• by Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • April 2005

Dr. Abelardo VillarrealBy the end of the first semester of second grade, Emilio was so fed up with his performance in school that he decided to play sick every morning. His teacher blamed Emilio and his parents for his poor performance, and his parents angrily accused school personnel for the inadequate education that he was receiving. At the losing end of this dichotomy was Emilio and his future.

Unfortunately this is not uncommon. Ill-defined roles and responsibilities for school personnel and parents and an inadequate instructional program for Emilio kept his educational well-being in abeyance.

Numerous articles have been written to help school personnel reform their practices to assume a more responsible role in the education of all children and, in particular, the children who speak a language other than English or who share a minority culture (TEA, 1994; Díaz-Soto, 1991; Villarreal, 1993). Although schools are still struggling to become more responsive to all students, this lack of success is not always due to lack of information (Cárdenas, 1995).

Parents, on the other hand, decry the lack of access to information for them to play their part as children’s first teachers (Schoonmaker, 1992). The purpose of this article is for parents and school personnel for use in parenting workshops on enriching learning opportunities during their children’s formative years (ages three to five).

Parenting involves taking responsibility seriously, taking advantage of every opportunity to enhance children’s learning, and providing children with challenges. Children absorb life experiences indiscriminately. To a large extent, these life experiences form children’s character, feelings and values, and they provide the window through which they will view the world (Scott, 1992; Villarreal, 1993). In other words, through interaction with their children and the experiences that they provide, parents can guide children’s growth and development.

By age five, children will be exposed to school life. Parents can either provide learning experiences haphazardly or unknowingly (with good intentions, but with little knowledge and no plan) or they can conscientiously plan for quality experiences to occur and exercise their obligation in a more responsible manner. There are three major tasks that parents can do to improve the learning environment at home. These tasks are discussed below.

Task 1: Learn More About How Children Learn

Parents who have been successful in their role as the first teachers of children share a philosophy about children’s learning. This philosophy is defined by eight key assertions about parenthood and learning (Bredekamp, 1987). The following outlines these major thoughts that are instrumental for parents as children’s first teachers.

Children are always ready to learn

Children have an inborn capacity to learn (Forman and Kuschrer, 1983). They start learning from the time that they are in the mother’s womb. The fact that children ask many questions and are eager to touch all they see is an expression of their readiness to receive input from their environment. This innate willingness to learn can be nourished or weakened by childhood experiences from the environment. Parents must be vigilant and support their children in learning experiences.

What Parents Should Do

  • Turn as many everyday life experiences as possible into learning opportunities.
  • Model learning from everyday experiences.
  • Talk about the importance of learning as a self-initiated activity.

What Parents Should Avoid

Interact with children only when they ask a question (“I don’t have time to talk”).

Children have a curiosity for learning

Children test the world. When a child jumps from a chair the first time and finds out that it hurts, he or she has learned the consequences of such an act. The responsibility of the parent is to teach the child that risks need to be calculated. Killing curiosity for learning has serious consequences later in life.

What Parents Should Do

  • Take advantage of children’s questions to extend learning.
  • Capitalize on children’s interest in selecting learning experiences.
  • Plan the home physical environment with children’s needs and desires in mind.
  • Purchase toys that are specifically designed to stimulate children’s thinking and creativity.

What Parents Should Avoid

  • Leave children’s learning to chance.
  • Tell children you are too busy to answer their questions.

Children learn from their environment

Children learn from all aspects of the environment (Greenman, 1988; Penny-Velázquez, 1993; Adame-Reyna, 1995). The environment is represented by people and objects that surround them. Every experience, whether it is positive or negative, will teach children something.

Some experiences that can be used to teach new concepts and develop appropriate behaviors are the following: (1) child sees a mountain and asks about it; (2) child is involved in a fight with another child; (3) sister is reading a book and child sits next to her; (4) child receives a ball of clay; (5) child accompanies mommy to the doctor’s office; and (6) child watches a cartoon on television.

What Parents Should Do

  • Expose children to experiences that teach social, academic and motor skills.
  • Capitalize on children’s interest in selecting learning experiences.
  • Allow children to actively interact with the environment – allow them to explore and ask questions.

What Parents Should Avoid

  • Expose children to experiences that focus only on one set of skills. Expose children to experiences that only interest the parents.

