The following two articles first appeared in the March 2001 edition of the CPF Calgary Chapter newsletter and subsequently in the CPF Alberta News.

What is an early literacy program?

Research indicates that children who struggle learning to read in French will also struggle learning to read in English. This fact reinforces the need for Early Literacy Programs within our immersion schools. Understanding three basic components of any Early Literacy Program will help parents develop a better understanding of the goals of early literacy initiatives within their own schools.

The first component is that schools must implement a “balanced literacy” approach for the classroom. This “balanced” approach includes: teachers reading aloud to students, shared reading where teacher and student read together, guided reading where the teacher guides the students to materials that match their individual reading levels, independent reading, modeled/shared writing where the student and the teacher collaborate to write text, interactive writing where student and teacher compose together and the student does some of the writing, and independent writing.

The second component is establishing benchmarks for different grades that indicate whether students are achieving expected levels of progress. For example, a benchmark would be whether the student knows the names of the letters of the alphabet and can identify them in any context. Another might be whether the student can match speech sounds with the letters or letter combinations that represent those sounds.

The third component of an effective Early Literacy Program is providing support for parents to work with their children at home. For French immersion parents, not knowing how to help their children if they (the parents) don’t know French often creates anxiety. Effective early literacy programs see the family as partners with the school in the children’s education and development.

Seeing is believing: An early literacy program in action

Jacqueline Belcher, a teacher at École Mayland Heights [Calgary Board of Education] was kind enough to allow an observer into her classroom as she was nearing the end of a daily two-hour literacy block with her grade 1 and 2 students. They were in the middle of a lesson that is a part of her “balanced literacy” program.

She was engaging the eager young students in an exercise called “interactive writing.” The students help her construct sentences that incorporate new and already learned vocabulary. In this particular lesson they were writing a story, in French, about going to the store to buy milk. The students took turns going to the blackboard to contribute words that Mme. Belcher knew they would be familiar with. Through this exercise they were learning word recognition, spelling, contextual writing, and collaboration, all integral components of balanced literacy.

Then, while the students were doing their “partner reading,” where more proficient readers are paired with less proficient readers, Mme. Belcher explained the need to balance guided reading (done with a small group of students), independent reading, shared reading, and reading aloud with writing exercises that are guided, independent, and shared as well.

The development and use of vocabulary is also done through a variety of strategies, such as a “word wall” where lists of frequently used words are displayed. Students also regularly use alphabet blocks to work with word and sentence structure. Dissecting the language in this way allows the teacher a clearer understanding of the level that each children is working at in his/her literacy development.

Mme. Belcher went on to explain the use of cues that are taught to assist the students in reading or writing. For example, they are taught to ask themselves, “Does this word look right?” “Does it sound right?” and “Does it make sense [fit into the context]?” Students learn to use these cues automatically after a period of time, and will have added important strategies as they become independent learners.

Jacqueline Belcher’s advice to parents? Read with your child every day. While it’s good to read to your child in French if you can, it’s every bit as helpful to read to your child in your own language — it’s the reading that’s important.

Specialists recommend exposing your child to a wide variety of topics and reading materials, to increase the likelihood he will find things that are interesting and/or fun to read. You can also provide vital support simply by letting your child see that you enjoy reading and by discussing what you’re both reading.