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Beyond the Blackboard

Beyond the Blackboard

Becoming strong, capable and critical readers has never been more important than it is for today’s students. Reading is a skill that permeates all other subject areas, including mathematics and science. Parents play a critical role in helping their children become proficient readers, and one of the most important aspects has nothing to do with letter sounds, books or flashcards.

The ultimate goal of reading is comprehension — understanding the message of the text on the page. And, the biggest predictor of comprehension is what educators call “background knowledge.” Simply put, background knowledge is what the reader already knows about a topic. When students hear or read something that is somehow familiar to them, they can more easily take in the new information. In other words, it is much easier to understand something that is written about a topic on which you already have some data stored away in your brain’s computer.

           With this in mind, parents can have a huge impact on their children’s reading success: By providing enriching and diverse experiences for children, you can add to a growing cache of background knowledge. Fortunately, Gainesville is ripe with opportunities for enrichment.

A visit to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s Butterfly Rainforest provides a multi-sensory opportunity to gather information about life cycles, repeating patterns, colors, and habitats — all information that will make early science texts more interesting and less daunting. A walk through the museum itself provides opportunities for conversations about various animal groups, such as mammals, fish, birds, insects and reptiles. Do not underestimate children’s abilities to hear and understand scientific vocabulary in such a rich context. While looking at the impressive jaw and teeth of the Megalodon, for example, have children look at their own jawbones and teeth in a mirror. That was one big fish!

Concerts given by the University of Florida School of Music provide occasions to introduce children to varied styles of music and instruments. The nice thing about these concerts is that admission is often free, making it easier to leave early if a child’s attention span runs out before the music stops. Teaching young children proper audience behavior is important, and beginning with small doses of sitting still and quietly listening makes for a much more pleasant experience, both for your child and the other concert-goers. Point out the various instruments, the conductor, how the audience applauds at the end of each piece and how all the members of the group work cooperatively to create something magical.

The Harn Museum of Art is one of my favorite places to take young children, as they are so open to visual experiences without making judgments. Simply asking a child, “What do you see in that painting?” can lead to rich insights for grown-ups. Creating an easy scavenger hunt may add to the fun and provide some focus for the visit. Scavenger hunts can be organized around locating certain colors, objects, places or animals.          Our area provides many outdoor opportunities for increasing background knowledge as well. The UF Bat House is a favorite experience for many children. At dusk, when the bats emerge to go hunting, it is the perfect time to talk about predators and prey, the food chain, how the bats live in a colony and how they once lived in the football stadium but had to be relocated to have a safer home. When vocabulary is tied to a real-life, exciting experience, it has much more potential for sticking. And, even if your child does not parrot the words back to you, rest assured that they are being stored in a file of recognized words that will be accessed when encountered in print.

Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park is another treasure unique to our area. Counting the steps down into the sinkhole (and back up!) provides a fun way to practice building math fluency, and the varieties of plant and animal life afford ample opportunities for conversation.

Ultimately, conversation is the key. Helping children make sense of varied experiences by attaching words to them solidifies understanding and creates memorable moments that will come to the fore when they encounter related ideas in a classroom text or lesson. As children make connections to information stored in their “files,” they will more readily comprehend and grow as readers and learners.

You do not have to be a literacy teacher to help children learn to read. Simply providing enriching experiences and talking about them with your children will give their reading a big boost. The Greater Gainesville area provides a wealth of exploration opportunities for kids of all ages.

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Carrie Geiger, Ed.D., spent 21 years as an Alachua County elementary school teacher — the last 10 as a gifted education teacher. As an adjunct instructor in the University of Florida College of Education, she has worked to prepare future educators and provide ongoing professional development for K-12 classroom teachers. She is currently the principal of P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School at the University of Florida.


Photography by John Sloan

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