Children thrive in an environment of love and respect

Children need to feel secure in order to take risks and take advantage of a learning experience (Scott, 1992; González-Mena, 1991; Allen and Mason, 1989). Children are unique individuals whose feelings evolve from their experiences with other people and with the environment that surrounds them. These feelings form the basis for children’s self-esteem – a love, an appreciation and an acknowledgment of one’s uniqueness.

Feelings can facilitate or hinder learning. Feelings that facilitate learning are based on love and respect. Children who feel a sense of belonging and feel like worthwhile individuals who have unique qualities and characteristics experience love and respect. Parents have the responsibility to sustain an environment full of love and respect and to nourish children’s self-esteem when confronted with a hostile or unfriendly environment (Bredekamp, 1987; Scott, 1992; Adame-Reyna, 1995).

What Parents Should Do

  • Show love for all their children equally.
  • Celebrate the uniqueness of each child.
  • Respect children’s views of the world.
  • Ask and value children’s opinion.
  • Provide opportunities for children to excel and experience positive feelings about themselves.
  • Model respect for other’s beliefs and values.
  • Expect children to respect other’s beliefs and values.

What Parents Should Avoid

  • Be partial to some of your children.
  • Criticize children for their actions and behaviors.
  • Impose your will without an explanation for your action.
  • Demean children because of their actions or beliefs.

Children have a potential for acquiring language

Children learn from their parents and the persons with whom they live. Children have an innate capacity to process and use language (Sosa, 1993; Strickland, 1990; González-Mena, 1991). The process for learning a language is complex, requiring at least 12 years to formalize itself. In homes where the language is Spanish, children will become proficient in Spanish. If children live in an environment where a wide variety of languages are used, they will become proficient in those languages. Parents, siblings and other adults who spend considerable time with the children become language models.

Parents should make sure that children are exposed to effective language users. Talking and reading with children develops their control of the language. Once children have mastered one language, they can learn a second one quickly. For example, children who have mastered the Spanish language well, have been exposed sufficiently to the English language at the appropriate time, and are not forced to learn the new language, can become proficient users of both Spanish and English. Parents should ensure that children are not prematurely forced to learn a new language.

What Parents Should Do

  • Talk to children as often as possible.
  • Engage children in conversations.
  • Ask for their views about certain topics of interest.
  • Increase children’s vocabulary on different topics.

What Parents Should Avoid

  • Use language to request children’s compliance only.
  • Criticize children for the way they say words or express themselves.
  • Turn down an opportunity to explain or respond to a question.
  • Expect children to listen passively.
  • Dominate a conversation with children.

Children can communicate ideas in many different ways

Children are versatile individuals who have learned to communicate ideas through language, behaviors and actions (Gandini, 1993; Greenman, 1988). Many have learned that they can communicate ideas on paper. That is, children have learned that people’s scribbles communicate an idea. Children who are read to discover the excitement those scribbles represent. They begin to scribble themselves. Soon, their scribbling begins to communicate a feeling or an action. When asked, children will talk about the scribbling. Parents can help children master this form of communication by reading and providing them opportunities to scribble and talk about their masterpieces. Displaying their work guarantees acknowledgment of children’s unique qualities and characteristics.

What Parents Should Do

  • Provide opportunities for children to communicate ideas through speech or writing.
  • Show children ways they can communicate ideas.
  • Encourage children to use acceptable behavior.
  • Redirect unacceptable behavior.
  • Provide opportunities for children to appreciate art and music.

What Parents Should Avoid

  • Criticize or demean cultures or languages that are different from theirs.
  • Pressure children to react or respond in one specific way.
  • Criticize children who use unacceptable behavior.

Children can acquire a love and desire for reading

Reading is the most efficient way of acquiring information. Reading is a skill that children can develop from a very early age (Strickland, 1990; Greenman, 1988). Children who are exposed to print at a very early age tend to become better readers and learners when they go to school. They develop a thirst for information and knowledge. Parents can help their children by talking about the beauty of reading, by getting books for them to own, and by reading signs, labels and a range of items that have print on them.

What Parents Should Do

  • Stress the importance of comprehending what is being read.
  • Provide opportunities for children to select topics or books to read.
  • Read to children at an early age.
  • Have print materials (newspapers, books, letters, and forms and in whatever language) at home at all times.
  • Read labels and signs with children.
  • Expose children to different literature styles at an early age.

