The five early literacy practices are:
Babies start developing their understanding of language before they are born. The five early literacy practices are activities to help children become literate and articulate children and adults, they help us develop all of the skills and information we are going to need to excel with it comes to formal reading and writing learning. They also form a basis for developing the six early literacy skills:
- Print Motivation
- Print Awareness
- Letter Knowledge
- Phonological Awareness
- Narrative Skills
The recommendation is to incorporate the five early literacy practices into your baby and child’s life every day. It’s easy to do and the benefits are infinite.
Synaptic development is important to understand in order to understand some of what I’m going to talk about later because what we are really doing at its core when we help children learn to talk, read, sing, write, and play is we are providing them opportunities to develop their synapses.
First, what are synapses?
The pathways by which our neurons (the nerve cells in our brain) transmit signals and where we store our knowledge. So, when we learn things we are developing synapses. The more we know about something the stronger the synapses grow to be.
For an example, let’s take the word ‘cat’.
We start with nothing but that word – cat, said to a baby who has never heard the word and has no information about the word or its meanings and connections. The brain loves meanings and connections – think of the brain as a giant spider web and new information is a new line of web – so the brain will hear that word and make the connections that are possible. To start with we will have the connections to the sounds – in cat we have the ‘c’, ‘a’ and ‘t’. Our brain will connect those sounds to other times they have heard the sound – cup, apple, top, etc.
As babies get older, and their eye development improves, they will start to see that when we say the word cat we are talking about the picture in the book, the animal outside that we are yelling at, or our beloved pet. And though this we begin to attach meaning to the word. Each different place we hear the word (in a rhyme, in a book, in the world), we are developing our understanding of the word cat and what it means.
While this is happening, babies are vocalising and learning to speak. All of those vocalisations are helping them learn how to control their ability to make sounds and eventually to create speech that is understandable by others. This is a very involved process and takes lots of time but eventually children will get to a point where they are saying the word cat, are talking about cats, and exploring their understanding as well as asking for information to fill in gaps.
As time progressing our understanding of all that cat can encompass will develop – we will attach more meaning and different connections to that base word – cat. We may be caring for a cat, holding it as it purrs, learning that there are different types of cats, that the animals we see at the zoo are related to a cat.
We will also be working through the five principles below and children will be moving through informal reading and writing. Then they will move onto formal reading when they get to school. And the understanding we have developed that the sounds we make are connected to the letters we see around us is cemented and formalised. And we start to attempt to read – sounding out that word cat and doing it again and again until we know it so well we can see it in a book or anywhere else and now that the word is cat.
In addition, we are learning to correctly form those letters and write. We are having a go at writing the word cat (and to start with we will only get that first letter or sound) and soon we will be able to spell it without thinking it out, one letter/sound at a time.
At this point, we can hear, say, read, and write the word cat. But our journey with the word isn’t finished even if the basics of language are done (and in only about 6 years too). From here, we will continue to add knowledge to the synapse – all the way to the end of our life. We may study to be a vet and be able to operate on a cat, we may learn about pumas, lions, tigers, and sphinx cats. There is no end to our ability for synaptic development. Though in the first 3 years, children will develop 1,000 trillion synapses. This is more than we have as adults, because we also go through a process of pruning whereby weak or unused synapses are removed and the resources are given to frequently used synapses.
I hope this gives you a brief, but good overview. We could study the rest of our lives and not know all there is to know about the brain and brain development.
Language development follows the same path no matter the language or child.
We learn to:
- Listen (understand what is being said to us)
- Talk (verbalise our intentions including our needs and wants)
- Read (decipher the written symbols that relate to the sounds we hear and make)
- Write (create written symbols that relate to the message we want to impart)
- We learn to write and then we refine it by learning to Spell (learning the rules that govern how we construct words to they can be ‘universally’ understood)
Underpinning each stage is our understanding of grammar (how we put words together, in specific orders, to give them meaning) and comprehension (what words put together, in specific orders, mean).
This may all seem a bit daunting. But, one of the most powerful things in the world is at our disposal in going through this process – the human brain, and specifically a baby’s or young child’s brain. In the first year of life a baby’s brain will double in size. By the time they are 3, a toddler’s brain is 80% of an adult’s brain in size. In the first three years children will develop a 1,000 trillion synapses. Brains at this age are designed to take in all of the information their senses can give them and use that to develop these synapses that they are going to need for the rest of their lives.
