Encouraging Language and Early Literacy Development

The school-year is approaching and many of us are still unsure of where/how/when our kids will be attending school, daycare, preschool or other learning environments.  We thought we would devote some blog posts to the topic of language and early literacy development. In this blog, we will talk more generally about what research shows about language and literacy. And in later posts, we will delve into more detail.

Some Key Findings Related to literacy development in young children, and what we can do with this information: 

Did you know.. ?  Did you know that the development of literacy is not an “all or none” event that begins when children are taught how to formally read in the first grade?  Literacy development is actually a process that begins with language and includes a range of skills that can be fostered from a very young age.  

What happens when early literacy is not fostered before the start of kindergarten?  This begins to create an unequal playing ground, so to speak.  Children starting kindergarten having had exposure to high quality experiences around language and literacy are already ahead of the game.  And then by 3rd grade, the stage has been set for their trajectory to high school and beyond.  It’s not set in stone, but the path has definitely been set.  There is something called the Matthew Effect (Stanovich, 1986)  in reading, which describes this phenomenon.  You can see from the graph below, that good readers are more likely to improve faster, in part because they will be more motivated to read. As you can see this gap will then increase with age. So you see, text gets harder and more complex, and you are reading to learn, rather than reading to decode. Reading skill in 3rd grade is a good predictor of many outcomes including later school dropout, so we really want to foster literacy from a young age.

image credit: phonicbooks.co.uk

So knowing this, how can we foster language and literacy?


Fostering language can start from birth. The interactions we have with our infants can make a huge difference in how they grow and develop.  As adults, we play such an important role. Ideally, we want to surround children with books and language as much as possible.  Talk- talk- talk to them, all the time!  Describe what you are doing: Folding laundry? Talk about it. Baking a pie?  Talk about the ingredients, colors, the shapes, what you are making.  Although infants are not yet able to respond, they are taking it all in, and perhaps even smiling or laughing or babbling!  More growth happens during the 0-6 month period than in any other developmental stage, so we have a critical window to influence child development here too!   Before children are able to formulate words beginning around one-year to 18 months, their receptive language (what they hear and take in) begins to develop.  This is why we want to talk and interact with them and surround them with stimulating materials.  

Toddler and Preschool Years

Skipping ahead to the toddler and preschool years... so much development happens here in language and literacy and we a great deal of power to influence our children’s experiences and exposures. As much as possible, we want to expose them to high quality interactions and materials.  Catherine Snow, an early literacy expert from Harvard University, suggests that exposing children to a language rich environment in the preschool years is critical to developing their literacy skills later on.  This can be especially important for the development of vocabulary and also, later, for comprehension skills. So encouraging high quality interactions/conversations between children and adults during this period is so important.  We want to be talking with them, asking questions, reading books and discussing the books, and by doing this, we are building their language skills and vocabulary.

In preschool it is also important to expose children certain to experiences like; learning the letters, and the letter-sound correspondences and for children to understand the sound structure of words -  this is called phonemic or phonological awareness.  Rhyming and alliteration are also important skills to develop in young children.  Especially when we start early with children, many of these skills don’t need to be formally taught, but can be learned through informal experiences such as reading books, like Dr Suess ( “The Cat in the Hat”), or Eric Carle (“Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you See”).  Often,  kids will ask to be read the same books over and over again and this is how they start to retain the information (rhyming, for example) and at the same time, this will often encourage a love of books and reading.  When children don’t have these skills in kindergarten, it is important to explicitly teach them so that they have the skills necessary to be successful readers.

We will delve more into these topics in later posts.  But for now, remember to talk to your babies- they hear you :-) 


Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360-406.

Whitehurst GJ, Lonigan CJ. Child development and emergent literacy. Child Development. 1998;69:848–872.