Baby Steps Towards Literacy

Hedda SharapanI just came back from the Annual NAEYC Conference, where I heard one of my favorite presenters and a leader in our field, Dr. Alice Honig, who’s taught us much about what infants and toddlers need in order to thrive and grow. As she spoke, I was reminded of two things. The first thing was an eye-opening experience I had recently when I spent some time in a center’s infant-toddler room. Actually my eyes weren’t opened. It was the babies’ eyes!

Here’s what happened. I was sitting near an infant and started chanting “Five Little Monkeys.” I love doing it in a sing-song “parentese,” lowering my voice for the doctor and drawing out the “sooooooo” between verses. I looked down at the baby, and she was wide-eyed, watching me. Then I looked up to find that all the babies in the room were wide-eyed, watching me. And they watched me, wide-eyed, through all five verses!

Their reaction was just like one of the research pieces that Dr. Honig referred to. When babies hear that high-pitched, sing-song “parentese,” the electrical and chemical impulses start to flow through their brains. Babies get alert, and the synapses in their brains make all kinds of connections. Let’s keep on giving them those kinds of delicious and delightful language experiences!

The second thing Dr. Honig reminded me of was the need for another kind of language experience -- soothing sounds connected with loving touch. Watch the video excerpt from our “Lullabies to Literacy” workshop, and you can see the power of the sound of lullabies when they come wrapped in all the verbal and nonverbal ways that show babies we love them.

Here are two of the many ways we can give infants and young toddlers an environment that’s rich with that great combination of loving language and loving touch:

Talk to the baby about what you’re doing

That’s one of the things Fred Rogers did so well on his program. He narrated his experiences, telling his viewers what he was doing and noticing things out loud. At the same time, he was giving lots of nonverbal cues that he cared about his viewers. Think about how you can provide that kind of nurturing, language-rich environment, not just at “circle time” but especially at those one-on-one moments when you’re diapering or feeding a baby.

Even if these young ones don’t understand, this is an important time for them to develop receptive language. They’re taking in language before they can use it, and they need to hear words in a loving context. For example, just before you lift up a baby or toddler to the diaper table, in a caring voice tell the child what you’re about to do. But keep in mind that you don’t need to carry on a constant chatter. Too much noise of any kind can be over-stimulating,

Chant finger plays and nursery rhymes

Most early childhood educators use finger plays and rhymes mainly at circle time. But they’re just as valuable any time. That playful language can be especially helpful when an older infant or toddler is fussing on the changing table or waiting for you to put the meal on the high chair tray or table. If you use finger-play songs like “Open, Shut Them…” or “Wheels on the Bus” or “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” you’ll be giving children something to do with their hands along with words from the song to focus on. I bet you’ll find that they manage the waiting time better, too.

Whenever I’m in an infant-toddler room, I always make a point of thanking the early childhood educators who work there. In many ways they’re building the foundation for children’s success in school and in life. They deserve a special thanks from all of us.

P.S. Thanks to everyone who came up to me at the NAEYC conference to talk about our newsletter or other parts of our work that you appreciate. We're glad to know that what we offer is helping to support the important work you're doing.

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