The roots of literacy are planted in infancy and - in the right environment - flourish in early childhood.

How do children become lifelong readers? We now know conclusively that giving children opportunities to "play" with language is crucial to literacy development, as is sharing books that build on children's experiences. Print-rich environments, both at home and at school, inspire children to explore words and strengthen their understanding of the power of narrative.

Here's a look at how children go from imitating sounds to recognizing simple words to, finally, becoming confident young readers and writers.

0 to 2

Children May

  • experiment with language by making sounds that imitate the tones and rhythms of adult talk.
  • delight in listening to familiar jingles and rhymes.
  • play along in games such as peek-a-boo and pattycake.
  • show interest in books that feature familiar and favorite objects.
  • begin to name these objects out loud.
  • participate in making the sounds of animals they see in books.

What You Can Do With children who are working on these skills:

  • read simple picture books together and talk about what you see.
  • tell lots of stories and talk about daily events and routines.

With children who are practicing these skills: all of the above, plus

  • label simple actions or feelings.
  • read action rhymes and encourage babies to imitate the movements described.

With children with mastery of these skills: all of the above, plus

  • choose books according to subjects babies and toddlers are interested in. follow children's cues - if they get excited by a particular object, point to and label what they're looking at.

2 to 3

Children May

  • enjoy listening to stories, rhymes, and songs; doing fingerplays; and looking at books.
  • understand that their written name signifies something special that pertains specifically to them.
  • scribble enthusiastically.

What You Can Do With children who are working on these skills:

  • share books that include repeated rhymes or sayings.
  • encourage children to listen to sounds, words, rhymes, and poems.
  • look at and "read" books together.

With children who are practicing these skills: all of the above, plus

  • ask questions with yes or no answers to give children the satisfaction of showing off their knowledge; be sure to also ask open-ended questions to encourage language skills.

With children with mastery of these skills: all of the above, plus

  • focus on asking open-ended questions that involve children in making choices and encourage reasoning skills.

3 to 4

Children May

  • delight in conversing and being listened and responded to.
  • recognize examples of print in their environment.
  • know that writing is a form of communication.
  • enjoy dictating comments about artwork and letters.
  • know that people read books and other kinds of print for a purpose.

What You Can Do With children who are working on these skills:

  • play word and finger games to reinforce listening and oral language.
  • provide a rich variety of reading materials.
  • choose picture books that are age-appropriate, with clear story lines that relate to events and issues in children's lives.
  • encourage singing and saying rhymes.

With children who are practicing these skills: all of the above, plus

  • offer wordless picture books for children to "read" to peers or adults.
  • encourage children's attempts to incorporate print into their drawings.
  • point out consistent messages in the environment, such as restroom signs, exit signs.

With children with mastery of these skills: all of the above, plus

  • read stories with simple, yet developed plots.
  • encourage children to express themselves through writing -- taking phone messages, writing shopping lists, creating their own menus during dramatic play, making posters, etc.
  • make lists together.

4 to 5

Children May

  • realize that reading progresses from left to right and top to bottom.
  • learn that print, rather than pictures, carries the meaning of the story.
  • pretend to read, using visual cues to remember the words to their favorite stories.
  • understand that writing is used to convey messages and has a specific form and symbol system.
  • recognize and name some letters.
  • write some letters.
  • enjoy playing games involving written words and numbers.

What You Can Do With children who are working on these skills:

  • read aloud daily.
  • involve children in playful experiences with print.
  • write down children's spoken stories.

With children who are practicing these skills: all of the above, plus

  • help children make signs and dictate stories to go along with their pretend play.
  • encourage children to make verbal lists of grocery items, favorite games, toys, or what they plan to do that day (write down the lists with them).

With children with mastery of these skills:

  • all of the above, plus encourage children to write their names and words they know.
  • put up a noteboard; leave simple notes using pictures for key words.
  • help children label items in the classroom.
  • fill in calendars and weather charts together.

5 to 6

Children May

  • recognize and identify some of the sounds letters stand for.
  • sound out some words.
  • enjoy writing and giving written messages to others.
  • attempt to do their own writing, using invented and standard spelling.
  • begin to write the words they hear.
  • learn to leave spaces between words.
  • enjoy reading favorite books, simple predictable books, and books they have written.
  • love to browse through beautiful books.

What You Can Do With children who are working on these skills:

  • encourage children to see themselves as readers.
  • support their love of books by reading together and sharing your favorite stories.
  • encourage story dictating and bookmaking so children can practice writing and learn how books are made.

With children who are practicing these skills: all of the above, plus

  • encourage children to write words and read books with more complicated story lines.
  • With children with mastery of these skills: all of the above, plus
  • involve children in reading signs, recipes, cereal boxes, maps, and the other print they see and use every day.
  • play rhyming, board, and card games with children.
  • introduce simple chapter books.