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Help kids learning at home

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Campus Desk :
The literacy and numeracy skills gained in early childhood set children up for life - so what can parents do at home to help their child get the best start? Marianne Stenger reports.
A home environment that encourages learning is more important to student achievement than almost any other factor, but despite the importance of family involvement, few parents are aware of the impact they can have.  
A recent study published in the Journal of Early Childhood Research showed a connection between children's home literacy environment and their language skills, especially when it comes to understanding the structure and rules of written language.
So what can parents do to create a home environment that encourages the development of meaningful literacy skills from an early age?
Having reading material available, whether it is owned or borrowed from the library, is directly associated with children's achievement in reading comprehension.
One of the most obvious ways to do this, of course, is to make an effort to read to and with kids at home, but Bridie Raban, professorial research fellow at the University of Melbourne who investigates early childhood education, notes that inviting parents to read with their babies and young children may be quite challenging for some families.
Fortunately, though, there are a few other things parents can do. "Even parents who have limited levels of literacy can be supported to interact with their babies and young children," says Raban.
Based on the research available, here are three practical things parents can do to support their child's learning at home.  
1. Talk to and interact with your child whenever possible
Raban explains that talking with kids about what they are doing, what they are going to do, and what they have been doing, can help them to develop an understanding of the type of language used in books (e.g. Once upon a time).
"Children need a lot of experience of this kind of language in preparation for literacy," she says. "I use the acronym TALK to remind myself how to address this with families."
T = Take time to talk, making yourself available for interactions A = Ask questions to which you do not always know the answer L = Listen actively K = Know your child and the language they use. Build on this.
Other research supports this approach, with one study from Utah State University showing that parents who regularly play with their toddler impact both reading and maths scores.
Another study on the power of "Talk" shows that the quantity of words spoken to a child in the first three years of life is associated with his or her language skills, vocabulary size and even IQ later in life.
Also, children who are engaged in more conversation by their caregivers have been shown to know more colours, letters and shapes by the age of three than children who aren't engaged in as much conversation early on in life.
2. Don't limit your child to "baby talk"
When around kids, it can be tempting to "dumb down" the way we talk, either to ensure that they understand what we mean, or simply because we find the way they talk cute and endearing.
However, research shows that the size of a child's vocabulary in kindergarten predicts his or her ability to learn to read, so by using only "easy" words and simplified or even made up terms around your child, you are greatly limiting their ability to expand their vocabulary.
Aside from this, making up words or changing the way they sound (saying "wuv" instead of "love," for instance) can be confusing for a child who is just learning to speak. Don't be afraid to use a more sophisticated vocabulary around your child - they pick things up quicker than you might expect.
If you are using a new or complicated word around your child for the first time, take a moment to give details about the word and explain what it means.
Also, rather than going along with a child's mispronunciation of something (as cute as it may be), try to correct them in a positive way. For example, if your child were to point at an avocado and say "acado," rather than repeating it the wrong way, you could say "Yes, you're right! It's an avocado."
3. Make reading materials readily available
Research shows that having reading material available, whether it is owned or borrowed from the library, is directly associated with children's achievement in reading comprehension.
With this in mind, it's important to create a home environment where reading is valued. Even if you don't always have time to sit down and read one-on-one with your kids, you can still ensure that they are able to access a wide variety of age-appropriate reading material.
For babies, board books, cloth books, and touch and feel books can introduce them to the concept of "reading" early on, while toddlers and preschoolers will enjoy storybooks and rhyming books that contain plenty of pictures.
For older kids, include a variety of fiction and nonfiction books, comic books, and even informational reading materials like cook books, how-to books, an atlas or encyclopaedia, and magazines that are related to their hobbies, such as sports, fashion or music.
You could also consider creating a room or quiet area in the home that is specifically dedicated to reading. Here you can keep all your reading materials, and also set up a cosy reading nook with a comfy sofa or bean bag, pillows and blankets, and plenty of good lighting.
Just remember that creating a literacy-rich home environment doesn't have to cost a lot of money; the most important thing is your support and involvement, whether that means playing and interacting with your child, reading to them, or taking the time to explain and discuss new words.

- Marianne Stenger

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