Everyday LiteracyHere at the Early Childhood Center of the New York Public Library, we have books on pre-literacy skills and early literacy all over the place. I picked up one of them the other day, Everyday Literacy: Environmental Print Activities for Children 3 to 8 by Stephanie Mueller (Gryphon House, 2005), and looked over some of the ideas.

The idea behind “environmental print” is as old as kids reading the back of a cereal box at the breakfast table. Once children become aware, at the age of 3 or 4, that there are letters and words everywhere around us – on signs they see out the car window along the highway, on labels and posters at the grocery store, and in the newspapers and magazines all around them, many children will try to decipher them. Smart adults around them will point out those signs and ads wherever they can – such as the McDonald’s Golden Arches, which also make a big “M,” or the words “green beans” on a can in the market. The whole idea about environmental print is that 1) children see printed letters and words everywhere in the real world, which communicates how important they are, and 2) in most cases, they will see the name of something on or near the thing itself – such as the McDonald’s or the can of green beans.

In Everyday Literacy, a book aimed at preschool teachers and other adults working with young children, Mueller offers a big stack of ideas for using things like ads and grocery items to communicate this sense of the realness of print. She says:

Adult interaction is vital to achieve the maximum benefit of using environmental print as a tool in literacy development. It involves gradually moving from context clues (pictures, cartoon characters, colors, shapes, photos, and so on) to the printed letters and words.

One activity, for example, involves making a map of the area with ads and flyers from local stores and other businesses pasted down where they’re located; another uses ads and labels from different kinds of food to build a food pyramid.

Most of these ideas are pretty involved for libraries, but I can definitely see something every children’s librarian can do. Make some big tagboard labels for things in your children’s room – especially where the young ones hang out – and cover them with clear plastic laminate. Put “rug” on your storytime rug, and “chair” on a few chairs, and “computer” on a PC. I recommend this book – put it into your collection, and show it to local preschool teachers and parents who are looking for ideas.