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Baby’s First Teacher

Here’s how to help infants and toddlers build a foundation of early language skills that will lead to future reading and writing.

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With gentle nurturing, your baby learns the power of words and the joy of hearing and handling books. Though you are your baby’s most important literacy role model right now, you should also make sure that baby-sitters, daycare teachers and other caregivers are doing lots of talking and reading with your child. Here’s how to help infants and toddlers build a foundation of early language skills.

Connect with Caregivers
"Choose caregivers who are willing to engage in frequent one-on-one conversations with your young child,” advises Jeanie Harris, Curriculum Coordinator at Generations Childcare in Rochester, New York. Caregivers should constantly be labeling things in the baby’s environment (for example, “That’s your rattle!”), describing daily events (“Let’s go for a walk in your stroller”), and reading and singing throughout the day. Encourage in-home caregivers to take your child to the library for toddler rhyme times, sing-alongs, and story times.

When selecting a daycare program, “look for places where you see a lot of books, paper, crayons, and markers for caregivers to use with the children," says Betty Ann Watson, Ph.D., Director of Early Childhood Education at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas. “Parents should see daycare helpers holding babies or toddlers and reading and singing to them several times a day. Children should also be allowed to scribble or draw whenever they wish.”

Communicate with your caregiver. Ask exactly how the day was spent and get details on your child’s disposition, schedule, and reaction to the day’s activities. Daycare teachers should be sending home daily reports of what went on in school. “Teachers and parents can also communicate in person at drop-off and pick-up times and through phone calls and written notes,” says Harris. “We have phones and logs for written communication located in the classrooms, so important details can be shared with parents.”

Things to Do at Home

Forge a bond. “Your first goal is to help your newborn feel secure so he learns he can trust you to take care of him,” says Dr. Watson. Hold your infant close, and talk or sing to him softly. Babies love to hear your voice and will try to imitate the sounds and tones you make. Show your infant that what he says is important. When he coos or babbles, repeat the sounds he makes. But if your baby turns away or rubs his eyes, understand that he’s had enough for now.

 

Label baby's world. Constantly talk to your child as you go about daily routines. Describe what you’re doing, and tell her the names of things. “Phrases like ‘Here is your bottle’ and ‘Let’s put on your socks’ give babies a beginning vocabulary,” says Dr. Watson. As she gets older, ask questions like “Where are your shoes?” Although it may be some time before your toddler can answer with words, she’ll be delighted to point out the objects you name. In the process, she’ll build a bank of words to call upon when learning to speak and read.

Share rhyming songs and games. Recite or sing Mother Goose poems as you gently rock or bounce your baby. Play Pat-a-Cake, Peek-a-Boo, and This Little Piggy. "Nursery rhymes and finger plays help babies begin to hear rhyme, which is the earliest level of a skill called auditory discrimination," explains Dr. Watson. "This will be needed in the school years when children are asked to identify specific letter-sound combinations as they begin to read."

Introduce Books

  • Let your baby play. Even if he's still too young to sit for a story, he'll enjoy holding and playing with books. Make sure his first ones are lightweight, sturdy, and drool-proof. Don't worry if he only wants to chew them or toss them on the floor. Once you begin reading to him, he'll eventually learn how to hold a book and turn the pages.
  • Begin reading early. Introduce your baby to books by cuddling and reading books with pictures of recognizable objects, board book versions of classics like Goodnight Moon, and touch-me books, like Pat the Bunny. At around 12 months, add books with lift-up flaps for your toddler to open.
  • Read with expression. "Your child will begin to associate books with what she loves most — your voice and your closeness," says Dr. Watson. "Expand on what's in the picture," she suggests. For example, say, "Look at the dog! He's a white dog." In toddlerhood, you can add some "playful questioning," Dr. Watson says. Point to a picture and say, "What is this?" Give your child a chance to name it in baby talk, and then name the object: 'That's right, that's a dog!" This reinforces the connection between words and pictures. Before long, your child will be pretending to read to you!

Teacher's Tip
"I encourage parents to buy some of the storybooks we are using at daycare so they can reinforce our school reading at home," says Lisa Hopper, young toddler teacher at Primrose School of Northeast Green Oaks, in Arlington, Texas.

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