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Make reading child’s play for Family Literacy Day

Ellen Heaney, the children
Ellen Heaney, the children's librarian at New Westminster Public Library, is busy gathering books that could be used for a special program of storytelling on Jan. 27 to celebrate Family Literacy Day.
— image credit: MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER

Today, Joyce Pinsker may be children’s librarian for Burnaby Public Library, but there was a time in her childhood, as with others’, when words would trip her up.

Pinsker still recalls how she learned to pronounce “colonel”—by playing the board game Clue.

She’d seen the word in a book but had no idea how to pronounce the odd jumble of letters. Then she came upon Colonel Mustard in the classic game.

“I actually remember learning and going, ‘oh, that’s how you pronounce that word,’” she said. “It’s intriguing the small ways how board games can build our reading skills.”

Playing board games also fit perfectly with this year’s theme for Family Literacy Day on Jan. 27, “Play for Literacy.” ABC Life Literacy Canada, which promotes adults and children reading and learning together with the event, is this year advocating playing games that encourage literacy or numeracy.

Burnaby Public Library is hosting family board game gatherings at its Tommy Douglas branch on Friday, Jan. 28, 6:30 to 8 p.m. and its McGill branch, on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2:30 to 5 p.m.

The library will supply the games for families to come together in a friendly, relaxed environment to help learning take place.

Learning, after all, can happen in the most unobtrusive of ways.

It starts at home

The facts on literacy speak for themselves.

Four out of 10 adult Canadians, aged 16 to 65—or about nine million Canadians—struggle with low literacy.

According to research, family literacy programs reduce participants’ full dependence on social assistance from 67 per cent to 11 per cent.

Research also shows children improve their chances of becoming literate adults if reading is encouraged in the home.

Children get the idea that reading is a good thing simply by seeing their parents role modeling the behaviour, said Ellen Heaney, head of children’s services for New Westminster Public Library, which is hosting its own Family Literacy Day event—with storytelling and language games—on Thursday, Jan. 27, 4:30 to 6 p.m.

For parents for whom English is a second language, reading children’s books to their kids has the added benefit of improving their own English vocabulary and reading skills.

Benefits to children can start as early as infancy, when babies learn language skills from being read to, Heaney said. In the one-to-two-year-old stage, kids learn there’s a connection between the markings on a page and the stories they hear being read to them. They learn how to open a book and turn the pages.

Even when children are old enough to read on their own, parents should still be reading to them as long as they’re willing.

“Children want to spend more time with their parents,” Heaney said. “You can push the level of language, read them something the children wouldn’t be able to read on their own.”

Heaney stressed the importance of finding materials that the children want to read.

“Children’s librarians used to be of the opinion that children should read what we thought was good for them,” she said with a laugh.

Today it’s understood that if children are reading something that they’ve asked for, it’s a good thing. And if it serves as a hook to get them interested in reading other things, even better.

“Just coming in and saying, ‘My son isn’t reading and I want a copy of Moby Dick’ isn’t going to serve much purpose because that child is not going to get anywhere with Moby Dick.”

Board games good

Along with reading, board games can also help build literacy and numeracy skills.

For very young children, they can show that words can carry meaning, while new readers can build vocabulary, as can older kids with more complex games, said Pinsker.

She suggests Pictionary and Scrabble to help with vocabulary, as well as games with instruction cards, such as Monopoly, for practising reading skills. As for math, she suggests games that take players from point A to point B, such as Snakes and Ladders (or Chutes and Ladders as it’s more commonly called today), which involve counting, and card games such as cribbage.

Pinsker agreed that parents should read to their children as long as they’ll let them as it can take years before children can read fluently.

“That’s a really critical way to keep children still engaged with the idea that reading can be fun,” she said, noting that children can be easily discouraged by some material that must be read in older grades to get reading skills up to those levels.

Reading to children is also a great way to improve communication with kids.

“It just creates a special bond and a closeness, such that I think that communication between parent and child can be much more open and enhanced.”

Pinsker added, “Very often, depending on the subject matter of the book, it can give an interesting opening to having a conversation about a topic that might be a little bit difficult or challenging to bring up cold.”

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