What Is Preliteracy, and When Can Parents Begin to Build It?

Life is funny sometimes; when we start a conversation about a topic, it can be interesting to see what ideas the masses have embraced. Groupthink is a term that means that a group of well-intentioned people have decided that a matter or task should be handled a certain way, often because that’s the way it has always been done, or because it’s the accepted norm. But groupthink doesn’t always keep up with new information.

So it’s important to seek out the actual facts on an issue, rather than just deferring to ideas that have been passed down or accepted without question. When we look at a topic or situation with new eyes, that’s when the magic happens. There are moments when discovering new information becomes a tremendous catalyst for change, improvement, and positive momentum. Remember the old saying, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten.”

This truth also applies to beliefs about when children learn to read. If you and I went into the streets of your town, right this minute, microphone and camera in hand, and asked your neighbors, “When do kids start to learn to read?” the majority would reply, “When they start school.” And we would understand why they would give that answer; after all, kids do go to school to learn.

But to really blow the conversational doors wide open, and with it, people’s perceptions of how kids acquire language skills and learn to read, we need to seek the expertise of the scientists and doctors who have made this field of study their life’s work. The discoveries these researchers have made about how kids learn are nothing short of staggering.

Literacy, the ability to read and write well with comprehension, requires a foundation, and that’s where the term preliteracy enters the discussion. Preliteracy covers far more than a child’s ability to identify letters, numbers, or shapes. It includes important skills such as 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 (that print represents the spoken word, that it flows from left to right and from top to bottom on a page).

But when does preliteracy begin? The scientific discoveries may surprise you! Repeated studies reveal that even in the womb, babies are listening and learning. Here’s just one example: The University of Florida asked moms-to-be who were twenty-eight weeks pregnant to read a nursery rhyme out loud twice a day for six weeks. Four weeks later, they brought all the moms to the lab, put headphones on their ears so they couldn’t hear what was going on, and had a stranger read to the fetuses. The fetuses that heard the familiar nursery rhyme demonstrated a marked response: their heart rate slowed down, and they were calmer. The fetuses who heard a different nursery rhyme showed no somatic (heart rate) response or activity.

“We were basically asking the fetus, if your mother says this repeatedly, will you remember it?” said the study’s lead author, Charlene Krueger, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Florida. “As a takeaway message I would want mothers to understand is that their speech is very important to the developing fetus. When a mother speaks, not only does the fetus hear, but also the whole spine vibrates.”

When it comes to the question of when a child begins to learn the foundations for language and literacy, Krueger’s study is “pushing the envelope earlier,” says Dr. Shafali Jeste, a pediatric neurologist and an assistant professor of psychiatry and neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It is really before they are born.”

In my next blog, I’ll be sharing more discoveries about how shared reading and parental vocabulary impact a child’s preliteracy foundation. This study and the one in my next blog are just a small sample of the research I did for my latest book, Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know, available mid-October of 2019. If you will be attending the Central Texas Dyslexia Conference in Austin on October 19, 2019, you can preorder a signed copy HERE and pick it up at the conference.

It’s time to update our collective view about how kids can be helped to learn to read, especially those who are struggling or reluctant readers, and I look forward to hearing how you and your family are benefiting from the information!

Cardboard Box Adventures Picture Books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the new CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators.