Early Literacy–So Much More Than Reading Words

It seems that this spring has provided us with more than enough cold and cozy weather to encourage cuddling deep into a blanket and reading a book.  Parents often enjoy the opportunity to read to their young children, and our kids love the closeness and contentment that reading aloud can bring.

Parents also get excited when thinking about their child’s ability to pick up her own book and transport herself into a completely different world full of adventure. With preschool registration in full swing, and kindergarten meetings happening all throughout the district, parents often turn their thoughts to how to help their children learn to read.  The Hopkins Early Childhood staff thought it would be helpful to discuss what is involved in Early Literacy–the early skills that children build on in order to learn to read.

We often think of learning the letters and sounds as being the only component of literacy. However, for the young child on her way to preschool or kindergarten, early literacy instruction involves a variety of skills that parents may not have yet thought about, but can encourage during their daily interactions in fun and playful ways. Early Literacy provides a foundation for learning to read–it does not yet jump to the actual act of reading individual words. Parents can support their child’s literacy growth by incorporating these concepts, without feeling a pressure to create early readers. The foundation you are providing will help your child learn to read when she is in school and ready to take on that academic task.


1. Phonological Awareness: This means that a child has an awareness of sounds.  Look at how many sounds are involved in the word phonological! In order to read that word one has to have an awareness of all the little sounds within it. With our own young children we are helping them to become aware of the sounds of the alphabet. We are also helping them understand when sounds are the same–rhyming words.  Nursery rhymes or songs that involve finger plays like “Itsy Bitsy Spider” or “Criss Cross Applesauce” help our children to hear the sounds in words, and make connections from one word to the next. There are no rules when singing rhyming songs–it is just as easy to make up a song or a poem as it is to read it out of a book or memorize one.  A parent can help their child build the skill of phonological awareness by making time during the day to sing songs, play games that involve rhyming or take note with their child when they see a letter in print to clearly state what the sound of that letter is. If you need ideas for new songs to sing, visit the Hennepin County Library Website, where they provide video presentations of songs you can sing with your child:

Hennepin Library Website for songs and fingerplays

2. Print Awareness: Print is everywhere in our lives.  However, for young children print that can not be read is not clearly print.  It is a large amount of squiggles and lines.  When out and about with your child, take the time to point out where there is print.  Symbols can often be a great starting place for this skill because it helps the young child to understand that what they are seeing stands for something else.  This is the idea behind print. We certainly do not want our children to be “branded” early on, but we can use the brands that have familiar symbols to help our children make this connection. In the grocery store or while driving in the car point out the symbols that you see, and talk about what that symbol stands for.  When reading, (whether it is a book or a menu or a grocery list) use your finger to trace under the words as you read out loud, so as to help your child connect the print to what you are saying. Early literacy does not ask that the child is able to read the word, simply that they are making the connection that print has meaning.

3. Print Motivation: We all hope that our children will have the joy of excitedly turning page after page of a book, truly immersing herself in a story that she loves.  This is print motivation–enjoying books and being interested in them. Enjoyment of an activity generally happens when we engage in a low-stress situation which fills us with good feelings.  This is why sitting and reading with our child can and should be a simple act of sharing and caring.  Although we are interested and invested in helping our children to learn to read, sometimes the most helpful way to get them to that goal is by letting go of all the skill building and simply showing our children how much we enjoy being with them to read.
Mem Fox, a beloved picture book author, has a web site with read-aloud information–including examples of read aloud experiences to inspire the telling of even the most repeated and repeated and repeated story books!  She has a short list of helpful hints when reading aloud to children.  Follow the link below for her tips:

Mem Fox’s Read-Aloud Tips

3. Vocabulary: A child will have an easier time reading a word if she recognizes the word and understands what that word means.  For this reason, vocabulary building is an important early literacy activity.  Building a child’s vocabulary is as easy as having a conversation–in fact that is how a parent can best do it!  Our children learn best when they are connected and engaged with the person who cares for them.  When your child talks, listen to what she is saying and then expand on that.  For example:
child: “I played with Bethany today.”
parent: “I saw you playing with her.  You jumped and skipped and galloped.  What else did you do with Bethany?”
child: “We had a snack.”
parent: “You had a delicious snack.”

