BY Meredith Flory

Sitting on the floor with my toddler, I watched her trace a line for the first time. It wasn’t perfectly straight, but it was the first time she had traced a dotted line. “I drew a line Mom!” She sang and danced around the room. I was so proud of her, but I worriedly wondered to myself how much time we would have for activities once her little brother arrived in a few months. I remembered how much time was spent simply nursing, changing diapers and cuddling with a newborn. I was nervous about making the transition to two—how would it affect the activities that were helping my daughter learn? 

Scholastic, one of the most well-known publishers of reading material for children, has a synopsis of pre-literacy skills on their website. They write that children from birth to toddlerhood should be developing “oral language and phonological and phonemic awareness (the awareness of sounds), as well as knowledge of the alphabet and an understanding of common print concepts (print goes from left to right and from up to down on a page).” In other words, before your child is able to read print on a page, they need to understand concepts that allow reading to make sense. 

It’s common knowledge that reading to a young child every day is important, but activities like carrying on a conversation, teaching your child to follow simple instructions and allowing them to explore how the print and shape of a book works also prepares children to read.

Older Siblings Like To Help

I need not have worried about having the time for pre-literacy activities with more than one child. As I’ve learned in the past five months, becoming a big sister has not taken away from learning activities, but has simply opened the door to different activities. The first week that my son was home, his sister wanted to show him her favorite books, “reading” to him by pointing at the pictures and saying the parts she knew from memory. While certainly she has to share my attention now, their interactions with each other help them both with pre-literacy skills appropriate for their ages.  

Recently Brooke Conner, a local homeschooling mother to eight children ages 2 to 16, welcomed me into her home to learn more about how sibling interaction helps her children learn. Conner is a former doula who has worked with many area mothers, but is now focusing on their family-owned business. Conner shared that she learned pretty early on how much younger children enjoy helping with a new baby and are great at tasks such as finding pacifiers and getting diapers. She pointed out that learning to follow basic instructions helps the child learn, and also assists the parent in transitioning from seeing their first child not as a “baby,” but as a child who is capable of contributing to the household.  

Books That Can Help

Conner advises that if you are concerned about your child adjusting, books about gaining a sibling are helpful. Conner suggests The Berenstain Bears by Stan and Jan Berenstain. I recommend the Olivia books by Ian Falconer and the Little Critter series by Mercer Mayer. By the end of my pregnancy we were reading Mayer’s Baby Sister Says, “No!” almost by memory, and it’s still a favorite. A quick internet search will show that several librarians and parenting bloggers have also made excellent lists of “bringing home baby” books.  

When asked how she helps facilitate literacy interactions between siblings, Conner shared that it is “organic and happening all the time.” When siblings help each other with a book it allows her to “step back a bit.” Conner told the story of how one of her sons would read Dr. Seuss books, unprompted, to his younger sibling at naptime, and that same son shared enthusiastically how now he and his siblings like to recommend book series they love to each other.   

Whether your child is an only child, or has many siblings, it is important to remember that while we often think of reading as an individual or silent activity, the skills necessary to build a good literacy foundation are often achieved through interaction with others—parents, siblings, friends or
even the family pet! Reading aloud can be so therapeutic that Therapy Dogs International has even developed a program where children can read to dogs in the program, helping both the child and animal with behavior and confidence.

Even though my daughter cannot really read words on a page yet, some of my sweetest moments as a parent come from watching her flip through a book and “read” to her brother—watching my love of reading become a family pastime quickly erased the fears and doubts I had regarding lost one-on-one time with my child. 

Shared Literacy Activities

• Older children can make faces and funny noises with an infant in the household. This helps the child learn how to communicate with boundaries (not getting too close or too loud), while the baby will learn  to recognize different expressions.

• Have an older child practice reading with their younger sibling or a household pet that will sit still. Even if the child cannot read every word, they are practicing confidence, turning pages and explaining a story.  

•  An older sibling can help show a younger child how to do an age-appropriate activity. Demonstrating coloring, putting together a puzzle or showing how to work a toy can help both with patience and new ways to play.  

• Give age-appropriate chores to help with the new baby. This will help the child learn to follow instructions, take pride in completing a task and encourages conversation. This can also work with family pets.  

• Conner stated that reading to multiple children became a shared activity where they would “say together in a chorus” favorite parts of stories. Repetition and ritual helped keep bedtime routines peaceful for younger children, and the child that could get ready for bed the quickest would get to choose the first book.  

• For older children, Conner and her children shared that they use word magnets on the refrigerator to work on writing and word play. Children can leave messages to each other, and change, add and subtract words for humorous messages. Alphabet, word or picture magnets are a great way to make storytelling a part of family time in the kitchen for all ages. 

Meredith Flory is an Augusta-area freelance writer, military spouse and mother of two. She has a masters degree in children’s literature from Kansas State University and has taught high school and college English.

This article appears in the March 2016 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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