Long before you send off your lopsided pony tailed, gap-toothed, Strawberry Shortcake or Sponge Bob Square Pants backpack yielding kindergartner onto that big yellow bus to learn to read at school, your child is developing early literacy skills. When thinking about literacy in general, we're referring to the mastery of reading, writing, speaking and listening. When looking at early literacy, the goal is to set the stage to prepare children for a success in lifelong literacy. Early literacy involves what we do and what experiences that child has during the first few years of life that will have an impact on their ability to master literacy in the future.
Early literacy is the development of language and communication within the social and family context of each individual child - each child isn't developing communication skills in an isolated vault. Early literacy is also about how the child makes connections between what he already knows and what he's experiencing new in his world. As parents and caregivers, it is our job to expose children to the purpose of 'story', the printed word, and language expression. And while learning about letters and how to read and write them is important, early literacy is really so much more. It's about being an example to show children the usefulness and importance of communicating, reading, listening, talking, sharing, learning - to set a great stage for literacy development.
And why are these early literacy skills important?
What researchers have found is that the greatest predictor of success in school is tied to the amount of language that the child is exposed to as well as the frequency of positive parental/caregiver responses in the first three years of life. The researchers also found that these predictors override socio-economic status and parental education.
To break this down, what they are saying has three parts:
- The amount of talking, the actual number of words that parents and caregivers use when interacting with their children has a future impact on their success in school. This is not talking about the child's own language, but the language of the parent. What this implies is that parents and caregivers should do their best to talk - and talk a lot! Talk to your infants and toddlers all throughout the day - while you're getting them changed, while you're fixing meals, while they're in the bathtub, while you're driving in the car and waiting in line at the store. And use all kinds of words - while young children respond to a softer voice with flowy kinds of words, you can use bigger words, too. And what do you talk about? Describe to them what they're doing, what you're doing, what will happen next. Tell them about the weather, about funny stories from when you were a kid, and about your favorite kind of ice-cream. Read them books and sing songs - make up silly songs if you can't remember the real words. It may seem a little strange at first if you aren't used to talking to babies and young children, but give it a try - it gets easier and it is so important!
- The more positive interactions that the child has with you, the more they will learn. This isn't to say that you say 'yes' to everything - that's not what they mean by positive interactions. As an example, say your toddler is climbing up on top of the dining room table and carefully pulling every leaf off of a flower arrangement. One response might be to say "No, Sam! Don't pull the flowers off!" and then lift the child down. This would be considered a negative response - you used negative words. An alternate response might be to say "Oh, Sam! Let's not pull the flowers off - we want to keep the flowers safe and beautiful by leaving the flowers on. Do you like the flowers? I see purple and blue flowers with green leaves, but I like the blue ones best. I think that the flowers are for looking at with our eyes and not for touching so that we can enjoy them all week." This is a positive response - you told the child what they can do (as well as pointing out what they can't do) and you elaborated on the experience. You took advantage of a moment that interested the child and had a meaning interaction filled with guidance and love and learning. See? positive interactions - and the increased frequency of these interactions leads to better success in school.
- And what those researchers also found is that the more often you take the lead from the child-chosen topic to interact and engage with your child, the more learning that will occur. What this means is that you should try to catch the spontaneous moments when your child has found interest in something in the world and expand on that topic - even if it's not that interesting to you. I mean, really, looking at different sized pebbles and rocks on the side of the road while going for a walk is simply not that interesting to you, but it is wildly interesting to your toddler, so take a moment to stop and talk about the rocks - or the cricket or the box of tissues or whatever might have caught the child's eye for the moment.
This is all well and good, but what can I do?
There are lots of simple and easy things that parents and caregivers can do to increase early literacy in your child's environment. Check back soon - there will be a post with simple, concrete ideas. In the mean time, do lots of talking, lots of laughing, lots of storytelling and reading, and lots of sharing. Time spent together is so meaningful and important!
Hart, Ph.D, Betty, and Todd R. Riley, Ph.D. Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., 1995..
Landry, Susan H., et al. "Enhancing Literacy Skills for Preschool Children: Bringing a Professional Development Model to Scale." Journal of Learning Disabilities 39.4 (2006): 306-24.