April 6, 2012

Show Me a Sign! (as in a Street Sign)

Over the past few weeks I've been summarizing the National Research Council's six key skills recommended for preparing children to become readers when they enter school.  Today's topic: Print Awareness: Noticing that the printed word is around us everywhere and becoming familiar with how to hold a book and follow the words from left to right. 

As literate grown-ups, we tend to take for granted that the written word surrounds us.  We get the information we need from road signs and building marquees, we pick up the newspaper (or our handheld device) to check a sports score, we look at a menu, we sort through the mail, we read the credits as they scroll up the screen after a movie, we page through magazines, and we read books.  

A thoughtful thank you note from a Class Participant
Building the skill of Print Awareness involves helping our children "notice" all of the distinct printed materials in everyday experiences all around us.  What are some of the ways you can do this?  Involve your child when you check the weather report or when you go through the weekly grocery ads and make your grocery list.  Post reminder notes for yourself, and interact with your child about those notes (i.e. "I'm going to stick this note on the dashboard to help me remember to stop by the post office on our way home from the park today.") Point out building signs that indicate you've arrived at your intended destination (or better yet, engage your child in keeping an eye out for the signage of familiar places, i.e. "Help me look for a gas station"). Invite your child to look for and count stop signs when you drive.  Write love notes and thank you notes to your child and share notes you've received from others. Write postcards when you go on family vacations (and encourage other relatives to do the same!) and show your child how each post card is addressed differently for each person.  (It's also fun to send one post card to your own address so your child can (re)discover the post card in the mail box once you've returned home and then reflect on writing and addressing it during your travels). 

Another important aspect of print awareness is helping a child gain familiarity with handling books.  Books are meant to be handled.  Yes, even by babies.  True, board books will get nibbled (Offer a teething toy as a alternative!). Yes, pages will get torn (Get out the tape and fix the book together. When my daughter was little I would sign hurt when a page ripped.  Once we fixed it, I would sign fine.) If books become objects of worry or fear, reading will not be fun.  Anticipate that some books will get bedraggled in the process. Trust that as children have more opportunities to handle books, they will gain experience and learn how to handle them gently and lovingly. (Case in point:  I am one of those people who sometimes leaves a book open face down to mark the page I left off.  My kids routinely call me out on this and suggest that I mark my book in another way so that the book won't get damaged.  They love it when they can catch me doing something not quite right and can offer a better option!)

Shape Detective
Building Print Awareness also involves helping kids gain an awareness that English print reads from left to right.  When your child sits on your lap to read, make a point to read the title of the book and the name of the author and illustrator on the cover and/or title page of the book. Move your index finger along the words as you read these elements.  Notice I'm encouraging you to not skip this step. Why? Because I want you to learn how to pronounce my last name (Pro Hauv' Nik) and repeat it over and over again.  That's not the real reason of course!  It's because reading the author/illustrator name helps children come to realize that real live people write and illustrate books.  It helps them gain familiarity with an author's body of work ("Hey, this is another book by Dawn Prochovnic!  Cool, I wonder if this one will be as fun to read as The Big Blue Bowl?  Let's find out!"), and this helps children recognize patterns, which ties into building their own Narrative Skills.   

Another way to help children gain familiarity with handling books and decoding the words from left to right is to invite your child to read to a doll (or dog).  Prop a younger sibling and a board book on your lap and prop a doll and a really familiar picture book on your older child's lap.  Read the board book, and model some skills like reading the title and author name and following your finger from left to right under the words.  Now sign your turn and have your older child read to the "baby" on his or her lap.  Often what you'll see happen is your child (who has likely memorized the name and even some passages from the book) will "read' the title by moving their fingers along the printed word from left to right.  As they progress through the book, they may recite familiar passages and/or invent their own re-telling of the story (which is fine!), but they will often move their hands along the words from left to right, modeling what they've seen you do when you read. Some kids will ask you to read the words, and they will move their fingers along the printed areas to model this practice while you read.  Try it out and let me know how it goes!

Okay, so here are a few of specific ideas for how to incorporate Print Awareness when you're reading books from the Story Time with Signs & Rhymes series: 

A to Z Sign with Me.  This story is unique alphabet story, in that it doesn’t just have different words and pictures for each letter of the alphabet. Instead, it is a story told in rhyme about going to a carnival.  The story is told so that the words beginning with the letters A to Z are featured in sequential order (i.e. "Talk like the animals. Oink! Peep! Quack.  Cheer when the roller coaster speeds down the track.").  After I've read this story directly from the book, I like to write the story "vertically" on a sheet of paper or easel, so children can see how the alphabet is structured in the story.  For example: 

Lip grows a
Nose blows a sneeze.  

I encourage children to sign each letter of the alphabet in order as the story progresses.  It's really fun!

The Big Blue Bowl:  After you read this book, sit down with your child and make a list of all of the different things that you'd like to put in YOUR big blue bowl.  Now get out the art supplies and draw a picture of your bowl and all of the things that you'll put into your bowl.  I like to get out the grocery ads and have children cut out the items they want in their Big Blue Bowl.  This piece of art can go on the wall, and be used later to play an I Spy sort of game to practice the signs for the different items in the bowl, (i.e. "Where is the Milk?" There is the Milk!" ).  A teacher who invited me for a classroom visit sent this beautiful artwork as a thank you note from the children! I love these types of gifts so much.  I post them on my office walls. 

The Nest Where I Like to Rest: I like to wear my crazy chicken hat when I read this story.  After reading, I set the hat on a basket of plastic eggs and post a sign on the basket/nest that reads, "Quiet! This is the Nest Where I Like to Rest." The kids get a kick out of it.

So Many Feelings:  After reading this story, I like to show kids an easel with a list of feeling words with picture clues noted next to each word.  I point to different feeling words and then ask the children to act out that emotion and/or sign that emotion.

Hip, Hip, Hooray! It's Family Day!: After I read this story, I invite children to make a their own book or even just a picture called "My Family" and then read it to someone else or to a doll.  To add enrichment, I encourage children to sign the handshape that goes along with each family members' picture or page.

Okay, it's your turn.  I would really love to hear some of your ideas for building Print Awareness with your children and/or your experiences using some of the ideas I've suggested in this post.  I look forward to your contributions!     


  1. Your writing has impressed me. It’s simple, clear and precise. I will definitely recommend you to my friends and family. Regards and good luck.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment! Much appreciated!