All parents want their children to be successful in school and throughout life. While literacy, which begins with oral-language skills, is the foundation of that success, it's equally important to remember that both language and literacy development grow out of the close relationships children have with significant others in their lives.
With so much national attention focused on improving academic performance, particularly for struggling readers, the role of social and emotional support — including the benefits of playtime — is often overlooked. Yet research consistently shows that a healthy ego and emotional security are essential to learning, and it's the relationships with parents and caregivers — particularly in the first year of life — that foster trust, autonomy, and initiative as the child matures.
Children who have trusting, highly interactive relationships with their parents and caregivers display more active curiosity and initiate more learning opportunities. That interaction begins at birth; infants use their ability to interact for the purpose of sharing an experience.
For example, if 8-month-old Jessie hears a loud noise outside the window, she looks at her father to see if he heard it and then looks toward the noise. She continues to gaze back and forth between the sound and her father, maybe adding vocalizations or gestures, until he responds. This is called joint-attention, and it sets the foundation for communicating with language later. Babies learn to talk in order to express their understanding of the world. Thus, early social-emotional development affects both the desire and the ability to communicate, use language meaningfully, and eventually develop literacy skills.
You've Got to Play to Learn
One of the best literacy-learning interactions for young children is to play with them. Playing with young children not only strengthens your relationship with them, it encourages them to reflect on their own experiences through dramatization and provides an opportunity for oral language development.
Parents can help enrich play by making sure children have the time they need to do it: enough time to plan out what they want to play and to essentially create a "script" (Will it be a doctor's office, grocery store, or book store?) and some props (such as canned foods and boxes for a grocery store). Getting involved in the play adds to the fun — and the parent becomes a source of new activities, vocabulary, and rules.
It might seem obvious that children's exposure to and interest in reading are influenced by the adults who care for them, but children who see that literacy is a source of enjoyment are more motivated to learn to read despite any difficulties they may encounter. So here are some things you can do to foster a love of words — and reinforce the nurturing relationship you already have.
- Help expand your child's vocabulary and narrative skills. A strong vocabulary helps children attach meaning to the printed words, while narrative skills help children understand the structure of stories, making them easier to grasp. Narrative skills can be built through daily encounters with storytelling, such as at mealtime when family members talk about the day's events. You can also sharpen phonemic awareness, another skill that builds language, by playing rhyming games and working to help your child identify the initial sounds of words.
- Be sensitive and responsive to your child's early communication attempts. With infants, engage in frequent mutual gazing. Tune in to your toddler's oral skills and help your preschooler sharpen conversation skills with lots of back-and-forth exchanges. If your child pretends (or tries) to read books, be patient and listen.
- Read together as a family often. Read a wide variety of materials and remember to keep the tone and any ensuing discussions as warm, positive, and playful as possible.
- Encourage your children to use literacy in meaningful and purposeful ways. Invite them to help make shopping lists, read signs, draw, and write thank-you notes.