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Birth to Three: Building a Foundation for Literacy (Part II)

Birth to Three: Building a Foundation for Literacy (Part II)
Margot E. Kelman, PhD, CCC-SLP
January 28, 2008


The early childhood yearsfrom birth through age 8are a critical learning time for children to develop foundational literacy skills that will prepare them for future reading and writing. This article is the second in a two-part series. The first article (Birth to Three: Building a Foundation for Literacy [Part I]) addressed the importance of early literacy, its relationship to conventional literacy, and the origins of emergent literacy theory. This article (Part II) focuses on facilitating early literacy skills in young children and on literacy behavior milestones. In addition, activities and strategies to promote literacy development in the home and early childhood setting are provided.

What Early Literacy Behaviors Are Expected for Infants and Toddlers?

Children progress at individual rates in their literacy development. Although factors such as intelligence and language play a role in literacy learning, growth is also contingent upon the frequency and types of experiences with print and interactions with literacy materials. The ability to read and write does not develop naturally. Children need regular and active interactions with literacy materials. Some children may have easy access to a wide range of literacy materials, while others may not. Children with considerable book experience from infancy develop a complex range of concepts and skills that supports their further literacy learning (Holdaway, 1979). Children with limited literacy experiences may struggle with reading and writing.

Due to the variability in learning literacy behaviors, identifying precise age levels for acquisition of specific skills would be inappropriate. Rather, a developmental progression of loosely grouped literacy behaviors in age ranges can serve as a general guide for identifying a child's level of literacy competency.

Children from birth to 18 months of age are "object-focused preverbal children" (Crowe & Reichmuth, 2001, p. 9) in the prelogographic ("before symbols") stage (Paulson, Noble, Jepson, & van den Pol, 2001, p. 12). During this age range, an infant explores books in perceptual ways, similar to the manipulation of other objects in the baby's world (e.g., through mouthing, banging, and chewing). There is no awareness of print symbols in the environment (i.e., no symbolic meaning). The baby pays little regard to books initially, noticing them only when the adult brings the book to his or her visual attention. After infants can purposely grasp and manipulate objects, books and writing implements become part of their exploration (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998).

By 8 months of age, infants begin to reach out and focus attention on books. Eight to 12-month-olds who are read to regularly progress from mouthing books to playing with the covers to turning pages and showing interest in some of the pictures. During this period, they are learning early conventions of print. Between 12 to 18 months of age, their interest in pictures increases. They begin to observe the behaviors and language of adults as they read a story.

Children from 12 to 36 months of age are considered "picture-focused beginning talkers" (Crowe & Reichmuth, 2001, p. 9). During this period, toddlers exhibit increasingly intentional behaviors directed toward the pictures in the book. They locate favorite books, sit on an adult's lap to have the story read, point to pictured objects in the book, and provide prenarrative verbalizations about the story. These gestures are frequently accompanied by environmental noises (e.g., animal sounds), simple consonant-vowel sounds (e.g., "ba-ba"), and eventually words.


margot e kelman

Margot E. Kelman, PhD, CCC-SLP

Margot Kelman, Ph.D., CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist in private practice and clinical supervisor at Wichita State University. Her interests are in early childhood speech, language, and literacy development. Dr. Kelman currently supervises the Toddler Emergent Language and Literacy Playgroup at Wichita State University. 

There are no affiliations or financial interests in corporate organizations with commercial products related to this presentation.

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