Friday, November 20, 2009

Engaging Families In Their Children's Literacy Development with a Goal of School Readiness

Today I was privileged to present a session with the same title as this post at the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)Conference in Washington DC. Copies of the handouts are available at the NAEYC website. Search by my last name (Miller) or by the last name of any presenter to see their handouts.

Exciting movement is occurring in the world of early childhood. Make sure that you stay informed by visiting sites such as PreK Now, The New York Times Preschool News and NIEER.


Getting children ready for kindergarten is on the front burner these days. When it comes to literacy, what's the best way to "bring those children to the door"? It isn't with flashcards, flashy computer games or worksheets. It takes an integrated approach to three big ideas:

Oral language - Our speech and how we use our words is the foundation for how we understand what we read. Rich conversations about the child's immediate world and the world beyond, engaging in frequent chats, exploring new words are all a part of this foundation. Stay off the "regimented" channel.

Exploring books together. I don't often use the term "reading aloud to children" anymore because it seems to draw up images of a circle of children all sitting passively and quietly while the teacher reads an entire story from beginning to end or an individual parent or teacher "shushing" a child into quiet submission. Occasionally, if the language is rhythmic and musical and has great power, just listening to a story is OK. But most of the time it needs to look more like the entire group up to their eyeballs in thick rich meaning, interacting with the text. That's how children get the message of what reading is all about. The technique is called Engaged Interactive Read Aloud.

Playing with the language and its patterns. I underscore the word "play" because too often I see preschool teachers believing that structured lessons like those in first grade and kindergarten work for young children. They don't. You can teach children to "parrot" that way but you cannot teach what is essential - concepts. For that, children need to have concrete connections, integrated introductions, full of games and playful experiences with rhymes, alliteration, the movement and flow of the language. So sing, and have fun manipulating the language and talking about words apart from their meaning; don't make it a drill.

Want to know more? Check out sample activities from my new book, Before They Read, from Maupin House.

How do you focus on these three big ideas in your preschool environment? How do you keep the instruction developmentally appropriate while taking children as far as they are ready to go? Everyone will benefit from comments and dialogue!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

First Glimpse of NAEYC Conference - Washington DC

I've already met people from Ohio, Illinois, Florida, Minnesota and my own state of Alabama, all committed to quality early childhood learning. I also met a few resources I want to share with you.

Kar-Ben Publishing is an independent publishing house that is dedicated to books about Jewish themes. If you serve children who are of the Jewish faith or lineage, or if you just want to share a bit of that culture in your programs, you might want to visit their website. They are in Minneapolis, MN and are a division of Lerner Publishing Group.

I was able to see Ella Jenkins in person and hear a bit of singing. If you don't know Ella, she has a lot to share through music about life and culture and understanding.

My friend, Rae Pica (whom I know through BAM! Radio), is also attending NAEYC's conference. She's conducting a workshop entitled, "In Defense of Active Learning" at 8:30AM tomorrow morning and I'm going to drop by. She also has a great book out a couple of years ago called "Jump into Literacy"

I also ran into another friend, Mitch Bonder, in the exhibit booth for Childcraft/School Speciality at NAEYC. They have tons of new big books including one from my friend, Karma Wilson (Bear Snores On). While I was there, Mitch showed me a book his son has written about sports and friendship, and he's looking for a publisher for it if you know of anyone. It's exciting when kids become enthused enough with writing that they will produce their own material and I wish him the best.

I'm anxiously awaiting tomorrow when I'll have a chance to attend Rae's session, my own and hopefully a few additional ones. Wish you could all be here!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Visiting NAEYC

This week I'll be participating in the National Association for the Education of Young Children's annual conference for the first time and I am thrilled! Look for postings here from the conference to learn more about early childhood from the leading edge.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Must Resource for Preschool Teachers: NAEYC


If you don't know NAEYC (the National Association for the Education of Young Children), check it out. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) is dedicated to improving the well-being of all young children, with particular focus on the quality of educational and developmental services for all children from birth through age 8.

What's in it for me?

That means in plain terms that they have a lot of resources for you. There are free professional development guides, online articles to read (there's currently a great article on real-life writing in the classroom -- did you know that there are developmental stages of writing?), information about accreditation of programs and support for continuing education for teachers, and much, much more. Most of all, it gives preschool educators a place to practice their professionalism and share their knowledge while continually learning themselves.

