Developing language and literacy in young children

Researchers such as Fraser Mustard and colleagues from Canada advise us that the early years of a child’s life are the most important years in laying the foundation for later literacy development at school, or learning to read and write, and being literate forms a solid basis for success at school. If this is the case, how can parents assist their young children become literate?

A plethora of research advises us that the best way to develop children’s literacy is to first develop their language through active participation and communication with others. Language development, a communication system based on words and grammar, precedes literacy and is necessary for successful literacy development.

There are many good ways to develop a child’s language but simply talking to children through everyday interactions and conversations saturates them in language. Mustard and colleagues argue that children’s language develops through interaction with others. Children have an inborn capacity to acquire language, which can be activated or constrained by their experiences, that is, by how much or how little they interact with others. Thus, language development is a social act that necessitates two ingredients: inbuilt biological machinery and interaction with communicative others. Therefore, the more young children interact with others, the more their language is likely to develop. Children who grow up without normal social contact do not develop language normally, neither do children who are only exposed to language through television. So, social interaction, Mustard and colleagues (2006) suggest, is the key. Other research seems to confirm this.

Language development starts with vocabulary building and once children know words, they can use them to represent objects and actions and develop the skills of language and literacy. Huttenlocher’s research shows there is a strong indication that a mother’s talkativeness affects a toddler’s vocabulary. The more the mother (or significant other) talks to the toddler, the more the toddler’s vocabulary increases and language develops. In Hoff’s study of mother’ and toddlers’ vocabularies, toddlers with talkative mothers had in some cases, eight times as large a vocabulary as toddlers with non-talkative mothers. In developing children’s vocabulary and receptive vocabulary (what they understand but cannot yet verbalize), Tamis-LeMonda and colleagues also emphasize the need for parental sensitivity and responsiveness to the child.

There is much research to suggest that children’s everyday social interactions with parents, peers or significant others, and the extent of these interactions, develop children’s language. Another way to develop children’s language is through activate participation in age-appropriate storytelling, a usually pleasurable experience for both children and adults.

Storytelling also provides an effective way to develop children’s language and thus a path to becoming literate. This can be done in various ways. One effective way is reading books aloud to children as it increases their listening and speaking abilities, their ability to use more complex sentences, their letter and symbol recognition, their vocabulary and concept development and develops in them, a positive attitude towards reading.

While books can be read to children in different ways, Whitehurst and colleagues suggest that children’s active participation in storytelling and reading increases vocabulary development. In their study of two groups of middle class children aged 21-35 months, children and parents were first divided into two groups. In the first group, the experimental group, parents encouraged their children’s active participation in reading books and gave frequent, age-based feedback to the children. In the second group, called the control group, parents simply read the books aloud as they usually did. After one month, the children in the experimental group were 8.5 months ahead of the control group in their level of speech and 6 months ahead in vocabulary; 9 months later, the experimental group was still 6 months ahead of the control group.

So how does children’s active participation in storytelling and reading work? Whitehurst and colleagues suggest that parents: 1. Ask challenging, open-ended questions rather than asking for a simple “yes” or “no” answer. For example, rather than asking, “Is the cat eating?” ask, “What is the cat eating?” 2. Follow up the child’s answers with more questions such as, “How did the cat get his food?” 3. Repeat and expand on what the child says. 4. Correct wrong answers. 5. Give alternative possibilities. 6. Help the child as needed. 7. Give praise and encouragement 8. Relate the story to the child’s own experiences, for example, ask, “Have you eaten today? What did you eat?”

Researchers, Blank, Rose, and Berlin offer further suggestions on ways to make it easier for children to understand and respond to questions in reading books. They suggest:

1. Rephrase questions to less complex forms by making them more concrete. For example, simplify a question about an inferred feeling such as, “How do you think Baby Bear felt about his chair being broken?” to a question about something seen such as, “Look at the tears running down Baby Bear’s cheek. What is he doing?”

2. Ask questions about personal experiences, for example: Simplify a question from, “Why do you think firefighters wear such big heavy coats?” to “What does it feel like when you stand close to a fire?”

3. Ask questions about very recent events or objects that are present. For example, simplify a question about a prediction such as, “What do you think you will eat at your Christmas dinner?” to a question about an event that just took place like, “When we made our soup today, what did we put in it?”

4. Simplify a question or use familiar vocabulary. For example, simplify the question, “What kind of instrument is this?” by asking questions that require making a choice such as, “Is this a piano or a guitar?”

5. Allow more time for comprehension and responding. For example, tell the child “You think about it for a bit.” You can also try asking an older sibling the same type of question first so that they can provide a model for the younger sibling.

In picking suitable books to read, consider:

  1. What is the story about? Is it suitable?
  2. Is the book appropriate for the child’s age?
  3. Do pictures complement the story; are they synchronized with the text?
  4. Has the book been endorsed by professionals?
  5. Do children respond enthusiastically to the book?
  6. Could the child get a sense of the basic concepts or story sequence just by looking at the pictures?
  7. Does it reflect cultural, racial and ethnic diversity?
  8. Is the book free from ethnic, racial, or sex-role stereotypes?

Finally, for emerging readers, choose books that have uncomplicated pictures, are humorous or have delightful touches, have solid themes of interest to children, have short sentences and repeated words, include rhyme, rhythm and alliteration, have frequent use of dialogue, informative illustrations and animals as characters.

Dr Robyn Anderson
Lecturer, Early Childhood & Education at JCU Singapore

For further reading on the topic please see:

Blank, M.; Rose, S.A.; & Berlin, L.J. (1978). The language of learning: The preschool years. Orlando, FL: Grune & Stratton.

Hoff, E. (2003). The specificity of environmental influence: Socioeconomic status affects early vocabulary development via maternal speech. Child Development, 74, 1368-1378.

Huttenlocher, J. (1998). Language input and language growth. Preventative Medicine, 27, 236-248.

Mustard, J. F. (2006). Experience-based brain development: Scientific underpinnings of the importance of early child development in a global world. Pediatric Child Health. 2006 November; 11(9), 571–572.

Papalia, D. E., Olds, S.W., & Feldman, R. D., (2009). Human Development. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., Shannon, J. D., Cabrera, N.J., & Lamb, M. E. (2004). Fathers and mothers at play with their 2- and 3-year-olds: Contributions to language and cognitive development. Child Development, 75 (6), 1806 – 1820.

Whitehurst, G.J. & Lonigan, C.J. (1998). Child development and emergent literacy. Child Development, 69, 848-872.