Children typically begin to read around age 5 or 6 years old. However, literacy skills do not begin then. Language and literacy skills begin at birth as a child learns to communicate in their new environment. Early communication skills, or language skills, create the foundation for later literacy skills. A child cannot learn to read without the fundamental knowledge of language. For example, every new word your child learns becomes part of their mental dictionary, which then allows them to later create a mental image of that word when they see it in written form. As children babble during their first year of life, they are practicing the speech sounds that they will later use to “sound out words.” Speech and language skills are building blocks for literacy.
Parents can support and encourage language and literacy skills from an early age.
Infancy – Birth-12 months:
Observe & Respond to Early Communication – learn how your child communicates. Take time to watch and learn what your child’s vocalizations, gestures, and facial expressions are communicating about how they may feel or what they may need. Responding to those early signs of communication will reinforce and increase your baby’s language development.
Encourage Early Conversation Skills – imitate your baby’s vocalizations and/or gestures, teaching them how to imitate and encouraging their imitation skills by creating a fun, interactive experience. Your baby will learn the importance of back and forth communication, or dialogue. Around 6-9 months of age, your child will begin to produce strings of babbling such as “baba” and “mama”. Help them learn to attach meaning to these early developing words. For example, if they say “dada”, you can point to daddy and say, “Dada is right there.”
Introduce Books – Begin with board or cloth books that your baby can play and chew on. Choose books that are simple, with bright colors. Interactive books with flaps or accessories that your child can touch and manipulate will help them to stay more engaged and interested in the books. At this stage, it is not important to “read” the book word for word. The goal is to simply introduce your child to books and help them to develop an interest in them.
Toddler – One to Three Years:
Promote verbal language development – language skills typically develop rapidly during the first three years of life. Children start to say their first words around 12 months of age and by three years of age, they may know up to 900 vocabulary words. Around 18-24 months, children begin to combine words to express their thoughts, needs, and desires. They ask and respond to questions and begin to engage in longer, more elaborate dialogues, which helps them to understand grammatical elements of language that are key to literacy.
Encourage Book Time – Share books with your child. Choose simple books that are appealing to your child. Label objects, people, action words, etc to help them learn new vocabulary words. Create your own story if the text on each page is too long for your child’s attention span. The important thing is to keep them interested in the book. Use short phrases to describe what is happening on the page. Rhyming or repetitive books such as “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” are great for toddlers. Your child can learn the rhyme and begin to participate in “reading” the book.
Preschool Age – Three to Five Years:
Talk to your child – every conversation you have with your child furthers their language development. Help them to develop narrative skills by describing an event, which includes a beginning and an end. If they have a difficult time telling the story, reiterate what they have already told you and ask a prompting question that leads them to the next part of their story.
Read, Read, Read – It is important for children to see you read. We as humans naturally like to do what others around us are doing. If your child sees you reading, they will often times want to imitate you. Read books with your child. Read aloud and use your finger to guide them as you are reading.
Have Fun – if you enjoy reading, chances are your child will grow up to enjoy it too.
-Naiomi Evans, MS, CCC-SLP