Erin Fealy Cunningham


Fathers Have an Important Impact on Children’s Vocabulary

Several years ago researchers at the University of Maryland reported that fathers have a strong impact on childrens’ development in language and vocabulary.

The study led by Kathryn Leech, published in 2013, indicates that fathers “ask more questions, and particularly Wh questions, compared with mothers.”

This provides children with the opportunity to use more words to respond. The findings of the study importantly conclude that input from fathers matters for language development and vocabulary growth in children.


The great outdoors is a wonderful way to bond with children. The more exploration fathers and children do together, the more vocabulary is used.

Kelly Flink, Director of Early Childhood at The Green Vale School in Old Brookville, explains that by enjoying “outdoor magic children enhance social skills, build friendships, reduce stress, develop their bodies, build neural connections and have incredible fun.”

Flink suggests that fathers take time to ask children what they love about the outdoors and ask well-considered and elaborate questions. For example, Do you hear the croaking frogs?

Using words that describe helps children to listen closely, look deliberately, and observe the world around them in a special intentional way.


Strike. Catch. Pitch. Hurdle. Offense. Squash. Vault. Goal. Curling.

Think about these words in isolation. What comes to mind? Now, think about these words in the context of a sport. “Squash” to a racketball player is a much different word to a chef. “Vault” is an important word to use at a bank, but a very different word in gymnastics.

The context of words matter, and fathers can be great proponents of understanding words in different contexts. While catching a game together, fathers and children can discuss the athletic words and their use in all definitions outside of sports. Learning all the various meanings of words helps children use words in a diverse way, gain new understandings of topics, and builds a robust vocabulary for literacy growth.    

So get talking, dads! Kids are listening. learning, and gaining literacy skills.

Erin Fealy Cunningham, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor at Hunter College, CUNY, and an educational consultant and literacy specialist

How To Cultivate A Child’s Love of Learning at Home

Cultivating a love of learning in children begins at home, and can be an enriching experience for the whole family.  

From studying a favorite author to creating a family book club and encouraging interests, there are plenty of ways parents can encourage their little ones to love learning.

“When a family reads a book together, the people in the book become family friends,” writes author Lucy Calkins in Raising Lifelong Learners.

Start by picking a place for storing to put learning materials for easy access. Collect artifacts that build on alternating themes. Always start with books — they are a backbone of learning.


Together as an entire family, read the same book. Pick a chapter book to be read over time. It can be read aloud to smaller kids or independently for older ones.

Plan on how many pages or chapters will be read at a time. Set a time when the family will sit together to discuss the book. Give each person paper for jotting down thoughts, ideas, or questions about the book to stir up conversation during the book club.

Make this shared book experience part of family time.


Another great way to make learning fun is collecting and reading as many books as possible from one author.

ReadingRockets.org, which has a list of 75 Authors/Illustrators Everyone Should Know, is a great place to start to get ideas.

Always check out the Story + Art programs at the Long Island Children’s Museum in Garden City for fun ways to bring books to life for preschool children.


Pick a topic theme to create at home. In order to carry it out, do something together to create an experience around the theme. Instead of relying on technology, head to a library or go to a show.

For example, if a child loves wolves, choose fiction, nonfiction books, and informational texts about wolves. Print out, copy or draw pictures of wolves and put them on display. Learn about wolf conservation, mark where wolves live on a map, or read folktales about wolves.

Doing creative activities together cultivates those interests and an overall love of learning at home.

Erin Fealy Cunningham, Ph.D., is a literacy specialist and educational consultant adjunct professor at Hunter College.


Dinner Talk Time: Language, Literacy, and Learning Implications for Children

Carving out time to connect with people in your family can be difficult with busy schedules, but the dinner table can be a sanctuary for bringing families together and learning important communication and literacy skills.  

Make the dinner table a place without distractions from the outside world so the group at the table understands that the time together is valued. Dinner table talk time can be a ritual with meaning if you provide meaningful ways to interact together. It is important to set aside time at least two to three times a week or more to sit at the dinner table.


During dinner table talk time, children learn how to converse with others. Children need time to express themselves in a safe place and learn how to communicate in a coherent, thoughtful manner.

At all ages, it’s important that each person at the table have time to talk. The literacy skill of having a discussion with a beginning, middle, and an end helps your child in school to write a story, answer questions in class, and develop listening and thinking skills. If the conversations do not flow easily, have a basket next to the table with conversation starter cards.

