Literacy learning is an integral part of the foundation of a high-quality early childhood experience. The joint position statement of the IRA (International Reading Association) and NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) states that, "The early childhood years-from birth through eight-are the most important period for literacy development." Research also suggests that one of the best predictors of later school success is the reading and writing level the child achieves.

Children are absorbing words, sounds, print, and symbols from the moment they enter the classroom environment. Although providing a physical space that stimulates interest in and reflects a sensitivity to literacy is important, the verbal interactions between teachers and children are particularly powerful contributors to the development of literacy skills.

Teachers as Role Models

Children respond to the adults around them as role models. Although this isn't always at the forefront of our minds as we go about our busy days, the critical fact is that children learn through what they see, hear, and experience. By listening to and observing adults, children learn pronunciation, meaning, and the proper usage of language.

Taking advantage of "teachable moments" gives teachers opportunities for effective role modeling in the classroom. There are many opportunities for expanding and extending children's vocabulary throughout the day. For example, when a child uses one adjective, a teacher can add another: "You bounced the big, blue ball." Teachers can also interact with children during their play. (This should be done sensitively and carefully, so as not to interrupt the flow of what children might be involved with.) They can offer choices that relate to the play theme and use two or three new words to describe an object, process, or function of a specific word. "Do you want the baked casserole or the sautéed vegetables to go with your dinner?" Children may or may not respond. The goal is to expose them to new words-not create a direct lesson during play.

Strategies for Literacy Learning

Here are some ideas you can share with your staff to help the children in your program build literacy skills:

  • Introduce a few letters and their sounds each week to help children develop phonemic awareness (the ability to understand and recognize letters and their associated sounds). This skill builds slowly over time. Blending it into the curriculum is the most appropriate way to ensure a meaningful experience for children.
  • Correct children through your actions and words. When you hear an improperly used word or set of words, repeat the word or phrase back to the child, using it correctly. This sets the example without singling out the child or making him feel that he was "wrong."
  • Read every day-with expression! Children of all ages love the intimacy of reading with an adult, either one on one or with only a few other children. Keep in mind that they are listening, and watching carefully, as you share the printed language.
  • Pause as you write words and labels that children ask for. Say the words slowly, stretching out the sound of each letter or letter grouping.

Language Building at All Levels

Incorporate these teaching practices into your program's daily routines to support children's language development and their love of reading.

With Infants and Toddlers

  • Have face-to-face interactions throughout the day, talking in simple language and using frequent eye contact.
  • Respond to children's cues and language attempts by imitating their sounds and expressions.
  • Play with language, introducing songs and finger plays frequently.
  • Share books by reading to individual children and small groups.

With Preschoolers

  • Develop positive, nurturing relationships by engaging children in lively conversations; ask open-ended questions.
  • Encourage children's interests in reading by sitting down with books and other reading materials (including newspapers, magazines, and newsletters) often in the classroom. Tell children what you are doing and ask if they would like to "read with you." Your invitation will interest some, who may join you for varying lengths of time.
  • Give children opportunities to talk about what you read together. Along with the content, focus on sounds, parts of language, and the meaning of words and phrases.
  • Use finger plays, songs, games, poems, and stories with rhythm and alliteration to enhance phonemic awareness. (Ask a librarian to help you find these books.)
  • Add a wide variety of tools, objects, and materials to your curriculum to create opportunities for new language and different conversation.

With Kindergartners

  • Offer daily opportunities for children to both be read to and to independently "read" meaningful, engaging stories and informational texts.
  • Be sure your program balances instruction in coding with meaningful reading activities.
  • Expand your curriculum in challenging directions that explore knowledge of the world and extend vocabulary.
  • Ask children about their interests so that you can adapt instructional strategies and individualize instruction for children who need help in building their literacy skills.

Language between teachers and children builds on the foundation that has been established at home. Children come to your program with varying levels of verbal ability. Incorporating language activities and modeling appropriate language will help children grow into life-long readers and writers who take real joy in these experiences.