Tips For Supporting Early Literacy

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Want to empower young children with early literacy skills? Here are some simple, low-tech, high-benefit tips:

Talk

Talk with your child every day from the time they are infants. A lot. Talk about what you’re doing (“Daddy’s making lunch, I’m cutting onions right now.”), what you’re seeing (“I just saw a red bird in the yard.”), and what you’re feeling (“these onions are making my eyes water.”).  Ask questions (“Can you smell the onions? Want to taste one?”), give information (“That red bird was a cardinal.”), and share stores (“When I was little I didn’t like onions either. One time my sister, Edna, took an onion and…”).

Engage

Being active in the world with your child–go places and do things. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy–go to the grocery store, make lunch, visit a park, take a walk, give the dog a bath. This engagement provides things to talk about and helps kids observe conversation, writing, and reading in action. This not only builds their knowledge it helps them see the value of language. While you’re engaging the world together, discuss what you see and hear (“That sign says STOP.”, “Did you hear that loud noise? That was a train.”). Give things names (onion, cardinal, Edna, train). Describe things (“That train we heard is hauling lots of things–lumber, cars, machinery, and merchandise for stores.”)

Sing

Sing to and with your child. Singing exposes kids to new vocabulary. It also highlights rhymes, alliteration, tone, cadence, sounds, and more–which helps kids learn how spoken and written language work. Sing kids songs, sing with Spotify, sing nursery rhymes, sing the shopping list as you stroll through the grocery store.

Read

Read to you child every day. Read books that tell interesting stories and have beautiful illustrations. Read the books they like over, and over, and over, and over (“Yes, Courtney, I’d love to read Brown Bear again.”) Beyond this, let your child catch you reading for work, or school, or pleasure. When they see you reading they understand that reading is something people do, that it has value, that it is a useful skill, that it’s pleasurable.

Write

Make sure your child has lots of opportunities to write–assure they have access to crayons, markers, pencils, paper, etc. At first, it’ll look like scribbles. Over time, the scribbles will become more refined. Then they’ll realize that certain scribbles have meaning (“That’s an O–for Olivia!”). As with reading, let your child see you regularly writing for work and pleasure as well so they understand it’s value.

Play

Provide lots of time for real play. Play is a safe haven for children to try out new skills–including language skills. In play, you’ll often hear kids use new words for the first time, practice writing, sing songs they’ve heard, and more. As they gain confidence with these skills during play, the new skills will seep into their non-play lives.

Intervene

If you start worrying there might be something wrong (“my two-year-old isn’t talking yet”, “She’s always squinting”, “Dakota doesn’t turn his head when there’s a loud noise”) get it checked out. Catching problems early is best–once you identify them you can address them.

Conclusion

Children learn language skills by engaging with other humans who are using language. Implementing the above ideas may seem kind of old school in a world of apps and educational programming, but the old school way is much more effective than setting a screen in front of Simone and hoping a cartoon character will show her how to read. Plus, another benefit of more reading, talking, and singing with your child is that you’ll build a closer connection.

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Jeff is an early learning speaker, toymaker, podcaster, content creator, author, and founder of Playvolution HQ who is really bad at getting his picture taken.

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