What Is Early Literacy?

The first five years of a child’s life are a time of huge developmental growth, with important physical, cognitive, and social changes taking place. Language and literacy development actually begins in infancy, and the skills and knowledge gained during these early years help to prepare children to learn to read. Not only are they the backbone of school readiness, but research has shown that these skills help children far beyond that point, propelling them through school and preparing them to become lifelong learners (Ghoting and Martin-Díaz 2006, 3-5).

This does not mean you need to be teaching your toddler to read! Early literacy can be thought of as “pre-reading” skills; what children know about reading and writing before they actually learn to do these things themselves. These skills make it easier for children to transition into reading when they enter school, and motivate them to push through the difficult parts of the learning process (Ghoting and Martin-Díaz 2006, 4).

This site is intended to provide an overview of early literacy skills and practices, lists of books for children (click on Books to Share), and online resources (click on Websites to Explore) for you to use, whether you are reading one-on-one with your child, or working with groups of children.

Five Practices That Help Your Child Get Ready to Read

Every Child Ready to Read (ECRR), a project of the American Library Association, seeks to unite librarians and educators with parents and caregivers in the interest of raising healthy, happy children who enter school ready to learn, and continue to succeed as they grow. ECRR has developed a framework of five practices that are easy to fit into your day-to-day life: Talking, Singing, Reading, Writing, and Playing. Engaging in these activities helps young children to pick up the skills researchers have identified as essential to becoming readers later on.

When you talk with your child, you help them to develop language and learn new words and concepts. You also stimulate their brain to make connections and encourage curiosity – and children who are excited to learn and willing to ask questions are more likely to thrive in any learning environment, whether it’s in your home or later, when they enter school.

Tips for Talking:
• It’s never too early to begin talking to your child – babies make fantastic listeners. It’s actually best not to simplify your speech – children can only learn the words that they hear (Hoff, 2006).
• With talkers, ask lots of questions and use unfamiliar words as an opportunity to provide explanations and context.
• Narrate your own day, describing what you’re doing in a logical sequence, and have your child summarize or describe the things that they saw and did.

Songs naturally break words into their smaller parts, typically one syllable per note, and stress the rhythms and patterns in language. This helps children to hear the separate sounds that make up words, and begin to play with and manipulate language – later on, this becomes an important part of “decoding” words when learning to read (Ghoting, 2006).Singing also makes things much easier for children to remember – imagine how difficult it would be to name 26 letters in a particular order if not for the ABC song. It also helps children to build up their vocabulary, as songs often include words children are unlikely to encounter elsewhere.

Tips for Singing:
• Clap along with as you sing – it will help children to hear the rhythm.
• Play around with the songs – sing a song very slowly, then very quickly, or switch out vowels and syllables (e.g. “Oh-ples and bo-no-nos”).
• Don’t limit yourself to songs – nursery rhymes, poems, and chanting/clapping games (e.g. Pattycake) are great to use too.

Reading remains the single most important thing that you can do with your child to help him or her get ready to read. Giving children access to books, and providing many shared reading experiences with adults, is crucial to the development of language and literacy skills (Neuman, 1999). Beyond giving them the background knowledge and vocabulary that are so important to learning success, the shared experience of enjoying books with children creates positive associations with reading. This will help motivate them to work through the tough business of learning how to read themselves.

Tips for Reading:
• Share books that you truly enjoy; your child will pick up on your enthusiasm.
• Keep plenty of books around the house for your child. Let them see you reading, too – don’t underestimate the power of imitation!
• Set aside time to read, but don’t make it a forced or stressful activity. It’s fine if you only make it halfway through a story – keep going only as long as it’s fun.

The scribbling that comes so naturally to young children is actually an important step on the way to learning to read. As children realize the pictures and words are actually symbols for real things in the world, they will begin to try and represent their own experiences by scribbling. “Pretending” to write is part of realizing that letters and words have meaning. It also help to develop the fine motor skills that are needed to be physically able to write (Baghban, 2007).

Tips for Writing:
• Help your child make the connection between spoken words and print by following along with your finger as you read and pointing out words on signs you see when you’re out and about.
• Provide lots of ways to practice writing, whether it’s a crayon and a piece of paper or sidewalk chalk. Ask them to “read” what they’ve written or describe what they’ve drawn (even if it’s just scribbles).
• Practice writing letters as they learn their ABCs: For most children, the letters in their name will be the most interesting to them, so that’s a good place to start.

When children play, they learn new information, engage in problem solving, use language in imaginative and interactive ways, and gain confidence in themselves as they explore the world. Dramatic play, where children reenact scenarios, even simple ones like going to the store, develops their ability to understand and retell stories. Including literacy-related materials such as paper, crayons, and books helps them to practice what they know in a setting that encourages creativity and expression (Morrow and Schickedanz, 2010).

Tips for Playing:
• Provide props that let children create their own imaginative environments – the possibilities for cardboard boxes, blankets, and blocks are endless!
• Encourage play by letting them perform plays or puppet shows for you.
• Help them dress up as a favorite book character and ask questions that help them remember and retell stories.


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