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Danette Dooley
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Promoting literacy with Books for Babies

Michelle Hennessey is on maternity leave from her teaching job at Holy Cross elementary in St. John's, but that doesn't mean she's no longer hitting the books,

"There's nothing Holley likes better than to sit down with me and listen to me read, and I started to read to the baby not long after he was born," Hennessey says of her two children.

Michelle Hennessey is on maternity leave from her teaching job at Holy Cross elementary in St. John's, but that doesn't mean she's no longer hitting the books,

"There's nothing Holley likes better than to sit down with me and listen to me read, and I started to read to the baby not long after he was born," Hennessey says of her two children.

She picks up a children's book off the kitchen table at her mom's house while cradling two-month-old Harley in the crook of her arm.

When four-year-old Holley sees the book, she edges in between her mother's chair and the kitchen table.

She chooses a different book, a smaller, hard-covered one with a green and yellow rattle attached to the side.

"Read this one for us," she says, placing it in her mother's hand.

However, with her mother's encouragement, it's Holley who actually does most of the reading as her mother points to the pictures.

By the time the story has ended, Holley has told her mom, her brother, her niece Stephanie and her nephew Patrick all about the pink pig, green frog, black hat and purple flower in the book.

The children are so busy chatting among themselves that they have no idea what they're actually doing is expanding their imaginations as well as their vocabulary.

The tiny rattle book was among the items in a Books for Babies cloth tote bag that had just been given to Hennessey. The bag also contains a handbook for parents, a growth chart and other literacy and child health material.

Books for Babies is an early literacy intervention program for newborns and their parents.

Bessie Merrigan introduced the program in 1992 to the Humber Literacy Council in Corner Brook and the first tote bags were distributed on Jan. 1, 1994, says provincial Books for Babies co-ordinator Dara Squires.

Since then, more than 45 Books for Babies chapters have been started throughout the province.

The program is funded by the provincial Department of Education and private and corporate donors.

Squires, who is based in Corner Brook, is the only paid employee with Books for Babies. Otherwise, the program is run totally by volunteers, with the co-operation of numerous community-based organizations.

Literacy activities include much more than reading to a child, Squires says. It can be as simple as pointing out road signs, singing a silly song, or making up nonsense rhymes.

The activities should start the day the baby is born, Squires says.

"They may not necessarily understand what you're saying, but you're building a habit and family time together. That helps with the nurturing of the child and when it begins the day they are born, it's not something they're going to fall out of. It's almost like eating," she says.

Caroline Vaughan, executive director of Literacy Newfoundland and Labrador, agrees that the importance of early reading shouldn't be understated.

"Just as a child learns to talk and walk from its parents, grandparents, caregivers and other family members, so do they also build an ability to digest information, think critically and build learned ways of behaving and interacting," Vaughan says via e-mail.

Research has proven that these early years are critical to building oral language development, Vaughan says, and that an introduction to written text early on builds the child's confidence in tackling and using text.

Vaughan is also quick to plug the need for more literacy-based funding, saying that investing in early learning reaps benefits well beyond literacy-based initiatives.

"The effects can be felt in health outcomes, in employment prospects and in other aspects of everyday life," Vaughan says.

Free Books for Babies tote bags can be picked up (by parents/caregivers of children 18 months and younger) at public libraries, by calling 634-4888, by visiting www.nald.ca/booksforbabies or by e-mailing babybooks@ ed.cna.nl.ca.

danette@nl.rogers.com




Tips for parents

When you have two minutes with your child:
Sing a song or a nursery rhyme
Try a finger play
Play pat-a-cake
When you have five to 10 minutes:
Play I-spy
Try an action song like "The Wheels on the Bus"
Play simple touching and talking games with your baby (i.e. Where's your nose? There's your nose!)
When you have 10-15 minutes:
Listen to a children's CD and dance with your child
Listen to an audio story
When you have 15-30 minutes:
Use puppets to act out a story
Use magazine photos to make a collage
Visit your local public library
- Source: Books for Babies

Organizations: Free Books for Babies, Holy Cross, Humber Literacy Council Department of Education Literacy Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: St. John's, Corner Brook

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