Today’s storytime was a chance to see print awareness, or lack of it, in action. Print awareness is exactly what it says: the awareness of print on the page–letters, words, sentences–and understanding the connection between the print on the page and what is read aloud.

It sounds really easy, really obvious, really simple. And in a way, it is–if you are read to, if you have an adult to talk with you about books, if you are already a reader.

But for kids between the ages of birth and age five, print awareness has to be developed. They do come “pre-wired” with the  drive and ability to learn language (and reading’s one part of that development) but we as adults have to provide the means for the learning to happen. Children are not born with print awareness.

In today’s storytime with kids from a local preschool,  I’m holding up and talking about the book, The Surprise, by Van Ommen. The kids recognize that it’s a sheep on the cover. We talk about wool, and I pass around samples to feel. I show them the first pages. A sheep is standing on a bathroom scale. We laugh at it and talk about what the sheep is doing.

Then I ask them, “What’s different about this book?” I get blank looks.

“What do you notice is missing on the pages?” More blank looks.

I’ve asked them these questions because The Surprise is a wordless book. But the real surprise?  Not one child could tell me that there were no words on the pages. (And it’s not because they are shy; they answered previous questions easily.)

We look at more pages in the book. I hold up another book that does have words and ask them what is different.  (Remember those same and different puzzle sheets you did as a child? Here’s one reason why.) They come up with some very good answers. The other book has a jeep in the picture, it has grass in the picture, there is a bird in the picture.

Do you see a trend here? Everything is about the pictures.

When I finally cover the picture up and ask again what’s different, they all study and study some more.  And at last, one little boy finally gets it. He shouts it out–WORDS!

And then we spend more time looking at the two books’ pages and talking about what words are for, why they are there, how they are different from pictures. They are fascinated as they should be because they are learning something so vitally important about language and how it works.

And without that knowledge in another couple years, they would be lost as they tried to figure out what reading was, how it worked, and why they wanted to learn it.

Final point, the fact that ALL the kids were clueless suggests to me that building print awareness is not happening in those classrooms. And that’s why librarians have storytimes and model to teachers and give tips about what it is and how it works. It’s why we go out into the community and teach classes about early literacy and talk every chance we get about these very simple but essential skills.

If we don’t, it simply will not happen. And that’s no surprise.

Talk on!