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Creating Literacy-rich Environments for Infants, Toddlers & Preschoolers

As early learning professionals, we know that reading with the little ones in our care is a powerful activity that helps children build important foundational literacy skills. However, you might not be aware of all the other ways that early childhood care and learning providers nurture early literacy skills. This article describes the stages of early literacy development, and offers suggestions for incorporating literacy into your early childhood program and daily care routines. 

Examples of Foundational Early Literacy Development

The terms literate and literacy bring to mind the ability to read, write, and use language and words.  Literacy skills begin to emerge during the earliest weeks of life, through nurturing adult/child relationships. When caregivers talk, listen and respond to little ones, they are modeling the wonders of language communication. Before infants have the ability to talk, they enjoy communicating with their caregivers by gesturing,  gazing, and babbling. Engaged interactions with caregivers introduce children to the connection between words and meaning, and let them know that they can learn the names of the people and objects in their immediate environment.  Adults can nurture these early literacy foundations by engaging children in conversation and sharing words and books with children at an early age. 

What is a Literacy-rich Environment?

A literacy-rich early learning environment is a space filled with opportunities for children to discover and practice their pre-verbal, verbal, and pre-reading literacy skills. The most effective and engaging literacy environments align with children’s natural ability to learn through exploration. Rather than being a set of specific activities and exercises,  a literacy-rich environment incorporates literacy and one-to-one communication into a child’s everyday play and familiar routines. In this way, language and literacy becomes an integral part of a play-based learning environment.

Credentialed reading specialist Samantha Burke describes the components of  literacy-rich learning spaces:  “Literacy-rich environments provide opportunities for students to interact with (age appropriate) print and literacy tools in a meaningful way. By creating a supportive environment that is literacy-rich, students have more opportunities to practice literacy skills including: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, listening and speaking in authentic ways.” 

Key Benefits of Early Literacy Exposure 

A strong foundation in literacy generates benefits for young children’s learning, growth, and development that extend far beyond their ability to read. For example, early literacy exposure…

  • Supports healthy brain development and functioning: Exposure to language and literacy helps to support healthy cognitive development. An article from The Martin-Pitt Partnership for Children explains, “When you teach a child early literacy skills, the learning process influences the entire functioning and development of the brain. Talking, singing, and reading…strengthens the existing links among brain cells as well as forms new connections. These links form the basis of all future learning and intellectual ability.” 
  • Builds a strong foundation for later success: A National Institute for Early Education Research policy brief summarized the long-term benefits of early literacy support: “Early literacy plays a key role in enabling the kind of early learning experiences that research shows are linked with academic achievement, reduced grade retention, higher graduation rates and enhanced productivity in adult life.” 
  • Introduces children to new places, ideas and cultures: With exposure to stories about other places, people, and ideas, children can learn about the world around them, including other cultures and ways of life. Reading and listening to these stories helps children to get a better sense of the world’s diversity and encourages them to be more welcoming toward those with different perspectives and practices.
  • Taps into children’s sense of curiosity and interest in learning: Young children want to know the names of the people and objects they encounter in their daily lives, and they quickly figure out that the best way to get information is through the early literacy skill of asking questions. Once children experience picture books and story books with the caring adults in their lives, they discover an amazing new way to learn about their favorite things, like insects, birds, trees, trucks, and rainbows. 

Tips for Creating a Literacy-rich Early Learning Classroom

Match books to the ages of the children in your care.

Children are never too young to enjoy books! During the first six months of life, infants are drawn to books with black-and-white images and other high-contrast colors. When you read to infants as you point to the pictures, they begin to connect images to words. They also enjoy grabbing onto cloth books. As children gain physical strength, they start to touch and grasp books or explore them by putting them into their mouth.

12-24 Months
At this age, children begin to learn words, and they enjoy learning and naming the characters and objects they see in the books you read to them. They develop the fine motor skills to turn the pages of a book, or help you turn the pages.

2-3 Years Old
Children continue to enjoy being read to by caregivers, but they also look at books on their own and pretend to “read” their favorite books. They are more active participants when you read to them, pointing and talking about the pictures in the book.

3-4 Years Old
At this age, children can follow a storyline, and love to be asked questions like, “What do you think will happen next?” They begin to identify letters, especially those in their own names, and they have fun noticing those letters in the text of the book. They might start to recognize certain written words, especially when you read a favorite story to them.

4-5 Years Old
By this pre-reading stage, your read-alouds can include information about how books work– what we know from looking at a book’s cover, where the story begins, and the fact that the words are read from left to right. Children can remember stories and describe characters and stories.

Include books in each of your program’s learning centers.

While most early learning classrooms have a reading center set up for children to explore different books, it can also be beneficial to spread books out throughout the room. In an article for Edutopia, preschool program director Amanda Reardon adds, “Books don’t have to be limited only to your classroom library. Adding a basket of topic-related books to each interest area helps children develop an understanding between print and its purpose.” 

For example, you might offer books on construction near your block center or children’s books about different artists near your art center. You could also set up activities that can be paired with corresponding stories, like a science experiment paired with a science-themed book

This helps children connect books and reading to the topics and activities they find most interesting.

Model an interest in literacy.

Children follow the leadership of their parents and caregivers. One way that educators model an interest in reading and writing is by demonstrating their use as tools for everyday life, and by sharing our own love of words and stories. For example, we can write notes home for parents, read books aloud with children, and create written signs, labels and notes to support play and daily routines and themes in our early learning classroom. 

Incorporate words and language throughout the classroom.

We can create opportunities for reading practice throughout the classroom by posting signs and labels in key play and storage areas. This could include labeling some of the items in your dramatic play area or putting labels on shelves and bins with pictures of the items that go inside. Older children who have gotten more comfortable with writing basic letters might even be able to help create some of the labels!

Young children find particular excitement in recognizing the letters in their own names, so labeling children’s cubbies or personal belongings with their name and photo is a particularly fun and engaging way to help build familiarity with different letters and sounds.

Place language-themed materials throughout the classroom.

Beyond books, there are many toys and activities that can be incorporated into your classroom to help children become familiar with the letters of the alphabet. A few fun examples are included below. 

  • Alphabet magnets can be used to make impressions in playdough or placed in sensory bins. They can also be placed on a piece of paper and used as stencils for children to trace. 
  • Alphabet stamps can be incorporated into a variety of art projects. Children can use them to spell out their names or create words. They can also use them to freely stamp on a sheet of paper in an open-ended process art project. 
  • Alphabet puzzles can be a fun way for children to learn about the different shapes of each letter. The letters from these puzzles can be taken out and used in different ways throughout the classroom.
  • Alphabet cookie cutters can be used in sensory bins or to make impressions in playdough. You might even try a simple, kid-friendly sugar cookie recipe and help children use the cookie cutters to stamp out the first letter of their names!
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