Early literacy is everything children need to know to learn to read and write, which is typically around age five. It includes everything they have seen and heard about books, language and print.
Children who enter Kindergarten with strong early literacy skills have an advantage that carries with them throughout their school years. These skills make it easier for children to learn how to read and write—and becoming a good reader is essential for learning and future school success.
Beginning in fourth grade, children need to be able to read to learn across subjects such as math and science, to solve problems, to think critically and more. That why children who are poor readers by the end of Grade 3 are unlikely to graduate high school. 1
The advantage of having strong reading and language skills continues throughout a child's life. Children with these skills are more likely to find future employment, have a higher income and be happier and healthier overall. 2
Developing strong reading and language skills starts at home.
Read this blog post for proof that language, whether through books, songs or simply talking, is necessary for babies' healthy brain development. (5 minute read).
The Magic of Play
Play has a special role in a child's healthy development. For a variety of reasons, children are playing less—this has negative consequences across children's development, including physical, mental, cognitive, social and emotional. 3
Children need play to acquire the skills they require to develop successfully into adulthood. By definition, play:
- Is chosen by the child
- Happens because the child wants it to
- Is guided by rules structured by the children themselves 4
Play also has a strong connection to literacy. Play helps children develop oral language skills and lets them practice putting thoughts into words. To find out more about the crucial role of play in early literacy, see the five practices.
Children need freedom of time, space, choice of playmates and toys to play—every day.
Read this blog post for a deeper understanding of how play benefits children. (7 minute read).
Serve and Return
Positive child-adult interactions build strong brains. According to the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University:
"adult-child relationships that are responsive and attentive—with lots of back and forth interactions—build a strong foundation in a child’s brain for all future learning and development." 5
These back-and-forth interactions are called the serve and return model. It works as follows:
- Notice your baby's cues and interests (the serve).
- Respond with support and encouragement (the return).
What does a serve look like?
A serve can be something your child is looking at or pointing at, a sound, a facial expression or movement of their arms and/or legs.
What does a return look like?
A return is response from you that acknowledges your child's serve. It can be as simple as a smile and a nod, a hug, saying "I see!", moving the object your child is looking at closer to them or playing with the item that has piqued their interest.
Read this article from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University for a 5-step process to follow serve and return with your child (3 minute read).
Prefer to watch than read?
As your child’s first and best teacher, you can give them a big advantage by having fun, daily interactions. There are five simple activities you should do every day to help your child develop these critical skills.
When you’re doing these activities with your child, remember to use the language you speak at home. Strong early literacy skills in any language will help them learn to read and talk in other languages, including English.
Reading with your child is the best way for them to learn the skills they need to become a good reader.
Read together every day, for any duration. Go for quality over quantity! No books in the home? Read whatever is available, whether it’s a recipe, a sign or the back of a cereal box.
Talking with your child helps them communicate better. It helps them learn new words and gives them the information they need to understand what they learn.
Talk to your child frequently, making sure to listen and respond to the sounds or words they use. This helps children learn how to use language to express themselves and the social skill of conversation.
Play is fundamental to children’s health and well-being. It is how they learn about the world and how language works. No matter what it looks like, when children play, they learn.
Give your child time to play every day. All you need is a little space, simple props and imagination!
Singing activates the entire brain. It is soothing for children and slows down language so it is easier to hear the sounds that make up words.
Use songs to calm a child, capture their attention or establish routines such as changing diapers, brushing teeth or getting dressed.
Writing helps children communicate and bridge the oral and written world. It teaches children that letters and words stand for sounds and that print has meaning.
Play with shapes! Choose toys such as building blocks and balls or make shapes and letters with everyday items (such as ketchup on a plate or soap on a bathtub wall).
- Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2010). Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters: A KIDS COUNT Special Report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Baltimore, MD: Fiester, L., Smith, R., & Annie E. Casey Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.aecf.org/resources/early-warning-why-reading-by-the-end-of-third-grade-matters/
- Head Zauche, L., Darcy Mahoney, A. E., Thul, T. A., Zauche, M. S., Weldon, A. B., & Stapel-Wax, J. L. (2017). The power of language nutrition for children's brain development, health, and future academic achievement. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 31(4), 493–503. Retrieved from https://www.jpedhc.org/article/S0891-5245(16)30311-X/fulltext
- Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn: why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. New York: Basic Books.
- Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2020, November 3). How-to: 5 steps for brain-building serve and return. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. Retrieved May 9, 2022, from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/how-to-5-steps-for-brain-building-serve-and-return/