The Literacy Ambassador® is coming to NAEYC's Washington DC Conference 11/19-20

This year I am privileged to be traveling to Washington DC (next week) for their annual conference, representing my company, TLA, Inc, by presenting on Engaging Families in Their Child's Emergent Literacy with a Goal of School Readiness (2:00-3:30PM on Thursday, Nov 20).  My new books for preschool/K teachers and for parents of preschool children is being released soon and I'm hoping to be able to share them at this conference (if I find a vendor and we can get the books to them in time.  My publisher is working on that but if you are a bookseller exhibiting at NAEYC's conference, give me a shout out!)  Regardless, if you are attending NAEYC, join me!

Maybe you can't make the trip to Washington?

Here are a few great websites to help you on your way as an early childhood educator:'s Early Childhood Web Resources


PBS Raising Readers

Which resources do you have to grow your professional approach to teaching preschool children? I'd love to hear about them and I'm sure others would too!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Print with a Purpose

As you set up your centers/stations and add to and rearrange/refresh them during the year (please tell me you do that), I want to encourage you to step back and look at the print you have in your children's environment. Although exposure to print is a great tool, it can become just visual "white noise" unless you plan carefully.

When you post ANY print, make sure you have a specific, scientifically-based purpose behind it. I'd rather see 10 things labeled purposefully in your classroom than 20 things labeled just for the sake of having a label. Here's an example:

If we label every piece of furniture and fixture in home living but we never call our children's attention to the print and talk about it (the number of letters in the word, that it is a "word", recognizing letters the child may have mastered or is at least familiar with, talking about the meaning of the word), then we are being wasteful and missing incredible opportunity. A few children might learn conventionally to read that word but all can identify that the word on the thing you sit in, with four legs, is a "chair" and talk about what chairs are used for. Don't let your focus be on decoding; let it be on seeing that print has a purpose and celebrate icing on the cake for your most advanced children if they can decode the word conventionally. It is all about meeting children where they are in their spectrum of development and not skipping over important milestones in the "rush to read".

Use print to show children how print is used in the real world (making lists, charts, comparisons, writing letters home to family, taking dictation from children to caption their artwork or record a retelling or original story).

Also post chilidren's artwork with captions dictated by the children to celebrate their already-present literacy.

You can find out more about environmental print and purposeful print in preschool classrooms through these great resources:

Play in the Preschool Classroom

What Works

An excerpt from Pat Kuby, et al's book on Environmental Print (preschool and early elementary)

The Impact of Environmental Print

How do you purposefully place print in your classroom? Stay tuned next time for how reading aloud adds to print awareness.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Promoting Listening Skills

"If the person you are talking to doesn't appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear." - Winnie the Pooh

Teaching children how to listen isn't just about making them sit quietly when you want them to.It is much more.It is about helping children attend to sounds in our language, translated those sounds into meaning, respecting the speaker, learning in internalize self-monitoring (just a little when they are preschoolers), focusing.

One of my favorite ways to get children to quiet down is with a good, quiet book. I love Bedtime in the Jungle by John Butler or Quiet by Paul Bright, just for this purpose. Think soothing, rhythmic language when you selecting books for this purpose.

Games are also the best way to teach young children to listen. Take a listening walk in your school or outside. Draw children's attention to sounds - "We must be quiet and use our ears if we want to hear anything. What do you hear? Whisper."

When you are talking with your children and you want to talk louder because they are not listening, try talking softer, even to a whisper. Do something to draw their attention. A friend of mine, Sharon MacDonald, tells a hilarious story that shows the power behind engagement. One day in her classroom, the noise level was growing too high, even for her. She liked hearing conversation because she knew learning was often happening when children were talking with one another. However, it was nearly a roar.

Suddenly, she had a bright idea: she took a simple tape measure she had in her desk (one of those stiff that has a metal measuring "tape" that extends and contracts into a square container - like they use on construction sites). She slowly starting pulling out the tape, very intently looking at it all the while. It grew longer and longer. She didn't look over at the children; she looked at the tape.

Soon, several of her children came over to see what was up. She just kept looking at the tape as it grew longer and longer. A few more children came."What are you doing, Ms. MacDonald?", one inquisitive child asked. "Shhhh." was her only reply.

When the majority (or maybe it was even the entire class) was surrounding her, all staring up at her and the growing tape, she finally stopped. The tape was about 2 or 3 feet out by that time. Again, a child asked, "what are you doing?" She replied simply, "I was just measuring how loud we were. Look at this!" Then she slid the tape back into its container. "Now we are this loud, very quiet," she said in a small voice.

For the first time, her students had an opportunity to see a visual representation of their noise level. It was more meaningful than just "be quiet now".

