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Most parents are very aware that too much screen time for young children isn’t a good thing, but many are just as uncertain about what exactly the problem is and, importantly, how time can be more constructively spent without it becoming an additional daily burden adding to the stress of the adults.
“Taking the guesswork out of quality family interaction, which also assists in the development of the child, is half the battle won,” says Barbara Eaton, Academic Development Advisor for the Pre-Primary Schools Division at ADvTECH, Africa’s largest private education provider.
Eaton says parents who rely on some screen time to get a bit of a breather shouldn’t feel guilty, but adds that they should ensure they also spend time every day connecting with their children through activities. Activities, which are both fun and will aid the cementing of the skills they will require for reading success in future, can be woven into the daily routine.
“We are constantly researching improved methods of teaching foundational reading skills from Grade 000,” says Eaton.
“Research into the reading brain indicates that 40% of children learn to read easily, but 40% of children are at risk and 20% at severe risk. Over twenty thousand studies of children failing at reading in the USA indicated that the bottom 40% of readers lack phonemic awareness, which is the ability to hear, identify and manipulate individual phonemes - the smallest unit of sound in the spoken word.”
Eaton says the human brain is wired for developing spoken language which is why, with good personal interaction, babies develop speech from an early age without intentional teaching.
“But there is no automatic brain wiring for reading and spelling, so all aspects of these skills need to be taught systematically and explicitly. Modern life has increasingly seen young children spend significant amounts of time in front of screens, which focus their brains on visual more than auditory content.
“The major problem with screen time is that much of the spoken content of what they watch is too fast and often indistinct, making them less likely to concentrate on it. This has impacted on the development of accurate listening skills.”
This all sounds quite negative, but the good news is that brain repair and the re-routing and development of neurons are possible and that with correct teaching, the children who would have learned to read easily will read at a higher level while the ‘at risk’ children will be able to read well.
So how can parents help their children?
1 - BY TALKING AND LISTENING
“In these days of digital media, we are talking less to each other and much of the communication taking place is instructive: ‘It’s time to bath. Pick up your clothes” etc. Instead, try to focus on generating discussions, for instance talk about the highs and lows of your day; introduce topics such as, ‘if you could do anything you wanted, what would it be and why’, ‘tell us about the best thing you saw today’.”
Eaton says it is important to ask open-ended questions (which don’t have a yes or no response), to elicit full answers. Dads are especially good at this!
2 – BY READING TO THEIR CHILD
Read both fiction and factual books from a very young age and join the library to give a wider choice. Choose quality stories that link to your child’s interests, not just Disney ones, Eaton advises.
“Let your child see you reading books and magazines. When you read a menu, shopping list, or road sign, involve your child and discuss how wonderful it is to be able to read and understand the information around you.”
3 – BY SINGING AND RECITING
Sing songs, recite rhymes together and read poems.
“Rhyming is such an important pre-reading skill, but fewer and fewer children learn any rhymes at home. Nursery rhymes are basically historical nonsense but children love them and they are easy to memorise,” Eaton says.
4 – PLAY WITH WORDS
Play with compound words - breaking popcorn into pop and corn, fishtank into fish and tank etc. They make good car games, and make a walk to the shops shorter and more fun. I Spy is another fun favourite but use the sound at the beginning of the word, not the name of the letter. Cat starts with ‘c’ not CEE.
Eaton says activities as listed above should be fun for adults and child, and should not become another chore for parents, but rather an easy, entertaining way to connect as they go through their usual routine in the morning and the evening.
Additionally, to build solid listening skills, parents should not repeat instructions and comments, as this programmes a child not to listen the first time.
“Parents should make eye contact (lower the phone!), and pay attention to what their child is saying so that they model the desired listening behaviour. Above all, be excited about your child’s developing language and literacy skills.
“Investing quality time in your children can be achieved by including them in daily routines. Complementing this time with activities such as the above can make a tremendous impact on setting a child on the path to their own personal academic excellence,” she says.