Language and Literacy

Language is the key to your child's future academic success. Language learning begins at birth-in fact, some researchers say that a baby can distinguish the sounds of his native language when he is still in the womb.

The first three years of life are a critical period for language development: your child's brain is developing rapidly and is at its most receptive to new information. This is reflected in the dramatic changes in language use which can be observed during this period. Generally, a baby's first spoken words occur at about one year, although comprehension begins several months earlier. At first, vocabulary growth is slow, but between 18 months and three years most children experience a vocabulary explosion, after which growth levels off until about the first grade. Because of the importance of this early stage of learning, your home is your baby's first classroom, and you are the teacher.

Talk to Your Child, but Listen Too

Research shows that the amount and quality of speech that parents use with their child are among the strongest influences on his language skills, especially before age three. Reading books, telling stories, and describing daily events to your child provide a language-rich environment, but language development is a two-way process: The amount of verbal interaction with your child is as important as the amount of language you use. Frequent adult-child conversation helps him practice and refine his language skills and helps you monitor his development and adjust the complexity of your speech accordingly.

Literacy Begins at Home

As with oral language, reading and writing are also grounded in early experiences in the home. Literacy begins well before your child enters preschool or kindergarten. When you talk or sing to your baby, you are teaching her about the sounds and structure of language. When you read a story to your toddler, you are teaching him about print and its functions. These early pre-literacy skills influence your child's later success in reading, writing, and speaking.

Research has tried to identify which parenting activities contribute the most to children's literacy. Many studies indicate that different activities aid different skills. For example, reading your child a storybook improves her oral language and vocabulary skills, while teaching her about letters and sounds helps more with reading and writing.

Read Together

While reading to your child is one of the best ways to promote literacy, he will benefit even more if you encourage him to take an active role. Use stories and pictures as opportunities to ask questions, provide instruction, and give positive feedback. Depending on your child's age, story time can be a way to teach your child:

  • simple vocabulary (pointing to objects in a picture, for example)
  • alphabet awareness (letters and their sounds)
  • conventions of print (spaces between words, left-to-right orientation, punctuation, etc.)

With this type of shared reading, sometimes called "dialogic reading", your child eventually becomes the one telling the story, while you provide guidance and encouragement. In one study, children whose mothers read with them in this fashion during a four-week period were six to eight months more advanced in language skills compared to children who simply listened while their mothers read to them.

Make Reading Fun

You can ensure that your child is prepared for school by creating a home environment that supports these important pre-literacy skills. Teach by example by showing your child that reading is one of the activities which you enjoy. Provide age-appropriate books for your child, and make story time a shared activity. Remember that books are not the only way to teach language skills; your home is full of other kinds of learning opportunities-product labels and grocery lists, for example-that can add variety and show your child that books are not the only reason that literacy is important.