Isn't that a great story? It shows us as educators that the key to getting children to listen is not scolding but is creative engagement. If we are involving children in exciting, intriguing, interesting activities (and changing activities when we recognize that children need that change - in other words - responding to their limited attention spans), we will have less correcting and directing to do.

Attending to sounds is also important, as most of our children will learn to read through a method called "phonics". This method connects sounds in our language to the graphic representations of letters, teaches children how to blend those sounds into words, and connect to the words the child knows in their oral vocabulary (or grows new vocabulary).

Stay tuned! In coming weeks you'll be hearing about my new book for preschool and kindergarten teachers: Before They Read: Teaching Language and Literacy Development Through Conversations, Interactive Read Alouds, and Listening Games.

I'd love to hear how you create engaging situations in your classroom. How to you creatively get children to listen?& Do you have a listening center? Do you have a theme on listening?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Rethinking "Letter of the Week" and Our Approach to Early Childhood Instruction

I was just visiting with a friend of mine, Molly King, a new employee at our local quality care enhancement provider here in Huntsville, AL. She was sharing a few ideas with me about how important it is to "relate to the level" of our students and not instruct like the elementary school teacher. Wow, it was a "light bulb", "what a great idea" moment.

Here are a few thoughts from that conversation:

1) Whenever we think "teaching" and "learning" on the preschool level, it should always be integrated into real life interaction and play. Please no flashcards or black master worksheets! Those may make teaching easy for you but they are not an effective way to approach true learning with preschool children.

2) All over the Internet is the latest, "greatest" fad - teach your baby to read. Expecting an infant to be able to do more than "parrot" back to you is ridiculous for this reason: it ignores the developmental spectrum through which children must travel before they are ready for a complex mental process like conventional reading. Reading, after all, is not word recognition, although that might be a part of it. Reading is gaining meaning from text.

Would you take a baby who had never been near the water and throw it in the 6 foot deep end of the pool? Of course not! That's what you do when you throw a baby into "reading" without the foundational concepts so critical and integral to becoming a conventional reader.

3) Instead, think conversation, reading aloud and sharing stories, and play (intentionally planned and encouraged by you but seen by the child as a simple, fun interaction with their world). Children learn best through play and, as preschool educators, we can dive in with them, be attentive to natural opportunities for teaching to occur and see the light bulbs go on.

Here's an example: the other day I was observing in a preschool classroom. An unfamiliar noise (the sound of a tape player bleeping) went off in another part of the room. The child in front of me said, "What's that?" I said, "Let's go investigate!" She looked at me as if to say, "I don't know what you mean." So I expanded my language to say, "The word 'investigate' means to closely inspect, check things out, find out what is behind, in our case, the noise we heard." When I saw the hint of understanding, I continued, "what could we use to investigate that sound? - our eyes, our ears,our brain?" We quickly grabbed a funnel (for cupping to our ear for better hearing) and a pair of toy binoculars (for closely looking) from the science center where we were. We were off to see what the noise was and where it came from.

In just a few seconds, we were exploring new vocabulary, searching out tools to help us solve the mystery, and using hands-on methods for solving the puzzle. I encouraged the teachers to continue to use that word "investigate" as they interacted with the children that day and to read nonfiction picture books so they can explore more types of investigating.

Read a terrific article by Lillian Katz on the Clearinghouse for Early Education and Parenting website that extends these concepts and talks about a basis in developmentally-appropriate practices and research. It is entitled Child Development Knowledge and Teachers of Young Children. Excerpts from this Internet site would be a great read for individual preschool teachers or as a center for group discussions among staff members during a staff meeting.

Also, there is a great guest blog on I.N.K.which includes several picture books recommended for investigating the natural world. It also includes an important thought from the well-known environmentalist, Rachel Carson. She said, "It is not half so important to know as to feel when introducing a young child to the natural world.” If that link doesn't take you to just the right spot on I.N.K., you can look under their category "youngest readers" and it will take you right to it.

Now, when the pressures to turn preschool into kindergarten into first grade are so great, remember how children learn best and rethink your approach. It's a question of short-term benefit (pleasing over-anxious parents who may not understand the development of their children and going against what you know is best for the children) or long-term benefits, which are the only kind that will make a better future for our children and our world.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Teaching Vocabulary

It's easy to think that having children say the definitions of words over and over is the best way to learn. Absolutely not in preschool especially. So how do we help young children grow vocabulary? Here are two ideas:

1) recognize that your everyday conversations are a primary source for growing vocabulary. Talk with your children throughout the day, during read aloud time, at lunch, outside. No preschool teacher should be at her desk or standing to the side during center or free play time.

