Florence with a baby book

How To Develop Literacy Skills in Young Children

Florence with a baby book

As an experienced Educational Psychologist, Deputy Headteacher and as a mum to two young boys, Hannah Lethbridge brings a wealth of knowledge, experience and expertise to her work as founder of RocketEd, an educational psychology SEND consultancy providing psychology services to children and young adults aged 0-16.

Here, she talks about ways that parents can encourage the development of literacy skills in their young children. As a mother of a now 11 week old, Florence, this is a subject of particular interest to me.

I hope you find it useful too.


Literacy from the very beginning

When a baby is born, the thought of waving them off at the school gate on their first day seems like a million years away. And yet, even at the very start of their lives, they’ve already begun to develop the skills which will impact on how successful they will be at school, what opportunities will be available to them as adults and how they will support the learning of their own children as parents. Developing literacy skills starts young, very young, and kicks off with language. 

There is a wealth of evidence highlighting the relationship between children’s early language ability and their educational success. This isn’t surprising. Reading and writing are representations of spoken language, recorded on paper rather than spoken out loud. Oracy, the ability to use spoken language, is closely linked to literacy in that a person is only able to read and write at a level they can speak and understand. 

Studies show that in utero, as early as ten weeks before birth, babies begin to actively listen to the sound patterns of their mother’s voice. Incredibly, researchers have found that at just three days old, babies can consistently distinguish between their mother’s native language and a foreign tongue. This shows that babies have an innate propensity for language and we know that they are pre-programmed to communicate through eye contact, facial expression, crying, vocalisation and touch. When adults respond to babies using spoken language, their brains begin to make the connections they need to learn language and it is this that supports the development of their emergent literacy skills. 


What is ‘emergent literacy’? 

This is the phase of literacy development that takes place between a child’s birth and beginning formal education by starting school. It is usually understood to refer to the early precursors of reading and writing that lead to conventional literacy. Children who are offered high quality and regular opportunities to develop their emergent literacy skills are more likely to attain good outcomes in literacy, and become successful learners, than those who are not. So what can parents do to support these skills?


Seven things you can do to develop your child’s emergent literacy skills before they start school:

  1. Talk to them, often. Extend your conversations with them. Having a good vocabulary and being able to engage in conversation are vital precursors to learning how to read and write. The more words your child knows, the more words they will learn and the more they will understand. Explain what new words mean and give them alternative words for those they already know. Research demonstrates that there is a strong correlation between the size of a child’s vocabulary at the age of 2 and their reading achievement later on in childhood. Talk, talk and talk some more. 
  2. Draw their attention to the words and texts all around them. Before a child can read and write independently, they need to understand that text is made up of letters, each one having a name and representing a sound, and that English is read left to right. The best way to begin this process is to increase the child’s awareness of the text that already surrounds them: draw their attention to words for example on street signs, on food packaging and in technology. Show them the words as you read and write birthday cards. Get them to help you make shopping lists. 
  3. Build up their mark-making and early writing skills. The best ways to do this are to model how useful writing is, for making lists, labelling things around the house and writing cards, for example. Provide your child with lots of paper and crayons and give them the freedom to make marks and scribble. Ask them to read you what they have ‘written’.  
  4. Read them stories and make sure they understand their meaning. Showing an interest in books and understanding the stories that are read aloud from them helps children to develop an understanding that text has meaning. Children who are read to regularly, who understand and enjoy the stories they are read, develop an interest in books and other printed materials. This increases opportunities for them to develop formal literacy skills later on. They’ll also find it easier to read and write stories on their own.
  5. Teach them what books are and how to handle them. Children need to be shown how to hold books the right way up, how to turn the pages and to understand the need to treat books with care. Model reading behaviour to your children by spending some relaxing time with a book. Let your child ‘read’ to you by telling you a story as they turn the pages, even if what they say bears no relation to the actual words on the page!
  6. Build up your child’s phonological awareness. For example, their ability to recognise separate sounds in spoken language. Children need to understand that words are made up of separate letters which represent different sounds. Research shows that children with secure phonological awareness become better readers and writers. Parents can do this by choosing books with words that rhyme, or where the same sound is repeated. Point out when this happens and make sure the child can hear the patterns. Play games like “I spy” and those which ask the child to name words with the same beginning or ending sound.
  7. Have fun! Keep the pressure low and the fun quota high, so that children are keen to join in!

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