Zero to Three offers great advice on how to promote Language & Literacy

Babies come into the world filled with curiosity about the people, objects, and places they encounter.  Daily routines like feeding, diaper-changing, and bathtime offer babies especially rich opportunities to have fun, connect and bond with loved ones, and figure out how the world works.

Important early learning skills get their start through these everyday moments between babies and their adults.  Reading together, and watching your baby to learn how she communicates through sounds, facial expressions, and gestures, are both ways to give her a foundation in literacy and language skills.  Self-confidence grows as babies feel loved and nurtured by the adults who care for them.  They begin developing self-control (though they won’t master this skill for a quite a while) when you soothe them after an upset.  And babies learn to think, and to puzzle out an interesting problem, by using their senses to play and explore the world around them.

Remember:  If your baby is interested and involved in an activity—and having fun—he is learning!  It isn’t necessary to “teach” very young children.  Formal classes and other activities that push babies and toddlers to learn concepts before they are ready do not help their development or make them do better in school. In fact, they can even make children feel like failures when they are pushed to do something they can’t succeed at or don’t enjoy.  So treasure these early days of playing and cuddling with your little one—it is exactly what she needs to grow and learn.

The idea of babies and toddlers talking and reading can seem incredible.  It is hard to imagine them debating with you about curfews or curling up with the newest Harry Potter book.  But language and literacy skills start early—from birth.  Watching your baby and learning how she communicates through sounds, facial expressions, and gestures are all important ways to help her learn about language and the written word.

It isn’t necessary to “teach” very young children.  Formal classes and other activities that push babies and toddlers to read and write words do not help their development or make the do better in school. In fact, they can even make children feel like failures when they are pushed to do something they don’t enjoy or that is beyond their skills.

Early language and literacy skills are learned best through everyday moments with your child—reading books, talking, laughing and playing together.  Children learn language when you talk to them and they communicate back to you, and by hearing stories read and songs sung aloud. Children develop early literacy skills (internal link to definition below) when you give them the chance to play with and explore books and other written materials like magazines, newspapers, take-out menus, markers, and crayons.

Language and literacy, while two different skills, build on one another in important ways.

What you can do to support your baby’s growing language and literacy skills from 0-12 Months: 

  • Describe her feelings and experiences.  For example, when you see that she is hungry, you can say:  You are nuzzling at my shirt. You’re telling me you’re hungry.  Okay, your milk is coming right up!  Although your baby won’t understand your words right away, your caring, loving tone of voice and actions will make her feel understood. And hearing these words over and over again will help her come to understand them over time.
  • Copy your baby’s sounds and encourage him to imitate you.
  • Put words to her sounds:  I think you want to tell me about the doggy over there.  Look at that doggy.  Hi, doggy!
  • Sing songs you know, or make up songs about your baby (Happy bathtime to you, happy bathtime to you, happy bathtime, sweet baby, happy bathtime to you.)  You don’t have to be on key or be good at carrying a tune. Babies don’t judge—they love hearing your voice.
  • Play peek-a-boo.  This simple turn-taking game is good practice for how to have a conversation later on.  Try hiding behind a book, a pillow or a scarf.  You can also play peek-a-boo by holding your baby in front of a mirror and then moving away from your reflection.  Move back in front of the mirror and say, “peek-a-boo!”
  • Play back-and-forth games.  Hand your baby a rattle or soft ball.  Then see if she will hand it back to you.  See if you can exchange the toy a few times.  This “back-and-forth” is practice for having a conversation later on.
  • Read lots of books.  Reading together helps your baby develop a love of reading and a familiarity with books.  Reading aloud also helps your baby’s vocabulary grow as she has many chances to hear new words and learn what they mean.
  • Use books as part of your baby’s daily routines. Read before naptime or bedtime.  Share books made of plastic at bath time.  Read a story while you are waiting for the bus. Bring books to the doctor’s office to make the time go faster.
  • Read with gusto.  Use different voices for different characters in the stories you read your baby.  Babies love when adults are silly and it makes book reading even more fun.
  • Let your baby “read” her own way.  Your baby may only sit still for a few pages, turn the pages quickly or only want to look at one picture and then be done.  She may even like to just mouth the book, instead of read it!  Follow your baby’s lead to make reading time a positive experience.  This will nurture her love of literacy from the start.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat.  Babies learn through repetition because it gives them many chances to “figure things out.”  When babies tell you they are interested in a book or even in a picture in a book, give them as long as they want to look at the picture or to hear the story over and over.  

Parent-Child Activities to Promote Language and Literacy for 0-12 months

  • Make a photo album. Glue photos of your baby and the important people in her life onto sturdy 4×6 index cards. Punch a hole in the upper left corner of each card and tie them together with a short piece of yarn.  Share the book with your baby. She will love seeing pictures of the people she loves and hearing you talk about them (and her!).
  • Touch some new textures. Gather together small squares of different fabrics (lace, cotton, corduroy, nylon, etc.). Snip a small hole through each square and tie them together with a piece of ribbon (they can also be stitched together at the corner as well). Let your baby touch the fabric “book” and talk about how the different textures feel.  Does she have a favorite page?
  • Sing some “finger play” songs. These are songs that have hand movements to go with them. “Finger plays” help children develop muscle strength and coordination in their fingers, which helps them learn to write and draw later on. A baby favorite is Pat-a-Cake:  Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake, Baker’s Man (clap hands together), Bake me a cake as fast as you can (pretend to stir the batter), Roll it (roll your hands over one another, as if you are rolling dough), Pat it (pat your thighs), And mark it with a B for Baby and me (draw a B in the air with your finger). Other favorites are Where is Thumbkin and The Wheels on the Bus.