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Steps to cue the love of literacy and children

By John Hughes - posted Monday, 14 June 2004

"Aren’t the benefits of literacy…the greatest gift we can give our toddlers?" Latham said. Howard disagreed: "The greatest gift you can give your children is love." (Sydney Morning Herald, 1 June 2004).

The debate about reading to children and learning to read more often than not concentrates on reading as a decoding comprehension skill solely useful for students gaining utilitarian literacy skills. It is timely to address the fact that parents and teachers can also engage children in the literary art forms when they introduce children into the world of fiction. This is a noble aim in itself and should involve love as well.

William Yang, the distinguished Australian photographer and performance artist, postulated, in a lecture at the Art Gallery of NSW, that a significant factor in our comprehension of artistic works is how we are cued into the aesthetic experience of the artistic text. I wish to focus on the types of cues parents and teachers can employ to aid children in the process of accessing and appreciating artistic texts, and how, by experiencing such artistic texts, children’s comprehension, understanding and love of the arts can be integrated with their life-context.


Over the past three decades there has been a wealth of research into the reading process. It is now universally accepted that in order to gain meaning from text three cues need to be operating: semantic cues (meaning cues), syntactic cues (what we understand from the grammar) and grapho-phonic cues (the letters and the sounds). That is, the comprehension of text requires the reader to have some prior knowledge of the semantic area to be read and some expectation of meaning being possible, and an ability to comprehend the syntactic presentation of the text, (albeit, this may be an unconscious understanding), together with a comprehension of the grapho-phonics, that is the symbolic dynamic of the letters, or codes, with sounds.

I am not claiming this is all that is needed but it is a start. At bare minimum, children need the three cues to be operational in order to gain meaning from text. This approach to reading stresses the importance of prediction in the reading process. In fact several reading theorists maintain that reading for meaning is impossible without prediction.

Many children are apprehensive of texts and unable to bring to bear their predictive strategies; and as prediction plays a major role in reading, for both the beginning and fluent reader, there needs to be concentration on linking the artistic text with the children’s own experience through prediction activities. I favour interactive student-centred approaches that encourage ownership of the text, together with the provision of contextual information that enables the children to cue themselves semantically into fiction.

What type of interactive strategies can be employed? Here are a few.

Semantic Activities

Before reading a book with children, engage in what I have called predictive sets. For example: if the front cover has a picture, look at the picture and ask the child to predict what the story is about. Write down the predictions and see if they are validated or not. Look at the title of the story and make predictions based on what we learn from the title. Or, take out some key words or phrases, before you read the whole book, and again predict what might be going to happen. Play what I know what I don’t know before reading the text. If, for example you are going to read a book about snakes write down, with the child: what I know about snakes, what I’m unsure of about snakes, what I’d like to know about snakes. Then read the book and see if the text contains the answers. If not, conduct a little research project to find out about snakes. A final predictive activity is to read part of the story and then try to predict the rest.

Grammar Activities

Have children to tell you stories about what they did yesterday. In their recounting of experience encourage them to use the past continuous and the simple past. Most stories are written in the narrative past, so when the child encounters these tenses in print the oral capacity has strengthened the ability to read. Another fun way to enhance children’s knowledge of grammar is to make up nonsense sentences and then discuss them. For example: The golomp glicked the knong. Then ask: What did the golomp do? What happened to the knong? Who did the glicking? Who was glicked? How many golomps and knongs were there? Dr Seuss books, in part, delight us in such discoveries.


Grapho-Phonic Activities

Select a word the child likes from the text and using pictures from old magazines make a collage of the word. Decide which letter is dominant in the word. Find other examples of the letter from magazines and newspapers and add them to the collage. Also, don’t underestimate the benefits of the game “I spy with my little eye, something beginning with …”

During and After Reading Activities

There are many drama and art activities that help children engage interactively with the world of fiction. You can ask the children to create a different ending to the story or draw different pictures to illustrate what they have read. You can encourage them to write a play or puppet show based on the story to perform it for friends? Have the children select a favourite character from the book and draw a badge with symbols that represents the character. Discuss with the child what the symbols mean. Pretend that you are going to make a movie of the story and decide which international star you will cast for each character. Discuss the choice and give reasons. Write a poem using key words in the story and read it out to others. You could also make up a song based on the poem. All these activities enrich the artistic experience of the young reader, and they are also fun to do.

Child-centred, interactive approaches to reading enable parents, teachers and children to explore the dynamic between the creation, comprehension and analysis of artistic texts, and to integrate this exploration with their life experience. The parent or teacher is not seen simply as a transmitter of knowledge but as a facilitator of aesthetic and critical experiences. The fiction text is a lived experience that is negotiated in order to gain a shift of affect and cognition. We can do more than just read to children; we can encourage art, literacy and love.

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About the Author

Dr John Hughes is Associate Dean and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney.

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