It’s never too early to start fostering an appreciation of language and literacy in young children

Story time, scribbling, sing-alongs, and playing simple word games may seem like fun activities instead of serious education when it comes to children under the age of three, but those moments are actually essential lessons of early literacy.

Although it may not feel like you’re teaching reading to children that young, you’re offering up building blocks that will encourage the natural development of skills relating to understanding and enjoying language, interaction, and stories.

Literacy development begins with a baby’s earliest experiences with books and stories, which also provide an opportunity for interaction and connection with a caregiver for the added benefit of social and emotional development. Stories and dialog are instrumental components of a young child’s journey of understanding the world and people around them.

Due to the rapid growth of a child’s brain between birth and the age of three, early exposure to words, conversation, and concepts can help build crucial connections that will encourage a lifetime of improved literacy skills.

Learning literacy

Literacy is our ability to read, write, and learn and includes skills such as comprehension, spelling, and the ability to write thoughtful and meaningful sentences. As with many things, a child’s ability is inspired by genetics and environment – some involve the basic wiring of the brain, and the rest is what the child was exposed to in terms of literacy-related experiences. A truly invested caregiver can have a big impact on a child’s educational environment.

Young children need early and frequent brain stimulation and engaging the senses is important right from birth. Caregivers should plan activities that help encourage early literacy, such as:

  • Building vocabulary
  • How language works to tell stories, ask questions, or have conversations
  • Beginning to write by drawing and scribbling
  • Playing with sounds and words through songs, rhymes, and tongue twisters
  • Understanding phonetic connections between letters and sounds
  • Building knowledge of the world around them
  • Appreciating the idea and experience of being read to and, eventually, reading
  • How to handle and use different types of books (story books, picture books, pop-up books, board books, etc.)

No one expects infants to master the skill of reading, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expose them to books. Read to them, let them have sensory experiences involving them, and make story time an entertaining and interactive experience.

Appropriate milestones include:

Under six months: At this age, the importance is in the interaction. Talk to the infant while performing daily routines and read whatever you have on hand – whether it’s Dr. Seuss or Hemingway. Infants need to hear words and build a connection with caregivers.

Six to twelve months: Books will become a sensory experience at this age, which means they’re likely to end up being banged on the floor or will go straight into the baby’s mouth. That’s okay; let babies play with books. Get sturdy board books and let them chew and turn pages to their heart’s content.

One to two years: Here’s where it all starts to come together. Babies will start to understand the routine involved with being read to and may bring you books and express interest and emotions at the stories within. Ask questions to increase engagement and point out items in the pictures.

Two to three years: Two-year-olds love routines and the power of predictability; don’t be surprised if you find yourself reading the same book over and over again. In fact, this repetition is a good thing as it solidifies ideas, words, and sounds. Make reading a part of the daily schedule and mix in new reading material with old favorites for a wide range of exposure.

Talking, reading, rhyming, singing, and drawing influence language and literacy in profound ways that will last a lifetime. Make these activities, and a general love of books, a core component of your caregiving curriculum and give children the gift of connection and a greater likelihood of academic success in the future.

The VA Infant & Toddler Network helps improve the quality of care for infants and toddlers through extensive resources, services, and education for caregivers. Learn more about how we can help you improve the standard of care.