Sharing summer stories can help kids build language skills for return to school, says Brock expert

As families gear up to start a new school year, Brock University expert Lynn Dempsey says it isn’t too late to use fun daily activities to set everyone up for success this fall.

“Supporting language and literacy over the summer does not necessarily mean sitting down with workbooks,” says the Chair and Associate Professor of Brock’s Department of Applied Linguistics. “Kids learn a lot through everyday activities — routine parts of daily life as well as the extra fun activities that might be part of your summer — so learning can be embedded in what you do as a family.”

Back-to-school challenges for children can range from getting used to being back in a structured learning environment to meeting new demands around literacy and language in a new grade level.

A woman holds open a book reading to her young daughter.

Brock University Associate Professor Lynn Dempsey reads aloud to her daughter Felicity.

But kids also need to adjust overall to the academic nature of classroom talk, which Dempsey says can be quite different from social speaking.

“In school, children have the challenge of mastering the type of language and vocabulary used in textbooks, assignments, presentations and so on,” she says. “Academic language contains more complex sentences and talk that is decontextualized, or not about what is happening here and now.”

Here are some tips from Dempsey for parents and caregivers aiming to ease the transition back to school:

  • Prepare for classroom focus: “School requires sustained cognitive attention, so in the final weeks of summer, caregivers can incorporate activities that require longer engagement, from doing puzzles or crafts to listening to a story.”
  • Highlight print: “Print is a big focus in school no matter what the subject, so caregivers can bring print back into the family routine — especially if it slipped a bit earlier in the summer — by re-instituting the bedtime story, encouraging journal writing and highlighting environmental print like street signs and cereal boxes.”
  • Encourage reading: “Set aside some family reading time during the day. If you’re enjoying the summer weather, do it outside on the grass. Parents can read to kids, older kids can read independently and reluctant readers can be encouraged by modelling, like when they see you choosing to read a book for pleasure on the beach. Reward systems, such as a small prize for every five books read, are also terrific.”
  • Encourage writing: “Journals get kids writing in a low-pressure way. Take everyone shopping for a fun notebook and have each child record a brief account of their day. Little ones can add drawings. You don’t have to correct spelling and punctuation — provide only the help requested.”
  • Practise new vocabulary: “Caregivers can provide opportunities to reinforce new vocabulary children have picked up from experiences over the summer. For example, a child who went on a boat might have heard new words like propeller, ferry, mast, sail, tide and coast. Make a photo album of the trip together to provide lots of opportunities to use the new words or re-enact the adventure using the new words by playing ‘boat trip’ with dolls or stuffed animals.”
  • Practise verbal sequencing: “Storytelling is great for developing sequencing skills and gives children practice using the past tense. Many families already share stories about their day around the dinner table, and summertime is a good time for reminiscing. Shared storytelling takes the pressure off young children because everybody can contribute and help fill in details and funny moments. You can say things like, ‘On Monday, we got up and ate our breakfast at the hotel. What did we have again? And after that, we…. Next, we….’”

Dempsey emphasizes that making storytelling, reading and writing part of your family’s everyday activities not only helps build skills for the year to come but also helps kids associate them with enjoyment and relaxing — not just school.

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