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Together, Parents & Teachers Foster Good Readers

With a red crayon, Sydney O’Keefe, 4, colored on white paper over a cardboard “D.” The letter magically appeared bright and bold.

While Sydney had fun with literacy activities, her mother, Nicole O’Keefe, talked about ways she works with Sydney on reading at home.

“She picks her favorite book, ‘The Baby Book of Animals,’ and she likes to read it to me,” O’Keefe said, adding that they trace letters together, identify them, and say the letters in Sydney’s and her siblings’ names. O’Keefe said she’s delighted that her daughter is already grasping reading concepts.

During the Byron Center Early Childhood Center’s family literacy night, Sydney and other preschool students busied themselves with pre-reading activities one on one with parents. They fashioned letters out of Wikki Stix, put together wooden shapes to form letters, played matching games, and fished for words out of a box.

Syndey O’Keefe, 4, works with her mother, Nicole O’Keefe
Syndey O’Keefe, 4, works with her mother, Nicole O’Keefe

With support from parents and teachers to develop reading skills, the preschoolers are being given the best chance to do well in kindergarten and every grade that follows. Educators and legislators are working to increase reading proficiency rates in third grade, the pivotal year when “learning to read shifts to reading to learn” by focusing on the formative years beginning at birth. Gov. Rick Snyder recently introduced a bill to enhance resources for early childhood instruction in order to boost third-grade reading proficiency.

Literacy-Rich Environments

The idea is to create a solid foundation of reading skills, said Joy Lotterman, Byron Center Early Childhood Center’s lead preschool teacher.

Making reading a regular part of a child’s life starting in infancy is vital, she said, and parents play a big role. Story times, lots of talking using descriptive words, and pointing out words and letters everywhere a child goes can all help with brain development. At family literacy night, the message was “Children learn to read on the laps of their parents.”

“With increased (academic) expectations, it’s crucial that they have exposure to school and early literacy, like looking

at vocabulary, phonemic awareness and book knowledge,” Lotterman said.

As grade-level standards increase, higher reading expectations have trickled down.

“When they are expected to read right away in kindergarten, early literacy is becoming more and more crucial,” added Angela Gallagher, a Byron Center preschool teacher.

Literacy Embedded into Everything

Fun At-Home Literacy Activities

  • Sprinkle salt in a box top. Make letters in the salt
  • When reading a book, show the cover and make predictions about the story
  • Write a simple sentence. Put each word on an index card and put them in sentence order
  • Make your own alphabet puzzle with your favorite things listed under each letter that begins with the letter
  • In the winter, we have a white world. Make a list of words that begin with “w”
  • Make a name train with all the letters of your first name. Add a paper engine at the front and a caboose at the back
  • Sing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Trace the z’s and have fun making the sounds
  • Match small and capital letters. Use pretzels to make some capital letters

In local preschool classrooms, reading is part of all activities, said Gina Dobberstein, an early childhood specialist for Great Start Readiness Program, the state’s tuition-free preschool program.

“What’s different about preschool, as opposed to elementary school, is that there isn’t a block of time when it’s like, ‘Now we’re working on reading.’ We really expect teachers to be including it in all parts their day,” Dobberstein said. “They may be working on letters or print concepts as they’re walking down the hall, or eating lunch together, in circle time, small group time, and even in their play.”

Ashley Karsten, also a Great Start Readiness early childhood specialist, said blending reading into all other subjects and activities works well.

“It’s more developmentally appropriate for a 4-year-old,” Karsten said. “Students are interested, excited and they learn,”

Serving Children from Before Birth

Kent ISD operates early childhood programs that serve 8,500 children from prenatal to age 5. They include Great Start Readiness, with 148 classrooms consisting of a majority of low-income students; Great Start to Quality, which connects parents with early learning services; Early On, which provides intervention services for infants and toddlers; and Bright Beginnings, which uses the Parents as Teachers curriculum to educate parents on how to best support learning at home.

Research shows that quality preschool pays off, said Mike Ghareeb, Kent ISD early childhood director. A study conducted by Dr. Arthur Reynolds of the University of Wisconsin determined that society saves more than $7 for every $1 invested in preschool.

Vincent Schmuker, 4, catches an “M” fish
Vincent Schmuker, 4, catches an “M” fish

The study followed 989 students enrolled in 20 Chicago Parent-Child Centers beginning at age 3, and a comparison group of 550 other eligible children who did not participate in the program until they reached eighth grade. Findingsincluded that students who have high-quality early education do better in school academically, and are less likely to drop out of high school, be arrested, repeat grades or be placed in special education services.

But it’s not all about data. At Byron Center ECC’s literacy night, much learning was focused on engaging students in ways they captivate them.

Angel Roque, 4, uses wooden shapes to make a letter
Angel Roque, 4, uses wooden shapes to make a letter

Vincent Schmuker dipped his pole into a box and pulled out a green fish with an “M” on its belly. Chloe Caldwell grinned and hoisted up a sticky, purple “I” she’d stuck on a picture next to an inchworm, and Angel Roque built a wooden “O” out of shapes.

In a classroom, Kent District Library librarian Barb DeYoung read the children’s book, “I Spy Under the Sea,” to a dancing, hopping room full of preschoolers. She hinted about what animal was on the next page.

“Sea horse!” the children shouted.

“You’re too smart!” DeYoung said. “I didn’t even have to read the second clue!”


How Vocabulary Development Affects Children

1,000 Books Before Kindergarten

Study on Third-Grand Reading Skills and Poverty

Kent ISD Early Childhood Programs

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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