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Help children learn to read: Connect popular culture print to classroom instruction

Use a step-by-step process
Goodman (1986) first identified the significance of reading environmental print. She found that children had difficulty reading environmental print when it was separated from the logo. Reutzel et al (2003) studied children reading environmental print in four steps: the original format, the logo color changed, the logo separated from the print, and the font altered. This study found that children who were able to read the environmental print in all presentations possessed a greater knowledge of print concepts.
Additionally, Reutzel’s group focused on understanding the print concepts that assisted reading environmental print in and out of context. Younger children were able to read environmental print using the color and logo visual cues. As these children progressed through the steps that relied less on the original color and logo, they began to use other clues. Reutzel’s group determined that understanding the concept of a a and also assisted children in reading environmental print out of the original context. The study concluded that environmental print should be developed within the literacy curriculum to teach specific letter and word concepts.
Further, Vera (2007) used the Reutzel study format during a PCEP intervention. The prekindergarteners in this study were taught the concept of and the basic print skills of pointing using PCEP examples. At the end of the intervention, the children increased in both of these early literacy skills.
Therefore, when children begin reading environmental print, they first focus on the logo (Reutzel et al 2003; Goodman 1986). The next step is to read the environmental print without the original colors (Reutzel et al 2003; Goodman 1986). Then the logo should be separated from the word, and finally the word is written by the teacher or child (Reutzel et al 2003). Following these steps will assist the child to read with less reliance on the logo and more reliance on the actual print.

Demonstrating home environmental print in the classroom
As children bring examples of environmental print and PCEP from home, teachers need to display them in the classroom. You can do this in a variety of ways.
Word walls can assist young readers with words they recognize (Green 1993). To make a word wall developmentally appropriate for young children, attach the word to the walls using adhesive hook-and-loop fasteners or magnets. Either of these materials allows young children to take the words they recognize off the wall and copy or trace them at their tables. The print should be written clearly and in a large font.
Further, you can include examples of the different types of environmental print, including the PCEP, in the learning centers. In the home center, for example, you can stock the shelves with empty food cartons and household supplies. In the social studies center, you can post names of amusement attractions, restaurants, and grocery stores on a word wall. Vera (2007) developed a cartoon word wall for children to use while at the writing center. Children either copied the entire word from the PCEP example during a journal writing activity or traced the word or first letter from word cards.

Incorporate explicit instruction
In addition to displaying print on the walls and adding it to centers for use, the Reutzel researchers determined that explicit instruction using the environmental print should occur to teach letter-sound correspondences. Vera (2007) confirmed this research with teachers scaffolding the learning in small-group instruction or one-on-one instruction with the PCEP. Prekindergarten teachers and their instructional aides used the examples of PCEP to expressly teach alphabet letters and beginning print concepts.
Specifically, Vera used examples of PCEP and had the children separate the print from the logo. Then the children identified where to begin reading the name of a PCEP character. After the first letter was located, children were taught to underline from left to right when reading. This process of pointing left to right and reading their example expanded the children’s knowledge of reading clues. Further, the print that was read was meaningful to the children.
Another strategy that helps the children focus on left-to-right directionality and where to read the print, rather than using the picture, is masking (Holdaway 1979). This technique “highlights a word or letter that we want to talk about.” In addition, masking is used to teach letters of the alphabet. In this strategy, letters are covered, allowing children to focus on a single letter. For example, the children separate the picture of Nemo from the word and the teacher reveals only the first letter. This helps children connect learning alphabet letters to the picture of a familiar popular culture character.

The most important thing
Margret Wise Brown’s book (1990), identified the most important things to remember about familiar objects such as the sun, rain, and wind. In this article, the important thing to remember is that beginning readers have been exposed to print through the Popular Culture Environmental Print (Vera 2007) found on their toys and environmental print found in their home and community.
First, teachers must discover the print that is of interest to the children. Then teachers introduce the print gradually separating the logo from the word (Reutzel 2003). During this process, this print that is most familiar to the children is displayed and available for exploration and discovery in learning centers. Further, the teacher scaffolds the learning by specific use of environmental print and PCEP to teach alphabet knowledge and print concepts.
If a teacher uses the print most familiar to the children, learning to read would become meaningful. Rosemary Althouse recommends that teachers “include children’s thinking in planning the curriculum” (Adams and Kostell 1998). When reading becomes meaningful, teachers develop more than just readers for a particular year of school. Rather, teachers develop learners for life.

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About the authors
Debbie Vera, Ed.D. is an assistant professor in Early Childhood Education at the Texas A&M University-Kingsville System Center-San Antonio. Her research interests include popular culture and teacher education.
Nancy Compean-Garcia, Ed.D is an assistant professor in Curriculum and Instruction at the same institution. Her work focuses on bilingualism, early literacy, and teacher education.