Get down on the children's level and inquire, investigate, draw in those words from your read aloud that may be new to your children. When you teach on themes, this is easy. Have a new word to celebrate each day or each week and use it often, in different circumstances and contexts.

Don't be afraid to use big words with them. But use them as naturally as you are able. Even if you aren't used to talking that way, be purposeful in your use of those words with them. Connect them to synonyms that your children already know. I love Ogden Nash's Adventures of Isabelle because in the midst of teaching children to be confident, he uses great words like "cavernous" and "ravenous". Here are a few other titles that are excellent for growing vocabulary (did you know you can do that, even if there are few or no words?). You'll be able to find a complete list of such titles to build conversation in my upcoming book for teachers, Before They Read: Language and Literacy Development Through Conversations, Interactive Read-alouds and Listening Games (to be released in November, 2009). Here's a taste, but stay tuned!

Actual Size by Steve Jenkins
Bear Snores On (and other books by Karma Wilson)
Dear Zoo: A Lift-the-Flap Book by Rod Campbell
Fuzzy, Fuzzy, Fuzzy by Sarah Boynton
I Like Black and White by Barbara Jean Hicks

2) Share those same words with your families that you use during the day so they can talk about those big (and not so big) interesting words too and use them in conversations with their children. Do you know what "decontextualized" language is? That's speaking in the future or past tense, rather than just the here and now. Talking in that way not only encourages vocabulary but also more abstract thinking skills. You may already do that when you talk in circle time about what the children had for breakfast or plan together what you will do later in the day. Be sure to remember to send those books with great vocabulary home so the children can explore them with Mom or Dad, big brother, Grandma or a neighbor.

Oral language is the basis for written language. When your preschool children are ready to learn to read conventionally (either before or after they go to kindergarten -- either might be normal for them), their strong vocabulary will make reading easier. They'll listen to the word as they sound it out and blend it, it connects to that word they know in their oral language and BAM! they've got it. Ask thinking questions to expand their language; use scientific terms like "document" instead of "write down" or "experiment" instead of "try it out." With a little thought, you'll have a great impact!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Storytelling in Preschool

Today I received an inquiry from an author who wanted to talk about storytelling and its impact on literacy in preschoolers. What a great topic!

Anyone can tell a story. Young children's oral language development, vocabulary and their ability to communicate with confidence grow during the preschool years more than any other time in their lives. Tap into the natural opportunities in your classroom to encourage this skill of storytelling. Here are a couple of ideas that you can use in the classroom tomorrow:

1) Especially if you work with 2-3 year old children, you hear often "read that story again!" Children are learning about the structure of stories, that there is a beginning, middle and end, as they listen to familiar books. They are also learning how just the right word choice makes a story lively and communicates what they feel. Place a few props (felt or laminated pieces representing the main characters in a story, or objects that appear in the story) to help children remember the proper sequence in the story as they retell it in your "book nook" or storytelling center. Incorporate that into circle time where the children are actively engaged in helping tell a familiar story when you prompt with "what happens next?"

2) Busy parents need ideas for how to encourage their children's growing literacy and storytelling is one of the best. Our children love to hear about the day they were born, their mom or dad's life when they were a child, etc. First ask them to share a few of those stories with their children, taking time to elaborate and give good details. I still remember stories from my childhood like that. It also gives children a sense of belonging and personal history. Also remind families that letting their child tell stories (the one they heard in the family or one from school) help children learn to use our language effectively. They will also learn incredible things about their children when they listen. Teach your parents how to expand on what their children are saying, reflect back to them and ask for more!

3) Model good storytelling. To do that, you need to watch some great storytellers in action. There are storytelling festivals all over the country. In my own neck of the woods, there's an annual Athens (AL) Storytelling Festival with lots of different styles (funny, entertaining, sentimental, and thought-provoking). Check out the storytelling festivals in Jonesboro TN (The International Storytelling Festival), Three Rivers in Pittsburg, PA or The Toe River festival in my own native state North Carolina.

Don't forget that children tell stories when they talk about what they are doing in centers during free play time. Expand on what they say, encourage them to share through language and create great stories there too (a few of which you can take down in dictation and share with the world!)

Enjoy the story!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Setting Up Your Centers

All of you are working hard getting ready for school(or a few of you may have already started). Think outside the box with a few ideas for incorporating literacy in every one of them.

