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Language & Literacy Skill-Building in Early Childhood

Language and literacy development begins soon after birth and continues throughout the early years with the support and encouragement of a child’s adult caregivers. Understanding the learning stages and developmental milestones of early childhood can help childcare providers and educators create an engaging curriculum and supportive learning environment. In this article, we look at the stages of language and literacy development and share activities to support young children at each of these stages.

A Note About Learning and Developmental Milestones

It is important to remember that the timing of developmental milestones will look different for each child. Some children achieve milestones earlier, while others achieve them later. If you have specific concerns about the development of a child in your care, it’s important to connect with the child’s family to talk about how you can work together to support the child’s needs.

The First Year

The first year is all about language exploration. Within their first few months of life, infants begin babbling and trying out different speech sounds. As infants get older and gain more mobility, they become increasingly interested in interacting with their caregivers and their environment. Between six and twelve months, infants will start to respond to their own name, imitate speech sounds, and maybe even start saying one or two simple words. They are also building the fine motor skills in their hands and fingers that are used for grasping items, including soft books.

Supporting Development

There are many ways that we can support the development of young children during this stage. Some ideas are listed below:

  • While talking with infants, focus on engaging in back-and-forth conversation by exchanging speech sounds and making eye contact.

  • During storytime, choose books that are made of cloth or include sensory experiences (such as “pet the puppy”). These can make reading especially interesting and fun for children of this age.

  • Play interactive games, such as Peek-A-Boo that allow infants to engage in back-and-forth interactions with caregivers.

1 – 2 Years Old

Between one and two years of age, children begin to experiment with language and speech. At this age, children will show more interest in reading by turning pages of board books and pointing at pictures in the story. Throughout this year, children continue to develop more and more new words – and by their second birthday, many toddlers can say two to four-word phrases.

Supporting Development

During this stage, it can be helpful to provide children with opportunities to use their newly forming skills to experiment with language and literacy. Here are a few ways to support literacy development as young children move from infancy into toddlerhood:

  • While reading together, let children turn the pages in the book. Name people and items that appear in the story to help children continue learning new words and vocabulary.

  • Coloring allows children to continue building the small muscles in their fingers and hands that will help them learn how to write as they get older.

  • Singing songs can help children at this age start to learn about rhyming, sequencing, pattern recognition, and new vocabulary.

2 – 3 Years Old

During the toddlerhood years, children start to develop a sense of self and are able to do more things on their own, such as zipping their jackets. They will continue to learn new words and will name familiar objects. As they approach their third birthday, children will also start to make simple sentences. Toddlers are starting to develop preferences and will have favorite stories that they want to read again and again.

Supporting Development

This age is all about inquiry and repetition. Support children as they develop their newfound sense of independence by letting them take the lead, especially during storytime!

  • Encourage children to choose which books they want to read and help them to find new stories about things that they like.

  • Get outside and explore your yard or neighborhood. Children at this age love opportunities to learn about the world around them. While you explore, ask questions, such as “what’s that?” to encourage children to practice using their language and communication skills. Point out and name different items to help children continue to learn new words.

3 – 4 Years Old

This age is all about increasing awareness and learning new things. At this age, children are active and energetic, and they like to keep busy! They can scribble and draw more basic shapes and can recite whole phrases from their favorite stories. As children approach their fourth birthday, they will become able to sing simple songs, such as “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” from memory. You might notice that children at this age are able to sit still for longer stories and may even pretend to read to stuffed animals.

Supporting Development

Supporting development during this age means stepping back and letting children explore. Here are a few ideas for supporting children’s development:

  • Provide opportunities for children to practice new drawing and writing skills. Encourage children to draw basic shapes, and to write letters and numbers.

  • Start practicing sound matching, by helping children learn about the different sounds that each letter makes.

  • Try working on puzzles with the children in your care. Simple, child-friendly puzzles (with 5-7 pieces) help children practice fine motor skills as they put the puzzle pieces into place. Puzzles can also inspire conversation about different colors, shapes, or items that are in the picture.

4 – 5 Years Old

This age is all about asking questions, such as “Why?” and “How?” Young children are becoming increasingly curious as they notice the complexity of the world around them. They also grow more confident in their speech and language skills and are able to recognize letters by their names and sounds. By age five, children have a clear understanding of most grammatical rules, are able to make rhymes, and are aware that print is read left-to-right and top-to-bottom.

Supporting Development

Kindergarten readiness is an important part of this stage. Children are learning more academic skills to get ready for elementary school. Here are a few simple ways that you can support children at this stage:

  • Encourage children to draw pictures of things that they enjoy or are familiar with.

  • Help children become more comfortable with writing and letter recognition by showing them how to write their names and simple words.

  • Introduce more complex stories to the children in your care. Offer a variety of different books and let children choose stories that interest them. While reading together, ask children questions about the story, such as “What do you think will happen next?”

Helpful Resources for Additional Exploration

  • Help Me Grow San Mateo County: a list of developmental milestones, broken down by age from two months to five years old

  • Reach Out and Read: a printable chart that lists developmental milestones, with an emphasis on literacy development

  • Literacy Accomplishments: Birth to Three Years Old: a resource from Reading Rockets that highlights typical literacy acquisition milestones during the first three years of life

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