A conversation with your child provides excellent opportunities for introducing words, explaining things she has questions about, and builds the habit of open communication–something we all hope will continue into the early teen years!

5. Letter Knowledge:  Here is the most familiar skill for parents.  Note that although it is the one we are most likely to be working on, it is simply one of 6 skills that build the foundation of early literacy.  We want our children to know each letter and the sound that it makes.  In order to do this, a child must first be able to tell the differences between the letters.  Each letter is made up of shapes. For example, the letter A is triangular, the letter R involves a triangle and a circle, the letters O, Q, G, C and D all have a fairly circular shape.  This is why it is beneficial to help your child find similarities and differences between the shapes. Talk about the shapes around you and compare and contrast them.  Talk about the rounded lines and the straight lines, the points and curves.  You are helping your child train her eye for the differences between the letters of the alphabet. In addition, have alphabet books available for your child, sing the alphabet song, write the first letter of your child’s name and talk about it’s sound and how it is shaped.

6. Narrative Skills: This is my favorite. Narrative skills involve the ability to tell or hear the story–to see a story as a series of events and to understand how it is important to the reader. This is where learning to read the words takes shape and form and substance. T. Berry Brazelton M.D. (a medical doctor specializing in child development) was quoted as saying “We can teach children anything at any age, but at what cost?” If we as parents get lost in the purely academic function of the letters and their sounds, we could sacrifice the pure love of reading–the joy of the story. A parent can encourage narrative skill building by agreeing to read a favorite story over and over and over and over and over again. When a child hears a favorite story repeated, she learns to anticipate the action, understand the storyline, build on her memory of the story she loves.
Storytelling can be a valuable way to encourage narrative skills.  Our children are always interested in stories of what they did when they were “little”. They are also generally interested in stories about what parents did when they were little. Children often like to listen to a review of the day they just had.  Many children hang on every word of a story that a grandpa or parent will make up on the spot.  Favorite characters can come alive in a child’s imagination when an engaging storyteller agrees to provide a tale. Telling a story to a child allows the child to enjoy the ups and downs of a character’s antics completely in her own mind–building creativity, imagination and a sense of the gloriousness of story.

We are providing a foundation for our children when we teach them early literacy skills.  We can help them on the path to reading success by engaging in fun activities which focus on their interests and developmental abilities.  It won’t be too long before we are watching our children deeply engrossed in the latest novel, not even looking up from the book when we call them to dinner. So enjoy the time we have with children on our laps, begging us for one more story, one more chance to read that well used, torn up, battered, beloved children’s book.

Peas and carrots and potatoes – oh my! Healthy Eating Habits for Children

For parents of children ages 0-3, parents only class

This seminar presents information about typical toddler eating behavior and gives you strategies for providing a healthy meal-time environment. Food choices, healthy portions, and working with the changing eating style of your child will be discussed.

Thursday, April 7

6:30 p.m.- 8:00 p.m.

Harley Hopkins Family Center, 125 Monroe Ave. S., Hopkins

Cost: $10/adult, $15/household

Child care for children birth through kindergarten available, $5 per child

Register on line at www.HopkinsCommunityEd.org or call 952-988-5000

Newborn and Infant Behavior–Demystified

There is a tendency to refer to the first three months of a new infant’s life as the 4th trimester.  A newborn baby takes a significant amount of time to adjust to the vastly different environment she has found herself in.  Rather than being in a cozy, warm tight space where all of her needs were met immediately, she is in a place where she has to voice her needs to get them met.  In addition, the environment around her is changing all the time—temperature, noise level, setting, all of these things are constantly in transition—compared to what she knew in the womb.  Luckily, baby comes prepared to meet these new challenges with some of her inborn patterns of behavior. Parents can help ease her into an awareness of her new world by carefully reading baby’s cues and responding to her in a caring and consistent manner.

The Hopkins Early Childhood Staff recently discussed the newest research about newborn and infant well-being .  This information was available due to a course called Parent Infant Pathways. This course is offered to professionals through the University of Minnesota.  The staff at Hopkins felt like parents of newborns would greatly benefit from understanding more about what infants are capable of, and what family members can do to help their baby flourish.


Newborn babies do a lot of sleeping.  Although it may look like there is just simple sleep happening, by the time baby is born there are actually some pretty well defined patterns going on with sleep.