1) Think incorporation/integration - not "lessons". Blackmasters and worksheets will come soon enough in elementary school. In the blocks center, for instance, enlarge copies of floor plans from real estate magazines, have copies of Architectural Digest or other construction/building magazines and model for your children how to search those for building and construction ideas. Include a hard hat and clip board so they can draw their own designs.

2) Don't forget writing. Instead of having a designated writing center, why not make a portable one that can move with the children. A shower caddy, metal paint bucket or peach basket (for those of us in the South) all work well. Stock it with writing utensils, letter stamps and patterns, plenty of paper (ask your families to contribute note cards they get as samples in the mail or those address labels from charities). Keep it in a prominent place and remind your children that it's available. Deliver it to centers at first to increase usage.

Be sure to join children from time to time in their writing attempts. Allow them to dictate captions for their art work, notes to Mom and Dad or a "I need to talk aloud to solve this problem" notes. All of these solidify in young children's minds the various authentic purposes for writing.

3) Think of the center where the least literacy is present. Ask yourself how you can infuse reading, writing, listening, communicating and viewing into that center. Feel free to share your ideas!

TLA, Inc. has a newly revised workshop on Literacy In Every Center. You can visit us at or email for details.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Happy New School Year! Dedicate This One to Literacy, Life and Love

I don't know about you but I'm excited to see the new school year begin. Fresh new faces replace those we already miss and with those children come new challenges. Here are three tips to get you through the first days (to discover my secret about threes, read beyond these three tips to the end of this post):

1) Do everything you can (with the help of director, other teachers and other staff) to connect positively to every family associated with the children in your class. That will be easy for some - they'll introduce themselves. Others may come from a different place (physically, intellectually, socioeconomically or emotionally) than you and those will be more challenging. Start with a kind word, a complement about their child. Those are sure to get attention. When you talk with that parent, listen carefully to their language, find out a little about their family. That will help you when it comes to literacy in the classroom.

2) Commit that this year, no matter how tired you are when it comes to read aloud time, that you'll take a deep breath, draw on the little bit of energy left in your big toe, and mesmerize your children with that story. You are the commercial for reading; be sure it is a positive, affirmative one.

3) Do a short inventory of your read aloud books. Flag those that have rhyming language in them and make sure that you read at least one of them a day. Whether poems, words to rhyming songs, or traditional story books, keeping that rhythm in your children's ears will open the door for phonological awareness. If you aren't sure about that term, check out TLA's workshops for preschool teachers at to find "What in the Heck is Phonological Awareness". TLA has a program for out of town clients where you can earn discounts for your own presentation/training by recommending additional organizations, schools, parent groups, libraries, etc. in your area who might want to book at the same time. Restrictions apply so be sure to call for details.

Now for my story about threes. My dear mom (now gone two years) is the inspiration for what I do now and she was a woman of threes herself. She was the third or three girls, married a third child, had three children herself, two of which were born on the 3rd of the month, one that was three days late. I find that hanging my ideas on a tripod always makes me feel like Momma is sitting right there on my shoulder.

Create your own lists of three and celebrate literacy every day with your children (do you know that literacy is now considered reading, writing, listening, communicating AND viewing/observing?)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


This blog is set up especially for preschool teachers. Its focus is not dry information but tons of practical, fun ideas. I hope it will also spark conversations about emergent literacy in the preschool environment. I welcome your comments and ideas. Let's get a dialogue going!

Part 1:

Let's start with one of my favorite topics: reading aloud to children. Today, more than ever, this essential must be an everyday thing. I'm concerned that the admonition "read aloud to children" has lost much of its meaning, with parents and with teachers. Instead of sitting down with children just to have an "academic" experience with a book, find a way every time you read aloud to be a commercial for how great reading is. I like to talk in terms of experiencing a book together.

The most effective read alouds in preschool must always start with a purpose of pleasure. Use funny voices, pick great stories, and let the words work their magic. Think aloud about what questions are raised in your mind, re-read when you make a mistake (and don't we all) to get it right, and use the secret words "Let's see what happens next" to draw children back to the read aloud before you get too far astray.

Part 2:

I want to hear about what is most difficult for you in teaching emergent literacy to young children. I'll try to address as many of these questions and postings as I can (once a week) when I visit the blog. As each of you read our interaction here and gain new information (my goal every time you visit!), look for a place you can jump in and contribute. The more, the merrier (and more beneficial to us all)!

One last tidbit:

If you haven't read Mem Fox's new picture book, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes , search it out at your local bookstore, online ( or at the library. It's terrific! And, if you want to see Mem performing a little song to go along with it, visit:!