Elementary-aged children are developing language skills. When adults give time for children to talk, they can experiment with language, practice saying words aloud, and formulate a clear thought. During the time the child is talking, an adult can assess if the child is using words properly, pronouncing words correctly, and explaining their thinking. It can also be a time for an adult to teach and model these skills.


While you are at the dinner table, make sure the space allows for people to have face time with each other.

It is beneficial for children to learn that making eye contact during a conversation helps people know you are paying attention to them and value what is being said. Sit across from each other at the table. When the conversation is going, make sure that each person is looking at the person who is speaking.

If you teach this skill at home, then children will most likely transfer that into the classroom and be more inclined to look at and listen to the teacher.  


One way to get children to stay seated at the table long enough to finish dinner is to have fictional storytelling time.

Place a deck of cards with related pictures on the table. Each person takes a card and starts telling a story about the pictures. The next person then has to link the story together using information obtained from the last person’s story together with the new card, and so on.

By the time each person has told the story on the card, there will be a beginning, middle, and an end. This literacy skill then transfers to your child having more confidence when starting to write stories in class, and bolsters creative thinking and writing skills. I recommend using Eeboo Create A Story Cards.


During dinner table talk time, children learn skills like manners, respect, and kindness.

Kindness counts at the dinner table, and the adults are the models. Say thank you to the cook. Help set the table. Gather the food. Help put dishes away. Use proper eating manners.

All these skills are important for children to see on a regular basis so they feel a sense of routine and ritual. Having routines and rituals in family life provides a comforting framework to help children to feel safe and secure. Feeling safe and secure at home provides the building blocks for children to be able to cope in school situations.

From time to time, play games that support social and emotional intelligence. I recommend Q’s Race to the Top. It is also important for children to be able to look at a situation and know what to do. For example, if someone puts his/her hand out, you should shake back with your right hand.

Photo Conversation Cards by Sherrill Be Flora provide pictures of practical situations that children will encounter. Put two or three out at the dinner table and talk about how to do to the situation being shown. The conversations that start by looking at these pictures are endless.

Erin Fealy Cunningham, Ph.D., is an educational consultant and literacy specialist.

Simple Solutions to Select Books for Independent Reading at Home

At your child’s school Open House, the teacher explained that every student needs to read for 20 minutes every night. Several questions came to mind. What is my child supposed to read? How do I know what to pick for my child? Can my child pick their own book?

You have so many questions about this simple one task. If reading independently has not developed yet for your child, you should be reading to your child for at least 20 minutes a day. In fact, you should read to your elementary school-age child even when reading is done independently, for comprehension and vocabulary development.

Selecting books together can be a fun and rewarding experience if you are armed with some basic knowledge about the process. 

Here are some Simple Book Selection Steps:

INTERVIEW: Have a conversation with your child about interests. Make it fun! You can pretend you are a news reporter asking interview questions of your child. From the answers to these questions, you can come up with a baseline of genres for you child. Elementary age readers are usually high interest readers. Meaning, they read about what they love. As a result of this interview, you have learned that Pat will probably like non-fiction books or magazines about insects and animals. Pat also is interested in how-to books about crafts. Now that you have a base for picking books of interest, you can figure out what is an appropriate independent reading level at home. Interests change a lot in elementary school, so revisit the interview in a few months.

THINK ALOUD: Think about how you pick out a book for yourself. You look at the front cover, the back cover, read reviews, read the inside cover excerpt, read about the author, etc. You might even open up the book and read the first page. You may breeze through the pages to see if there are any pictures that might help you understand what the book is about before you read it. The same goes for children picking out books. Together, you should model and think out loud how you choose your own books to read. This helps a child connect to the book before they pick it up to read. It also develops in your child planning, thinking, listening, and learning how to find points of interest skills. When searching for a book ask your child to think out loud, and look at the front, back, inside, pictures, reviews, etc. of a book. 

FIVE FINGERS: A widely utilized strategy for deciding if the book is at an independent level for your child is using your five fingers to count each word that is unknown either misread, misunderstood, or skipped altogether (names are sometimes tricky so discount them). If your child counts five or more of unknown words in the beginning of the book, then the book is too hard. If there are less than four unknown words on a page, then the book is “Just Right.”

COMPREHENSION CHECK: After the child has read using the five fingers test, whether there were several unknown words our just a few, always ask your child what the passage was about. Sometimes children can comprehend well even with mistakes. This is an indication that he or she may need some extra help with decoding. If your child reads fluently, but then does not have a clue what was read, then your child needs more support in comprehension. 