One of the things children are best at is observation, they are constantly watching the world around them and the people in their world. This is how they learn to talk. So, in the simplest terms, babies learn to talk by hearing you talk. And suddenly, hopefully, something that seemed daunting a moment ago is easy.
We talk all the time, we chat to people we pass out for a walk, we converse with the person at the check out, we chair meetings, we talk over the top of one another at family dinners, we call people on the phone, I could keep going but I’m sure you’re aware of how much you talk.
This is what we need to do with babies; talk to them.
Every time you talk to a baby they are listening but there are some things you can do to make these even more enriching experiences.
- Talk to them in lots of different settings:
- On the mat during tummy time is great. But, if we are also talking to them when sitting on the lawn about the things we can hear, see, smell, feel, then they are hearing more words. What about the words we use at the supermarket, that we don’t use at the zoo. Words at the zoo, we don’t use cooking dinner, etc.
- Don’t be afraid to use big words with babies. They will hear the word and start to build a synapse around it. Meaning can come later, it normally does, and if they aren’t sure as they get older they will ask.
- Answer kids questions – they ask a million of them but each answer (even the repeats) are helping them build synapses.
- Face-to-face communication is very important. Before reading on, please do me a favour – find a mirror and say a tongue twister…I’ll wait…did you notice how much your lips moved? How your face formed the letters and sounds. You learned to do that watching the people around you talk. And your baby will learn to do that by watching you talk.
- In addition, we gets lots of information from non-verbal communication (tone, volume, facial expression, and social understanding) and children will be learning this as well.
- Get other people to talk to your baby too. Everyone uses language a little differently depending on their upbringing. There are also social elements of language (slang and sayings that can be specific to one area, one country, one social group, one language group, and one family). These social elements in concert with our specific upbringing will mean that each person talking to your child will use words and phrases you may not and the more words we hear the more words we will learn.
That is the sentiment I want to leave you with – the more your baby is spoken to, the more words they will hear, and the more words they will learn.
We’ve talked about talking, and now we can move onto the second in my list – sing.
When we talk, we tend to run our sounds together a bit, we don’t always pause between words, and we don’t enunciate as clearly as we could. That’s where singing comes in. When we sing, when we say rhymes, we are often doing so to a rhythm and we slow down and enunciate very clearly.
I would like you to try something.
Say this rhyme:
Dingle Dangle Scarecrow
When all the cows were sleeping
and the sun had gone to bed,
Up jumped the scarecrow
and this is what he said,
“I’m a dingle dangle scarecrow
with a flippy floppy hat,
I can shake my hands like this
and shake my feet like that.”
When all the hens were roosting
and the moon behind the cloud
Up jumped the scarecrow
and shouted very loud,
“I’m a dingle dangle scarecrow
with a flippy floppy hat,
I can shake my hands like this
and shake my feet like that.”
Now, sing it (paying careful attention to the way we pronounce the words).
I’m sure you noticed some difference in the way you say certain words – specifically, words with more than one syllable (flippy, floppy, scarecrow, dingle, dangle, roosting, sleeping) as when we sing, we pronounce all syllables independently. This helps children to hear and replicate the sounds.
In addition, we use words we don’t necessarily use when we speak – just like different people use different words.
These are more Benefits of Singing and Rhymes:
- Singing songs and chanting rhymes help children become school ready – which means they have a good foundation to start reading, writing, and ‘formal’ learning.
- Musical activities stimulate a positive relationship with language which helps children when they are learning to read and write.
- Develops sound discrimination (phonological sensitivity) – most words are made up of smaller sounds and singing/rhyming encourages children to learn, and play, with these sounds.
- Music/Rhymes help build vocabulary as they are very rich in diverse language
- Exposes children to rich language in context. Songs and rhymes are full of uncommon words and language devices like:
- Alliteration – repeated use of the first sound in a word. (Dingle Dangle Scarecrow)
- Onomatopoeia – words that are used to mimic a sound e.g. BAM, meow, SNAP!, etc. (Wheels on the Bus – beep, swish)
- Rhyming – repetitive use of the same end sound in words (Twinkle Twinkle – are/star)
- Assists in developing world knowledge and broadening understanding.
- Pitch, tone, and rhythm change when we rhyme and sing which allows children to identify the parts of words in different contexts. This assists children in breaking down words for reading and writing.
- Helps children learn rhythm in speech patterns and affects how they enunciate words.
- Listening to a song, and then singing it, builds memory and develops different areas of the brain.
- Music/Rhyming develops thinking skills which lays a foundation for lifelong learning.
- Music and singing are powerful tools in soothing children and providing comfort and safety.
