As we head into the back-to-school season, let’s take a moment to celebrate your child’s very first teacher – you! It’s never too early for parents and caregivers to focus on supporting a baby or toddler’s school-readiness skills, including early literacy. When you create a positive environment in which your young child learns that written materials are interesting and fun to explore, you help set the stage for later success. The most important literacy lesson you can provide in the first two years is that reading is an enjoyable activity.
The development of early literacy begins in infancy when caregivers engage babies in exploring books. Babies will be attracted to varying textures; bright, simple pictures of other babies and familiar objects; and cause-and-effect features like a squeak or lift-the-flap – and they are learning to look to caregivers in anticipation. It’s the quality of the interaction that brings the book to life. Your baby will learn to associate books with the pleasurable feelings of being held or cuddled, and having your full attention. Reading time is first and foremost an opportunity to relax and connect with your child.
Your baby will begin to examine the function of a book by mouthing, touching, holding, and banging it. Over time and with your gentle guidance, your baby will begin to master these book handling skills and will understand how to hold the book, turn the pages, and recognize pictures. Your baby needs to first understand how books function, before she can understand how letters create words that symbolize objects and ideas.
In the early years, think of reading as a form of interactive play. Don’t be afraid to be silly, and going “off script” to personalize the story or follow your child’s lead in encouraged. When you explore books with your baby or toddler, you are helping to develop an important social-communication skill called joint attention, which is believed to play a critical role in early word learning. Joint attention refers to you and your child’s use of gestures and gaze to coordinate the mutual focus of attention to one another and to a shared object or event (in this case, the book). When your baby points to a picture in the book, for example, he is directing your attention to an object of interest and providing an opportunity for mutual engagement. You can in turn support his language development by enthusiastically building on that interest (e.g., “You see the dog! What does the dog say?”). The back-and-forth rhythm of your “conversations” – including pauses, eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice – sets the stage for your child’s pragmatic language development, another social-communication skill that refers to your child’s growing understanding of the social aspects of communication.
Reading builds vocabulary and communication skills while providing a fun way for your child to learn about and make sense of the world. Your toddler will enjoy books with short, predictable text or simple rhymes, and books that feature familiar routines like bedtime, and saying hello and goodbye. Toddlers love cause-and-effect, repetition and predictable rhythms.
Through interactive reading, your toddler will enjoy learning the names of animals, shapes, colors, letters and numbers. Make books a part of your daily routines during bedtime, car rides, and visits to the doctor. But don’t limit early literacy to reading books. Talk about what you are doing, and what you see when you are out and about. Every moment with your child is an opportunity to build knowledge, vocabulary and communication skills. You are your child’s first teacher, and in this back-to-school season, we’re celebrating you!