn off the electronics. Children these days have lots of devices to distract them from their reading, so make sure they have time to focus. Turn off the TV or tablet half an hour before bedtime and give them the choice to read or go to sleep. Chances are high they’ll pick reading.
- Hit up the library. Use your library card as your passport to check out books on different countries, cultures, current events or interests in your family’s or child’s life, and then read them together. For example, read a book about seashore life after a trip to the coast. Or if your child is obsessed with dinosaurs, ask your librarian to recommend a good dinosaur book.
- Create a word wall. A word wall doesn’t have to be just for a classroom. Using Bristol board and markers, a whiteboard or a chalkboard, display a new word every day, with a visual reference for younger children. Challenge your child to think through the multiple definitions that words on the word wall can have, depending on the context in which they are used.
- Play word games. Some of the classic and much-loved word games are perfect for aiding and encouraging children’s language and literacy skills. Available in the traditional board game format or online, games such as Scrabble, Scattergories and Boggle are all about creating words and, while the adult version of Scrabble may be too advanced for young children to manage, the Junior edition is perfect.
If you’re looking for more to do with your children, check out ABC Life Literacy Canada’s fun activity ideas. For more information about special events on Family Literacy Day, see your local library.
- It’s never too soon to start saving for your child’s post-secondary education. Find out more about registered education savings plans (RESPs).