Last week we discussed the AAP’s policy statements and technical reports emphasizing the critical importance of early literacy for children – starting from the time they are born. Parents and caregivers should work with their pediatricians to ensure that their children are exposed to critical age-dependent skills so that they enter school ready to build on their progress and don’t fall behind their peers.
Before we talk about the specifics of how you, as a parent, can help your child achieve, let’s look at some important facts about the developing brain.
- The building blocks of language and literacy form in the first three years of a child’s life, and a child’s brain actually doubles in size during the first year.
- Brain connections form through the five different senses – sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. The greater the number of inputs for the same material, the more likely the child is to remember what is taught.
- In addition, the more activities a child experiences from warm, responsive caregivers, the more connections that child’s brain forms. Simple activities like holding, talking, and singing, along with reading, form a great number of strong brain connections.
- By the age of three, a child’s brain is twice as active as an adult’s.
Early experiences determine how a child’s brain will develop, and developing early language and literacy skills makes it easier for them to learn how to read in school. Children who enter school with these skills have an advantage over their non-literate peers, one that stays with them throughout their academic years. Reading is also an essential skill for children to do well in school and to become successful later in their career and in their life.
According to researchers, vocabulary development at the age of three has been found to predict reading achievement by the time the child enters third grade. Both the quality and quantity of language that children hear in those critical first three years contributes to their overall cognitive development. In addition, the exposure and interactions children have with language during this time form the foundation of their ability to be able to read and to comprehend later on. When parents read stories to their children, the children are exposed to new words beyond the words that they would hear as families go about their normal routines. This more complex, sophisticated language becomes the foundation of their literacy and language development. This “extra talk” also tends to contain more affirmations, which contributes to a child’s self-esteem.
What can you do to help encourage literacy for your youngster? Here are some suggestions:
- Hold two-way conversations – children learn language by listening as well as talking themselves.
- Respond to what your child says so you can add words to stretch their vocabulary.
- Talk while you go through your daily routine – i.e. prepare meals, do chores, get ready for bed, etc. This way you will teach them activity-specific terms.
- Reading along with a parent or caregiver is the most important way to help children get ready to read on their own. It increases vocabulary and general knowledge. It helps children understand how writing works and how books are put together. In addition, children who enjoy being read to are more likely to enjoy reading by themselves.
- Read every day. The more you read, the more familiar and comforting it will become.
- Make reading interactive. Show your child the cover, and ask him to try to guess what the book is about before you begin. Continue to ask questions as you read and listen to the answers. Also encourage children to ask their own questions.
- Encourage scribbling. Provide as many opportunities to write and draw as you can. This will help children learn to translate print letters into written letters. Keep crayons and paper on a table where children can always grab and use them.
- Talk to your children about what they draw. Have them make up stories or write captions for their drawings. In this way, they can make the connection between written and spoken language.
- Singing the alphabet song helps the child learn the letters.
- Singing nursery rhymes lets children hear the different word sounds.
- Clapping along to the rhythm lets children hear the individual syllables.
- Give your child plenty of unstructured playtimes. Play helps them think symbolically.
- Encourage dramatic play using puppets or stuffed animals. Making up stories this way develops children’s narrative skills. They come to understand that stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
- Have your child tell you a story based on the pictures in a book you’re reading. You can also ask them to ‘read’ you a book that you’ve read together many times. This develops vocabulary.
You can find additional, age-specific suggestions in Make Way for Books’ Importance of Early Literacy.
 Main State Library. (nd.) Early Literacy Skills, Behaviors and Importance. Retrieved from https://www.raisingreaders.org/understanding-early-literacy/why-is-early-literacy-important/
 Make Way for Books. (2017). Importance of Early Literacy. Retrieved from http://makewayforbooks.org/early-literacy/