- Songs and rhymes with actions teach children balance, coordination, body awareness, and rhythm.
- Children’s language skills begin to develop before they start to speak so singing, rhyming, and reading with your children from birth is the best possible basis for literacy development and for them to be ready to learn.
I cannot stress enough how important play is. Play is how we learn almost everything!
We learn by watching the people around us, babies and toddlers are amazing mimics, and then replicating it ourselves. We do this through play.
Sometimes our society diminishes the importance of play and play-based learning but it really is so important and the best way for baby brains to learn things. They see the adults around them doing things and then replicate them to learn how to interact with the world around them, how they fit with the world, and what their place is.
Play is beneficial to children because it gives them an opportunity to practise skills that they will need for learning and life. Pretending to read is a precursor to actually doing the action. They are demonstrating an understanding of the structure of texts, and the pictures that relate to their stories.
Through play we are pretending to do tasks in a ‘safe’ environment. For example, you might learn to use a knife or scissors on play dough rather than on actual food because it’s safe and the play dough is standing in as a substitute for a ‘real’ item.
Through play, children interact with different groups:
- Children who are younger than us.
- In this case, we are the experts – we are the ones with greater skills and knowledge and we are able to share this with others and help them.
- Children who are older than us.
- In this case, we are the ones who are learning – our playmates are more experienced and skilled and we learn from them.
- Children who are the same age as us.
- In this case, no one is the expert all the time, one child might be better at one thing and another better at something else. So we move back and forth between the different roles.
- Adults have the ability to moderate behaviour, emotion, and social skills in a way that other children often don’t. Adults pretend to need help, they allow children to lead play and assist and support as needed.
- As a result, play with adults can take the form of any activity where adult and child are working together to achieve something.
Play is where we develop our social and emotional skills as well. Emotions are really hard to work out – there is a lot of non-verbal information, there are social structures around emotion, there are language components too. In addition, we have to learn how to regulate and deal with our own emotions. Play gives us a time to do so – when children are playing they feel things (anger that someone took a toy, hurt because things don’t go our way, etc.) and have to deal with someone else also feeling things. This is why children will often have fights when they are playing together. It’s hard enough for them to understand what they feel, and how to deal with it but then play adds another person’s emotions to the mix. Adults then help children learn new ways to deal with the situation by modelling and suggesting behaviour.
It’s important for adults to participate in imaginary play with your children to extend they abilities. Through this they are developing their words and phrases – including subject specific word knowledge.
“I am pretending this book is toast. I need to butter it.” Maybe your family doesn’t say that they say: “I spread on the margarine.”
Pretend play also allows children to use and practise actions and words that they might not get to use otherwise. (i.e. pretending to be a doctor, etc.)
I want to start by explaining that this is not formal writing – it is not the act of creating specific shapes to represent specific sounds in a structured order to make words that make sense to anyone able to read that language.
This is about the pre-writing skills. It’s about all of the stuff that comes first.
It’s important not to begin formal writing with children too early because that is effectively stealing time from other skills including these pre-writing skills and the other skills talked about above.
So, what are pre-writing skills?
- Having a go at writing their name,
- Play writing – writing something in scribbles or squiggles, etc. and then assigning meaning to that when telling others what they have written.
- Seeing people around them writing and engaging with writing.
So, I’ve saved the biggest for last in a way. I will try and keep it concise [I mean similar lengths to above because I could talk about reading for days and weeks and months]
Reading is amazing!
I could fangirl about reading endlessly, and not just because I’m a librarian but because of all of the wonderful things we learn through reading, and the joy reading can bring.
But let’s focus on kids, we are talking about reading to kids. Back when I was a teacher (a long time ago) they used to release studies about the word gap. The word gap is all about the number of words kids know when they get to school and the gap that exists between children whose parents read to them and children whose parents didn’t. The most recent study puts that number at about 500,000 words. This means that children whose parents read to them regularly know 500,000 more words than children whose parents don’t.
It all comes down to the beautiful, scintillating, evocative, descriptive cornucopia of language that is used in books. Why use red when scarlet would be better, why talk about plodding along when we could talk about each foot landing with a muffled thud of sadness. Picture books are amazing – because they help develop empathy, visual literacy, resilience, perseverance, independence, and so much more. But one of the things that picture books do better than almost any other type of book – language. Back when I was studying to be a teacher, they did a study looking at the percentage of rich language (language you don’t use all the time) and found that picture books had a higher percentage of rich language than almost all other texts (except technical manuals/textbooks).