  • By the time baby is born, she has already established a sleep pattern that is independent of her mother’s sleep routine. Because this pattern was established within the womb, baby’s sleep pattern is not cued by day / night cycles. During the first weeks of life, parents simply follow the schedule of sleep baby has already brought with her. Note that your infant will need between 6-12 feedings throughout a 24 hour period, so she will need to eat every 2-3 hours—whether it is day or night.
  • At three weeks of age a shift occurs in the sleep pattern.  Baby is more likely to stay awake for longer periods of time after feeding. During this awake time she is more curious about the world around her, and looks for more stimulation.  Parents can help baby make the transition from awake to sleep by looking for cues that baby is tiring, and then providing the baby with an opportunity to sleep by moving to a quiet darkened room with less stimulation.

Sleep / Awake Stages for Newborns and Infants

  1. Deep Sleep: Baby is very still and breathing is very regular. Baby’s face is still and there are no eye movements.  It is hard to awaken baby during this stage.
  2. Light Sleep: Baby’s eyes are fluttering under eyelids.  Baby has a little movement in her body. She may smile or make sounds or grimace.  Her breathing pattern is often irregular. A parent’s voice may call her out of sleep.  Highest proportion of sleep for infants is light sleep.
  3. Drowsy: Baby’s body is more active.  Eyes may open and close. Baby may have facial movements. If baby is in a drowsy state, she may fall back asleep. If parent interacts baby may wake up.
  4. Quiet Alert: Baby’s eyes are wide open.  Her face is animated and she has focused attention to parent’s face and voice. This is an ideal time for parent to be social with baby.
  5. Active (alert / fussy): Baby’s eyes are open but not focused on particular object or person. Baby’s body and face is active. She is very reactive to hunger, fatigue, stimulation and noise during this stage. Parent comfort may bring baby back to quiet alert stage. Baby may be in this stage due to hunger or because she is seeking attention and comfort.
  6. Crying: This is the clearest way baby can voice her distress. This means she is unable to cope with some sort of discomfort.  Sucking on thumb or fingers may help to calm baby. Baby can be soothed by comfort from parent.

An infant’s immature nervous system results in difficulty moving from one sleep stage to another.  Baby may make noise, shiver, move arms or legs or cry out when transitioning during sleep. Parents can help baby by listening and watching while baby is making these sleep-time transitions.  Baby will likely move back to sleep and shift to her next stage without help.  However, if baby becomes distressed during this transition, a parent needs to consistently care for the needs of baby.  Rocking, cuddling and providing secure support during these early months helps baby feel comforted during distress.


Infants give signals that they are interested in playing with you.  They also give signals when they need a break.  Being able to read baby’s cues is the first step of parent-child communication


  • Baby’s eyes widen and brighten and focus attention on a parent or object
  • Baby may be able to follow parent’s face if it is moved slowly to one side
  • Baby will respond to sound by turning towards it


  • Baby looks away, looks worried or closes her eyes
  • Parent can shift activity to see if baby becomes interested in something else, or provide baby with a break in interaction


  • Fluctuations in baby’s body color (pale, flushed, or mottled) Breathing becomes irregular, hiccupping possible. Increase in startles (body shivers or tremors)
  • Changes in the way baby holds her body (becomes floppy or stiff or rigid)
  • Parent should provide comforting care and eliminate or lessen the source of stress for baby

A better understanding of baby’s patterns of behavior help all family members provide comfort and communicate more effectively with the delightful, enigmatic little person who has joined your world.

Welcome to the World, Baby! The Newborn’s Early Months

Newborn babies are a delight, a joy, and a bit of puzzle.  The experience of taking care of an infant is not usually what parents had anticipated. There is of course love, but there is also confusion about what baby needs when, overwhelming exhaustion, and a realization that what baby does most is simply sleep.

Our Hopkins Early Childhood staff discussed a number of issues concerning a baby’s first three months of life.  The information was garnered from the Parent Infant Pathways coursework offered to professionals through the University of Minnesota.  What we talked about provided insight into the needs and behavior of newborns and infants, and we wanted to share this information with you.

Please note:  The following information concerns full term babies only.  Premature babies have a distinctly different and individualized way of entering the world. Therefore they need a different sort of care.  Due to the unique nature of each premature baby’s experience, parents are advised to get information about how to support their baby through their pediatrician.

