Teaching Kids Literacy From Birth

Reading is taught, not caught. This phrase has been in circulation for decades, but it bears repeating with each new generation of parents, and it has never been more fully supported by compelling evidence. Learning to read is a complex, unnatural, years-long odyssey, and parents should bear no illusions that their kids will pick it up merely by watching other people read or being surrounded by books. Kids literacy is more complicated than that.

Parents are influential in helping kids navigate the twists and turns that lead to literacy. Spurring kids literacy development, like teaching of any kind, is about creating shared meaning between you and your little one. That requires meeting them where they are, capturing their attention, engaging in back-and-forth exchanges, and also providing the stimulation that helps them to their next level.

Parents’ actions such as asking questions vs. giving directives, introducing novel vocabulary, and arranging words and phrases in advanced ways all affect kids literacy. But parent responsiveness plays a major role as well, for example how reliably and enthusiastically you respond to your child’s speech and actions. As Harvard pediatrics professor Jack Shonkoff puts it, “Reciprocal and dynamic interactions . . . provide what nothing else in the world can offer — experiences that are individualized to the child’s unique personality style, that build on his or her own interests, capabilities, and initiative, that shape the child’s self-awareness, and that stimulate the child’s growth and development.”

So we must have the awareness to let a child’s age or language ability affect the content and tenor of our speech. Studies provide evidence that infants and young toddlers, for example, benefit from conversations about the here and now with us pointing and gesturing to label objects in our immediate surroundings or on the pages of books we’re reading together. And parentese is the speaking style of choice. Slower, higher pitched, and more exaggerated than typical speech, it’s been thought to advance infants’ language learning because of the ways it simplifies the structure of language and evokes a response from babies.

With older toddlers and preschoolers, we should keep examining what we’re saying and how, but update the range of things we consider. It’s no longer necessary to speak at a slow pace or nearly an octave higher than normal to aid a child’s language development. By 30 months, the variety and sophistication of parents’ word choices may have a greater influence on kids’ vocabulary growth. By 42 months, talking about things beyond the present, such as delving into memories of the past or discussions of what will happen in the future, is positively related to kids’ vocabulary skills a year later.

While it’s unnatural and unrealistic to monitor yourself all day, the thing to remember is that our words and responsiveness fuel powerful learning for kids. Set aside ten minutes a day of mindful communication, focusing on your baby, your words, and the interplay between them. Over time the focused practice will create habits that spill over into other conversations, too. These tenets are from author Maya Payne Smart. For more from this author, click to see her book, “Reading for Our Lives: A Literacy Action Plan from Birth to Six.”

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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