Look at a picture book you probably know:
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
- To start with how often do we talk about caterpillars?
- Days of the week
- Tiny (how often would we say small instead?)
- Phrases such as:
- the light of the moon
- warm sun
- stomach ache
- Salami, pickle, etc.
- In addition, we have the metamorphosis cycle.
Some of these terms may not seem rich – but we have to think about how often we would/do say them especially to and around children. This is one of the things that makes the language rich. And if we were to investigate other books, we would find more and more rich language until we get to 500,000 extra words we know and can use.
This isn’t the only reason that reading aloud and sharing reading with children is important however. Reading aloud is important for many reasons:
- It develops a positive association with books, reading and literacy.
- It helps to support and encourage bright children who often understand at a higher level than they can read.
- Introduces the narrative structure which is then used in writing, oral retells, etc.
- Beginning – Middle – End
- Remember that narrative structure covers more text structures than simple narratives.
- Builds word-sound awareness.
- Precursor to reading independently.
- Awareness of the features of texts:
- Text goes left to right (western)
- Pages are turned from the right to the left (western)
- The letters/words relate to what is read
- The pictures relate to what is read
- It also builds:
- Print Motivation
- Attention span, and
- Becomes part of imaginative play
But, one of the very, very best things about reading with your child is that it is time for just you. No distractions, you are both focussed on the book and are sharing that experience together. Even if there were no other benefits, that is a pretty amazing thing.
It’s really about finding time to Sing, Play, Read, Write, and Talk with your baby. But before you worry about finding all of this new time – think about how much you are doing it already. Think about how much you talk with them, how often you play peek-a-boo and play-dough, and they ‘help’ you do things. Think about them seeing you reading for pleasure and reading to them. Then reward yourself for already doing what you need to do to help make literate, well-spoken children and adults.
Then do some more singing, reading, talking, writing, and playing. Especially playing…we all need joy and fun in our lives and what better way than through playing with a baby/toddler/child.
The Better Beginnings website is a great place to find more information and practical tips.
One of the best resources for every day use is the Home Literacy Calendar.
Better Beginnings encourages all families to Read, Talk, Sing, Write and Play with their child every day, but sometimes it can be hard to think of things to do. Better Beginnings is here to help! Our Home Literacy Calendar is packed full of fun, easy things you can do together at home that will help develop your child’s early literacy skills and turn your child into a reader. Print it out and stick it on your fridge for some daily inspiration!
Download it every month for a great range of activities to share.
Every child will develop at their own rate. You cannot force them to understand something even if you can make them learn it.
(For example: you can teach a child to repeat the multiplication tables back to you however until they are able to understand what 5×3 actually means do they know how to multiply?)
Children learn things at different times but the important things to remember are:
- Don’t give up on a topic or skill but allow children time to…
- Practise, practise, practise.
- Repetition, repetition, repetition.
- Try doing it a different way – there are as many ways of doing something as there are people.
- Let children lead you – they will show you amazing things.
Cooking is a great activity to cover many of the practices above. Cooking can be difficult with younger children but it encourages talk, reading, play, maths, science, hand-eye co-ordination, fine motor skills, and can be a very fun activity.
Easter may have delivered too much chocolate to your house, but just in case it didn’t here is a chocolate-y recipe that can be easily made gluten free (see note at bottom).
- 200g milk chocolate (*I don’t like dark chocolate but if you do swap this for dark)
- 200g unsalted butter, cubed.
- 155g brown sugar
- 3 eggs, lightly whisked
- 100g dark chocolate chips (*see above and swap for milk)
- 100g white chocolate chips
- 115g plain flour
- Preheat oven to 170C.
- Line a 18-20cm square baking dish with baking paper (I’ve made this in a number of different dishes and it works well in glass/metal/ceramic baking dishes)
- Place the chocolate and butter in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on half power, stirring every minute until mostly melted. Then stir to combine. Set aside to cool slightly.
- Add sugar and eggs to the mixture and mix until combined.
- Stir in the flour until well combined.
- Stir in the chocolate chips.
- Pour into the prepared pan.
- Bake for 25 minutes or until crumbs cling to the skewer.
- Set aside to cool completely (or cool mostly and then eat some…)
Note – This recipe works well with gluten free flour but I find I need to bake it for a lot longer (it differs a little time to time but the batch you see above took about 40 minutes).
You can eat this by itself. You can heat it up or eat it cold. You can add some ice-cream or cream and this recipe freezes very well. I often cut it up and freeze the pieces individually and then you can pull out one square when you want something full of chocolate.