Encouraging Literacy in Your Infant-Toddler Program
Over the last year, federal policy and the media have shown an increased interest in and focus on improving the literacy skills of children entering school. Professionals in the infant/toddler field know that parents and caregivers help to lay the necessary foundation for literacy in a child's first few years of life. In this series of tips, we focus on how leaders of infant/toddler programs can support the introduction and development of early literacy skills (both reading and writing).
First things first: What is early (or emergent) literacy? We can think of it as what children know about reading and writing before they can actually read and write. It encompasses all the experiences, good and bad, that children have had with books, language, and print, beginning in infancy. For example, one child is scolded every time he tries to reach out and grab the book his mother is reading to him, while another child is given a chunky board book and allowed to open and close it to her heart's content as her mother laughs alongside her. Which child is likely to have a better experience and more confidence with books?
These examples highlight another important point. Early literacy for very young children doesn't just involve books. Early literacy requires people and sensitive, responsive relationships, too. Parents and caregivers are a vital component of the child's experience with reading and language. All of these variables—the child, the book, the parent, and the relationship—work together to support or discourage the development of emergent literacy skills.
Early literacy does not mean teaching reading to infants and toddlers. For very young children, learning to read is not a developmentally appropriate goal. Toddlers who feel pushed to read may become frustrated or fearful and begin to associate these negative feelings with books—no doubt impacting their future confidence, interest and joy in books and language. Reading, writing and language evolve from a number of earlier, age-appropriate skills, such as:
physically manipulating or handling books;
looking at and recognizing books;
comprehending pictures and a story; and
interacting with books verbally, e.g., babbling in imitation of reading (Schickedanz, 1999 in BrainWonders).
By recognizing these behaviors in the children they work with, staff and leaders alike gain a new understanding for how early interactions with books, writing, and language support emergent literacy—as well as how their relationship with children is a powerful determinant in whether this experience is a positive and enjoyable one, or not. The tips below highlight ways to build upon the natural curiosity of very young children to establish a solid foundation of early literacy skills.
Tips for Encouraging Literacy in Your Infant/Toddler Program
1. Ensure that books are visible and at the child's level.
2. Talk to children, even the youngest babies. While they may not understand initially, they are developing the brain structures necessary for later language literacy. For young babies, hearing language means learning language.
3. Encourage infants and toddlers to explore books freely—and in ways that may not necessarily reflect adults' ideas of how books "should" be used. For a six-month old, this may mean mouthing the book while a one-year old may enjoy stacking the books in a tower or spreading them all across the floor. You may see the two-year olds in your program request the same "favorite" story over and over (and over) again. Three-year olds may prefer to act out the story or make up a different plot.
4. Use books as tools to help with transitions. In a child care center, a story about taking a walk can be read prior to a stroll outside. In a home visiting program, books about good-byes may help children transition to a new home visitor. When providing infant-toddler special education services, books—especially those with strong, song-like rhythms—can be used to encourage movement and support motor skill development.
5. Make reading part of children's routines. Always include a story at Circle Time, or close each home visiting session with a book.
6. If you offer center-based services, label the places and things that children come in contact with often, e.g., "door," "bathroom," "toys." Try to label these items in the home languages spoken by the families in your program. And be sure to place the labels at the child's eye-level. For home-based services, making labels for items in the child's room could be an activity for one visit.
7. Select books that appeal to infants and toddlers. Look for bright colors, sharp contrasts between the picture and the page, rhythmic writing, and plots that are simple but engaging. As children grow, look for books (like "lift the flap" books) that capitalize upon their growing intellectual and motor skills.
8. Point out the written word in places other than books. For example, at a child care center, caregivers can point out where a child's name is labelled on her crib. In a home visiting program, service providers can point out the stop sign at the corner of the child's street ("Stop starts with an 's'-so does your name, Sam.") Use toys like magnetic letters to reinforce the relationship between letters and sounds.
9. Allow older toddlers to begin exploring writing instruments (pens, markers and crayons). Provide them with other toys and activities (e.g., pouring water) that develop the hand-eye coordination and fine motor skill necessary for writing.
10. Make books! Two- and three-year olds can create their own picture books while parents can make books for younger children. Books featuring family photos work especially well, as children enjoy looking at them over and over, and they provide many opportunities for learning words (mommy, daddy, brother/sister, dog, cat, pet, house).
11. Support family literacy as well. Ideas include:
Establishing a lending library of both children's books and adult reading material that parents may borrow.
Providing information on how parents can apply for a library card and/or organizing a family trip to the local library.
Informing parents of literacy programs in the area both in print (e.g., posters or brochures) and verbally as well.
Partnering with a local literacy group to offer services or literacy programs at your site.