The sounds of language

Becoming a lifelong reader involves far more than knowing the ABCs. It begins with children becoming sensitized to the sounds of language. The more sounds a child hears, the more words, with all their sounds, he’ll learn to say and eventually read.

Learning Stages


By Ruth Nathan, Ph.D.

Reading Research Scientist

Dr. Ruth Nathan works at UC Berkeley as a research scientist, but her best job is taking care of her grandchildren. For fun she builds all sorts of gardens and swims as many laps as she can every day. She's the child development editor of Grand Magazine, a magazine for grandparents. Ruth is the author of several books and chapters on literacy.

I’m a grandparent—first time for my husband, Larry, and myself. As a longtime student of child development, and as a mom of three daughters, you can imagine my delight at finally having a grandchild to nurture! I want to stress the importance of our chatter with small children, their chatter back, and the child’s eventual independent entree into the world of books—the making of a reader. I’ll wrap up with a few ideas.

The chatter relationship is, in turns, endearing (“Boogers! Grandma!”) and amazing (“Mountains over dare!”). But, it’s also crucial—right from the get-go. Picture our 2-year-old grandson, Saulie, walking through the door: “Hi, guy,” with the stress on “Hi.” Hear it? That’s what Saulie’s grandpa says every time Saul crosses our front doorstep. And with “Hi, guy,” Saulie lifts his arms toward Larry.

Becoming a lifelong reader involves far more than knowing the ABCs. It begins with children becoming sensitized to the sounds of language. When your child goes to school, the teacher will talk about how the letters in “cat” make the sounds: /k/ /a/ /t/.

But not yet! First it’s our turn!

Peter Piper picked a pack of pickled peppers.

Do you hear the /p/ in “Peter Piper”?

A, B, C
Tumble down D
The cat’s in the cupboard
And can’t see me

Hear the long /ee/ in “me”? Alliterative and rhymed poems like these help children learn that words are made of sounds. Because of you, your child will understand when his or her first-grade teacher says, “Listen: /k/ /a/ /t/, what do you hear? That’s right, ‘cat.’ Now let’s look at how those three sounds are spelled.”

And, when Saulie says, “Mountains over dare,” the amazing remark I shared earlier, we say, “Yes! Mountains are over there.” He gets the /m/ in “mountains” already, and he’ll just as surely get the /th/ in “there.” That’s because we talk and listen to our children. The more sounds Saulie hears, the more words, with all their sounds, he’ll learn to say and eventually read.

So the door closes and Saulie is ours! At bedtime Larry will read, “The owl and the pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat…” In the morning there will be biscuits to make, and biscuits to talk about. And for sure, Larry will finish The Owl and the Pussycat.

Tips for developing language skills:

Make sure to read lots of poems out loud, but pause sometimes and let your child fill in a missing word. Praise them when they get the missing word: “Amazing, you said ‘mountains’!”

 

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