ASK THE TEACHER: When in doubt or if you do not have access to books at home or can not get to the library, ask the teacher to send home books on loan to your child that are appropriate independent reading material. I am sure your child’s teacher would be happy to oblige. 

TEACH BY EXAMPLE: Importantly, build a sense of a love of learning and a positive space to do so at home. Perhaps you can make a little reading nook with a cozy chair, or a quiet spot by a window to read. Model for your child good reading behaviors. Get caught reading! Read a newspaper, a novel, a magazine to show your child that you value this skill and enjoy using it to learn every day. Always read to your child whenever you have a few extra minutes to spare. 

Good luck! You’ve got this.

Erin Fealy Cunningham, PhD is an Educational Consultant and Literacy Specialist 

Tools to Jumpstart Healthy Homework Habits 

Long Island Education Groups

Homework can be a positive experience when your child is set up for success with the tools to support learning at home. It is important that families establish the standards in September for homework routines and expectations. 

Each child is different, but typically consistency is helpful for all. Children are pulled in many different directions after the school day for extracurricular activities. This sometimes places homework as the last thing that gets done after school.

In any case, it is important to set the same time and place your child will do his/her homework that works for your family. This lets your child know that you value learning. Additionally, the child needs to be prepared for homework with supplies.

These need to be ready and accessible once homework is started. It’s tough for a child to start homework if they can’t find a pencil.

The time frame of homework is also equally important. Ask your child’s teacher how much time homework should take for the grade. Typically the rule of thumb is 10 minutes for Kindergarten, 20 minutes for first-grade, and 30 minutes for third-grade, etc. However, every school and teacher sets their own standard.

If your child is taking shorter or longer than the teacher expects, it is important that you let the teacher know. Your child may need some support and/or enrichment. Setting your child up with the space to learn lets your child know that you value learning and want to support them. Be present and available for your child during homework time. 

Here are some helpful ways to set your child up for success:

  1. Build a Homework Toolkit. An adult shoebox is the perfect size for the toolkit. Have your child decorate it to personalize it. Put supplies in the toolkit that your child will need to do homework. Supplies include: several pencils, a pencil sharpener, markers, colored pencils, a ruler, a glue stick, scissors, highlighters, a small notepad to plan assignments as projects require, math manipulatives for counting and sorting (examples are: a child abacus, unifix cubes, interlocking cubes, money, paperclips, etc.) This Homework Toolkit should be placed in a safe spot each day and taken out for homework use only. An example of a good space to store the toolkit is under a bed.
  2. Set the Time and Workspace and stick with that routine regularly. Get your child a visual timer. An old-fashioned kitchen timer works well because a child can visually see how much time has passed and how much is left even if they do not know how to tell time yet.  Put that timer right near the workspace so the child can see it. This provides the child with the opportunity to learn how to pace themselves through the homework. It also allows the child to know that there is a start and an end to the work at hand, and the timer can motivate them to get going and finish on time. Do homework in the same place each time. This adds to your child’s comfort in the routine, and establishes the importance and a headquarters for learning. Have a calendar available to mark important dates and deadlines.
  3. Be available during homework time to support your child if questions arise or if directions need to be read and understood. Kindergartners need the most support and gradually support should change over time depending on your child’s learning needs. Also, checking your child’s work after complete is important so you can see your child’s progress. Ask your child’s teacher if corrections should made at home by the caregiver, or if the teacher would like homework to be completely independent. Sometimes teachers like to assess students understanding and independence at home. 
  4. Don’t forget to build in some extra-time during the week or on a weekend to teach Study HabitsThis may include some extra time to play a spelling memorization game, do some mental math practice, make and use flash cards with definitions to build vocabulary. Just a few extra minutes will go a long way to build confidence and create healthy habits of putting in a little extra effort for success.

These tools to jumpstart homework will help your child feel success. Creating routines will set the tone for a positive after school learning experience, and prepare your child for independence. Defining the time and workspace together allows your child to be a part of the process and have ownership over it.

Making a Homework Toolkit so your child is ready with supplies builds organizational skills and fosters independence. Your child needs to know you care and are available to help and support learning. You are your child’s first teacher. Show your child some of the study habits you used as a child.

Flash cards can be used for a variety of learning purposes and are a handy tool to bring anywhere. Importantly build a sense of a love a learning and a positive space to do so at home. Always read to your child whenever you have a few minutes to spare.

Good luck! You’ve go this.

Erin Fealy Cunningham, PhD, is a Literacy Specialist and Elementary School Educator