What Parents Should Avoid

  • Ask children to conform with your selection of reading materials only.
  • Force children to begin decoding works when they are not ready.
  • Criticize children for not liking to read.
  • Compare children to other children’s accomplishments.

Children learn in different ways

Adults and children use the senses to learn (Forman and Kuschrer, 1983). Some learn by seeing. Others learn by hearing, reading or touching. Some of us are better at learning by using one particular sense or another. For example, some of us can learn better if the reading is accompanied by pictures. Reading about how to put a model together may be sufficient for some. While other children may learn better if presented with a “hands on” activity. Parents should keep this information in mind and determine which is the preferred way of their children to learn. Provide more opportunities for children to learn in their preferred way.

What Parents Should Do

  • Provide children opportunities to learn by using all the senses.
  • Teach children that some questions do not have a right or wrong answer.
  • Provide children opportunities for problem solving using the different senses.
  • Provide children with opportunities to role play.

What Parents Should Avoid

  • Teaching children to learn only by reading and memorizing materials.
  • Teach children that one way of learning is better than another.

Task 2: Establish a Vision and Goals

A vision is a mental picture of an event that has not yet occurred. A mental picture allows us to define what children would be able to do within a period of time. Getting there does not happen automatically; parents have to make sure that support is available to help them to get to that point.

After hearing about a successful learner who entered school at age five, a parent decided to write down his vision for his three-year-old child. The vision went like this: “My son will know about many things. He will be able to talk about them and express his desire to know more about certain things. He will not be afraid to ask if he is unsure of things. He will not be afraid of making mistakes. He will show respect and love for others and will always be happy. He will be highly dominant in Spanish, the language that we speak at home. He will be in the process of learning English in a meaningful manner and not feel frustrated or hurried to learn English immediately.”

I challenge parents to do the same. Write or share with someone else a vision that will guide you and your children through the journey of childhood.

The parent proceeded to write his goals in meeting this responsibility. Goals are like guideposts that define responsibility in making a vision a reality. His goals were:

  • Strive to learn more about how children learn by reading articles, books or watching informational television programs.
  • Take advantage of every opportunity to engage my children in learning.
  • Create an environment at home that is conducive to learning.
  • Instill in my children a desire for learning.

These goals served him and his children well. The parent planned activities to ensure the goals were met and the vision was realized.

Task 3: Reflect and Plan an Enriched Learning Home Environment

The third major task is to take stock, reflect and plan the improvement of the home learning environment. The Parents as First Teachers Checklist (in PDF) provides activities that promote a positive home learning environment. Parents can use this checklist to reflect on what has been occurring at home. All ratings of “never” or “sometimes” merit some attention by parents.

After using the checklist, parents may identify those activities that they propose to improve upon during the next six months. Parents can write down their commitments to improve the learning environment. They can share this contract with their children and other adults and ask them to “check on them” periodically. They should post this contract on the refrigerator or a place where they will see it often. Repeat this process every six months.

Parents as effective teachers play several roles. First, they are good listeners. They listen to everything that children say, and they observe the environment that surrounds them. They respect what children have to say. There are no absurdities; whatever is said is said with a reason. Parents look for the message and question children when the message needs clarity. A good listener promotes the use of language by children.

Children appreciate and are prompted to use language when they know that others listen and do not criticize them. One of the major responsibilities of a parent is to initiate conversations and take every opportunity for their children to use language.

Secondly, parents who are resourceful promote learning in many different ways. They have print available for children to see. They model the use of print to communicate ideas. A resourceful parent creates opportunities for learning.

Building Blocks of Reading and Writing

From several decades of research, we have learned a lot about how children learn to read and write. This research tells us that to become more skilled and confident readers over time, children need lots of opportunities to:

  • Build spoken language by talking and listening.
  • Learn about print and books.
  • Learn about the sounds of spoken language (this is called phonological awareness)
  • Learn about the letters of the alphabet.
  • Be read to and read on their own.
  • Learn and use letter-sound relationships (this is called phonics) and be able to recognize words when they see them.
  • Spell and write.
  • Develop their ability to read quickly and naturally (this is called fluency).
  • Learn new words and build their knowledge of what words mean (this is called vocabulary).
  • Build their knowledge of the world.
  • Build their ability to understand what they read (this is called comprehension).

Excerpted from “A Child Becomes a Reader: Kindergarten Through Grade 3,” The Partnership for Reading, Spring 2003.


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Abelardo Villarreal is the director of the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2005, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2005 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]