Children are wired for language from birth, and can pick up skills without any formal lessons. Even still, parents play a big role helping their children develop the expert language and literacy skills they need to thrive socially and in school. To learn more about these skills and how parents can nurture them, we sat down with Samina Hadi-Tabassum, literacy and language expert at Erikson Institute.
When do children begin learning language and literacy skills, and what are the stages of their development?
Babies pick up on the sounds of human voices in the womb. After birth, they begin to recognize these voices and turn their heads towards familiar ones.
In their first three months, infants begin to “coo,” as they learn to control their vocal cords and the muscles they’ll need to speak. Around six months, the baby begins to string together vowels and consonant sounds repetitively, such as “mamama” and “dadada.”
Most children don’t begin producing words until age two. Before then, they are actively listening and decoding sounds around them. Babies and toddlers catalogue language in their minds, almost like statistics, until they're finally able to voice some of what they’ve learned.
By age three, children are typically speaking in simple phrases, (i.e. “blue ball”) and sentences that can sound like directives (i.e. “Mommy give ball”), since the ability to pose and ask complex questions comes later at age five. By the time they enter elementary school, most children can string together sentences like little adults.
There are many instances, however, where children don’t begin speaking until much later on (around four or five), even though they have still been perceiving and making sense of language around them. There are many reasons for this, some more serious than others, but parents should consult their pediatrician if they feel there is a cause for a child’s delay.
What can parents do to support the early development of their child’s language and literacy skills?
The most important thing a parent can do is engage their children in conversation from day one, since infants are perceiving and making sense of the language code. When conversing, parents should look children in the eyes, have them watch and observe their mouths, and teach them about taking turns when communicating. Never rely on technology to help your child learn language; it doesn’t work. They can only learn from other humans, and need to be exposed to rich oral language before they can learn to read or write.
How can parents partner with teachers to promote their child’s literacy skills?
Parental nurturing of literacy skills is critical, as reading is an artificial system that we created to convey messages, and children are not wired to naturally pick up on how to read. Parents should begin reading to children soon after birth and incorporate books into their home environment. Ask children questions about the stories you read to foster their comprehension skills. To promote print recognition, parents can point out the letters that make up their names and take them through the alphabet visually and phonetically.
Note that no matter how much you read to your infant or toddler, it takes time for children to learn to read. They need to learn the sounds of letters, how to decode words, and understand the meaning of multiple words strung together. Doing this requires logical skills, which children don’t usually develop until age five or six.
If a child is bilingual, how might this affect language and literacy development?
Bilingual and multilingual children have a cognitive advantage. By switching from one language to another, children learn to think flexibly and sort the world in different ways.
Bilingual children might be delayed in mastering both languages equally, and might struggle to keep up with their peers at first. But research shows that by the time they are in middle school, bilingual children often outperform their monolingual peers.
What can parents do to support their development in two languages?
The stronger the foundation of the child’s first language, then the easier it is to learn others. For bilingual parents, this means speaking the child’s home language and teaching them to read and write in it. Pass down the culture associated with your child’s native language as well. Research demonstrates that bilingual children who keep their language and culture while learning English in American schools do much better academically in the long run.
[Related: How I'm teaching my young kid 4 languages]
For monolingual parents who wish their child to become bilingual, consider a dual-language preschool.This provides them with an immersive second-language experience while enabling them to get a solid grasp on their first language at home.
What should I do if I feel my child needs extra support in language and literacy?
Observe your children as much as possible to recognize any language patterns unique to them. Keep in mind, though, that each child is different, so their language and literacy journey is, as well. Factors such as gender, birth order, and genetics can play a role in language development.
Speak with your pediatrician about developmental milestones and whether or not they are noticing differences and delays. If there are delays, there are plenty of experts who can help — including developmental therapists who can come to your home. Parents play a big role in their child’s language and literacy development, but it’s important to know that if you need extra help, it’s not a role you have to play alone.
Samina Hadi-Tabassum is a clinical associate professor at Erikson Institute where she teaches graduate courses in cognitive and language development. Her research interests include examining race, culture, and language.