Parents of newborns tend to see the world in only cloudy focus due to the intensity of the experience they have just begun to go through.  Therefore, in the interest of making the information as “read-able” as possible, we have tried to divide it into easy-to-read sections with bullet points to refer to.

Please remember, being the parent of a newborn is something that involves a huge shift in perspective. The more information you know, the better you can handle some of the challenges that may come up—and the more often you can spend time simply enjoying your baby.


  • In the womb, the baby was within a definite boundary, and in a cramped living space
  • Experiencing complete freedom of movement can be overwhelming to a newborn baby
  • The flexed and curled position that baby was used to in the womb is also comforting the first months of life.  Holding baby so that his arms and legs are curled into himself, while his back is against your chest, is comforting to baby
  • Do not curl baby into this position while wearing baby in a sling.  Babies need to be strong enough to move / hold their head before they can be curled into a sling. There are other, more appropriate, ways to use a sling with a newborn. Get explicit direction on proper method when you choose to wear your newborn with a sling
  • The flexed and curled position helps baby to find his fingers and hands to suck on
  • In the womb, baby sucked on his fist or thumb. This sucking comforted and calmed baby
  • Wrapping a baby in a blanket so that his arms are curled up and his fists are near his mouth can help the baby to continue this comforting habit
  • It can also be comforting when parents place hands over baby’s arms, legs or chest.  This creates a secure feeling for baby
  • In the womb, baby was warm and in a cozy, dark, secure place where his needs were met instantly. During the first months of his life, your comforting and immediate care will help him to make the many adjustments to his new world he is being asked to make


  • Placing a baby to sleep on his back reduces the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). It is highly recommended that baby sleep on his back
  • Tummy time is especially important for baby’s development during the newborn stage
  • Tummy time when baby is awake provides the following advantages: avoids development of flat spots on head, strengthens neck and shoulder muscles, strengthens lower abdomen muscles, helps to develop flexibility, helps to develop balance
  • Newborn babies may not initially enjoy tummy time. Give baby something to look at while on tummy, lay your face next to his, or otherwise entertain him
  • Tummy time for infants helps them to continue their hand-to-mouth habit, which provides comfort
  • When baby is under 6 weeks old: 5 minutes of awake tummy time a day
  • When baby is under 2 months: 15 minutes of awake tummy time a day
  • By the time baby is 4 months: 1.5 hours of awake tummy time a day
  • Limit the use of infant car seats when baby is not in the car


  • Bonding: refers to what can happen during the first moments or days after baby is born
  • Attachment: develops gradually over weeks and months as baby and parent get to know each other and interact
  • Different birth experiences result in vastly different “bonding” experiences.  The inability to hold your baby immediately after birth or spend time with him during the first hours will not affect the attachment you will begin to feel during the first weeks of getting to know your baby
  • Attachment develops at different rates for different parents. Some parents feel an attachment very quickly. Some parents feel it gradually over days or weeks. Both of these patterns of attachment are normal
  • A baby becomes securely attached to a parent when that parent provides sensitive and responsive care. Parents do this by reading baby’s cues and signals consistently
  • A securely attached child trusts that her parent will be there to meet her needs. This child has learned “I have the power to see that my needs are met.”

A newborn baby and parent will come to know each other and delight in each other’s company throughout the first months of life.  Having information about what comforts, soothes, and supports baby while he is adjusting to his new glorious life helps all members of the family feel more secure about the journey they are taking together.

Helping Children Sleep Better

For parents of children ages 0-3, parents only class

As our children gain the ability to resist falling asleep, parents need to have strategies for night-time negotiations.  You will walk away with ways to “set the scene” for night time, and get strategies for dealing with the sleep disruptions that tend to occur during those early years.

Thursday, March 10

6:30 – 8:00 p.m.

Harley Hopkins Family Center, rm 27

Cost: $10/adult, $15/household

Child care for children birth through kindergarten available, $5 per child

Register by calling 952-988-5000 or online at http://www.HopkinsCommunityEd.org

This Saturday: Lots of Family Fun, Saturday, March 5!

No need to stay inside this weekend — join us at these two free family-fun events:

Kiddie Karnival
10 am-12 noon, Saturday, March 5
Harley Hopkins

Fishing Frenzy
12-3 pm, Saturday, March 5
Eisenhower Community Center