What does the word “literacy” mean to you? At least before I started teaching, when I heard “literacy” I thought of reading. I thought of books, early readers sounding out words, and those cute little books from elementary school with repetitive, simple words. However, literacy is much, much more than just reading. In fact, early literacy starts at birth and even before that! I am a former preschool teacher and current stay at home mom to a one year old. I have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. In my years of college and my work as an early childhood teacher, I learned so much about early literacy! Now, I’m here to share some facts and tips with you.

The root of literacy is language. Language is something that we all teach to our own children, without even doing anything special! A baby’s brain is hardwired to learn language, and they pick this up naturally through listening to others speak. Babies listen to language from the time they are in the womb, especially from their mothers. From week 30 of pregnancy on, babies are capable of hearing their mothers speak and forging brain connections that will be the foundation of their language abilities for life. New research, according to this Washington Post article (While in womb, babies begin learning language from their mothers | UW News (washington.edu)), has shown that newborn infants could distinguish between vowel sounds from their mother’s spoken language and a foreign one.

This proves that babies are literally born ready to learn! It’s truly incredible when you think about it. Talking to a newborn is one of the best things that you can do. I know that when my daughter was a newborn, hearing my voice calmed her immediately. She spent a few days in the NICU at birth, and I’ll never forget being wheeled in to meet her for the first time. I could hear her crying as I approached, and I hadn’t even touched her yet, but I started talking to her and she immediately calmed down and turned to look at me. The power of a mother’s soothing voice to her own baby is truly amazing. For a newborn, it may be one of the only familiar and comforting sounds to them.

As babies grow, language remains a crucial connection. Everything that your baby will learn comes through language. Did you know that language is closely linked to later reading and writing skills? This is the connection between language and early literacy skills. According to the early childhood foundation Zero to Three, early experiences with language and literacy are what create effective communicators (How to Promote Early Language and Literacy • ZERO TO THREE).

These experiences include singing, listening to stories, reading books, and talking with caregivers and others (like siblings). Luckily these experiences are all very natural to come by! The key components to all early literacy experiences are simple: exposure to language and books. Long before your child can read, they can enjoy having books read to them. Books are an amazing support for building early literacy! It’s never too early to start reading to your infant.

Babies younger than twelve weeks respond very well to high-contrast images in books. My baby absolutely loved this set of small, crinkle fabric books with high-contrast images. These books are great because they engage the youngest infants three different ways: through visual stimulation (the high-contrast images), auditory stimulation (listening to a caregiver identify what’s on each page), and physical stimulation (allowing the infant to touch and explore the crinkly book with hands or mouth).

Older babies will be able to engage more intentionally with books by pointing at pictures, or even turning pages themselves. As babies grow, so does their attention span, but don’t worry if your baby can’t sit through a whole book. It’s completely normal for babies and toddlers to sit and listen to a page or two, get up and do something else, and then revisit the book. All that matters is that they have the opportunity to engage with books whenever and however they want to! Yes, this does mean that chewing on books counts as early literacy exposure. These Indestructible books are great for babies who are mostly interested in mouthing or tearing their books. My daughter loves hers! Whenever I see her starting to mouth or tear one of her normal books, I redirect her to an Indestructible one. Now that she’s one, I find that she chews on her books less and less. 

Always remember that you, as your baby’s caregiver, are the most important aspect of developing your child’s literacy skills. The connection between a child and their closest caregivers is what allows for babies to learn language (Learning to Read the World: Literacy in the First 3 Years • ZERO TO THREE). Books are a great tool, but you can help your baby grow just through everyday talking! Narrate your baby’s experiences. This can be as simple as telling them what you are doing as you change their diaper, or talking in the car and explaining where you are and where you are going. You provide your child with new experiences and talking provides them with the language to identify new objects and describe their own experiences in the future. Isn’t it amazing to know that everything your child experiences, no matter how small and simple it may seem, is a huge learning opportunity for them?

For a helpful handout with more in-depth information about early literacy and books for very young children, click here.

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