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Tips from a teacher: Supporting early childhood literacy skills in the time of COVID-19

Tips from a teacher: Early literacy during COVID-19

By Megan Hillegass
June 25, 2020

Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest asked Megan Hillegass, a blended prekindergarten teacher who is featured in our new video on integrating play into literacy instruction, to share ways that caregivers can support young children’s literacy skills at home. The eight tips featured here draw on the play-based approach that Hillegass uses in her classroom at Valley View Early Childhood Center in Romeoville, Illinois. For more on the evidence and research supporting these strategies, see our video.

* * * * *

“Today was harder than it should have been. Send help.”

The text was from my brother, who has been in charge of remote learning for his young daughters, ages 3 and 6, while his physician wife continues working.

“I have lots of free resources! Do you need resources?” I replied. I am, after all, a prekindergarten (preK) teacher, currently embarking on my own remote learning journey—which mostly entails trying to keep my head from being buried in all the free, enriching resources being sent my way.

“No resources. Just send one thing a day. And keep it simple. Please just keep it simple.”

My brother is not alone. Millions of parents have been struggling through uncharted territory, navigating how to work from home while also teaching their kids at home and keeping them engaged.

But what about our youngest learners? What about our preschool children, who are at a crucial point in their brain development and have limited attention spans? Like many caregivers, I am concerned about providing meaningful learning opportunities for my kids while they are at home through the summer.

“I have good news. Children ages 3 to 5 are naturally curious and eager to explore. Their natural curiosity and energy make the world a classroom.”

I have good news. Children ages 3 to 5 are naturally curious and eager to explore. Their natural curiosity and energy make the world a classroom.

Literacy skills in particular can be included in very natural ways at home. Below are a few tips for how parents and caregivers can integrate literacy into children’s daily activities:

  • Engage their senses. If your preschooler shows no interest in the magnetic letters on your fridge, try putting the letters in a bin of rice or in play dough on the kitchen floor. Before inviting a child to color or work on a puzzle, try turning on some music. Sometimes just integrating a child’s sense of touch, hearing, or movement into an activity will be enough to spark the child’s interest.
  • Let children play “real life.” That’s what play really is—children acting out what they see the adults around them doing. If you are working from home, consider setting out materials for your child to play “work” alongside you. Provide any supplies you have on hand, such as a notepad, clipboard, sticky notes, pens and markers, envelopes, an old cell phone that no longer works, a calculator, stamps, stickers, and so on. You might get a chance to return some work emails, and your child will be developing fine motor and prewriting skills!
  • Document your experiences. Someday your child might want to hear from you about what life was like during the COVID-19 pandemic. Make a book with your child about what you have done each day while at home together. You can write, and your child can illustrate. Or let your child dictate journal entries or help you keep a running list of all the living things you spot on your daily walks. The format does not matter! The important part is modeling for your child how we use reading and writing to create meaning and record thoughts. Keep it simple.
  • Introduce new and novel materials into your child’s play space. Experienced preschool teachers know that if children are losing interest in a classroom play center, it’s time to bring in something new. Use the same approach at home. Leave out a few simple household items among your child’s toys (sunglasses, measuring cups, empty boxes—anything as long as it is childproof and appropriate) and watch how your child transforms playtime to include those items.
  • Include your child in your daily chores and tasks. Throughout the day, talk with your child about the letters and numbers you see and let your child help. For example, show your child how to find the O for the dryer’s “on” button, how to match socks to find the same size or pattern, or how to count out a fork, plate, and cup for each member of the family.
  • Read, read, read. Read all the things, as much as you can. Have you and your child already read all the children’s books you have, and the library is closed? That’s okay! Your child probably wants to read the same one or two books over and over again, anyway. Point to each word while you read it, pausing to let your child fill in some of the words. Make up a new version of a book’s story using the same pictures. Have your child “read” a book to you while pointing at the words. Your child probably will not point to the exact words while saying them, but tracking print from left to right is an important foundational literacy concept to learn at this age!
  • Down time is okay. You don’t have to entertain your child every minute of the day. Sometimes kids’ most creative and divergent thinking comes after a few moments of boredom.
  • Watch a new video from REL Midwest. Integrating Play Into Literacy Instruction: Strategies For Your Classroom features my preK classroom and highlights examples of how to integrate play into literacy instruction. For teachers, a video viewing guide is also available.

Remember that young children are resilient and wired to learn no matter what. Talk to them, include them, read to them, follow their lead. As my brother says, keep it simple.

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Author Information

Megan Hillegass Staff Picture

Megan Hillegass

Blended Prekindergarten Teacher

Valley View Early Childhood Center (Romeoville, Illinois)

Topics

Charter Schools (2)

College and Career Readiness (34)

Data Use (25)

Discipline (3)

Early Childhood (24)

Educator Effectiveness (28)

English Learners (10)

Literacy (5)

Math (1)

Online Courses (7)

Rural (14)

Teacher Preparation (20)

Teacher Workforce (9)

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