Handbook of Language and Literacy Development - a Roadmap from 0 to 60 Months

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Children's Literature From 0 - 60 Monthsclick to print Print
Research Review / Parent

Written by: Joyce Bainbridge and Julie Gellner, University of Alberta

Introduction: Becoming a Reader

Children who are successful readers have usually engaged in many early language and literacy activities before starting school. One of the most important activities for infants, toddlers andpre-school children is hearing and engaging with books read aloud to them.
During a read-aloud children engage with the words and sounds, look at the pictures, and talk about the story with their parent or caregiver. Infants as young as 16 weeks of age are ready to listen to the sing-song playful rhythm of a story and by six months of age they are capable of reacting to the intonation and inflection patterns of a reader's voice – the rise and fall of the words, hushed tones, a question, an exclamation, a laugh, or the 'character' voices a reader might perform such as "Are you the big bad wolf?" "No, you are my sweet baby".
Reading appropriate book selections aloud introduces infants to the world of language and learning, and creates an opportunity for fostering secure relationships between adults and children. Toddlers come to enjoy reading because of their physical closeness to the adult and the playful language exchanges that take place. Reading with an adult helps them feel secure and loved, and it can be a cornerstone of building trusting relationships.
Although reading aloud to young children is an important part of literacy development, it is not enough without the involvement of an adult who is responsive to the child and who invites the child to actively participate in the event no matter how young the child. The parent or caregiver makes sure the child becomes a contributor to the reading event through ongoing conversation, questions, and comments (for example, "Choo, choo. Can you say 'Choo, choo?" "Green eggs and ham? That doesn't sound very delicious does it?" "Where do you think Eeyore is going?" "Let's look for the little mouse. I bet he's hiding somewhere in this picture!").
Parents and caregivers can demonstrate the simple pleasures of reading through engaging children with books in many interesting and important ways.

Children's Literature

Definitions of children's literature vary from one culture to another. In most western cultures, children's literature consists of books containing print and pictures. In other cultures children's literature is an oral tradition of songs, lullabies and folktales. We consider children's literature to include stories, information books, song books and poetry, all designed to appeal to children's interests.
A well-written and well-illustrated children's book will also entertain the adult reader – an important point when we think about how many times we read a favorite book aloud to a child. Books such as We're Going on a Bear Hunt (Rosen, 1993),and The Big Sneeeze (Brown, 1985) appeal to parents and caregivers as well as to children from 12 months to 5 years of age.
Good books help young children gain an understanding of their world and develop an appreciation for language. They spark children's imagination, provide information, and show how other people live. Many current picture books such as Nana's Cold Days (Badoe, 2002) are multicultural stories depicting immigrant families. Some picture books, for example, A New Home for Malik (Steffan 2003), are written with more than one language on each page, perhaps English and Cree, or Chinese, Spanish, and French reflecting today's diverse populations.
Picture books are the first books most children look at. A good picture book is more than simply a book with pictures; the pictures in picture books are as important as the print. Neither pictures nor print tell the whole story. For example, Ruth Brown's rich paintings in The Big Sneeze draw a child's attention to a chaotic series of events on a farm, adding details missing from the story's simple words. A child can "read" the story that is taking place through looking at the pictures only, but the addition of the words makes it an altogether more enjoyable and enticing event. Picture books contain three elements:

  1. What is communicated through words,
  2. What is communicated through pictures, and
  3. What is communicated through a combination of the words and pictures.

Children learn to 'read' illustrations on the way to becoming readers of print. Illustrations can be drawings, paintings, collages, or photographs. Many picture books contain only pictures and are usually called "wordless books", for example, Good Dog, Carl (Day, 1986). It is important to know that not all picture books are intended for young children. Some picture books today are specifically designed for adults and young adult readers, for example, The Rabbits (Marsden, 1998). Picture books can be about any topic at all, and can provide a powerful starting point for critical discussions based on many themes and the strength of their illustrations, for example, Josepha: A Prairie Boy's Story  (McGugan, 1994).

Engaging Pre-school Children with Books

An environment at home and at preschool that contains an interesting variety of picture books, and where books are within the physical reach of children will draw children to reading. Attractive, high quality books that are placed within the child's sight and at the child's eye level encourage interest in and use by children.
The more time spent reading with children, and the more children and parents talk together about stories, characters, events, and books in general, then the better the prospects for children's successful reading and writing development in school.

The Adult Reader – Parent/Caregiver

A caring adult who reads to children is creating a strong literacy environment for preschoolers. The adult must do more than simply read, if the interaction with the book is to be effective for the child.
The adult exposes children to the rich vocabulary of books, talks about events, and focuses attention on ways to better understand the book. The adult also encourages preschoolers to participate in the readingthrough helping to predict what will happen next, to chime in when they know the rest of the rhyme or the line, and to retell stories. For example, children quickly become familiar with the refrain "Koala Lou, I DO love you!" in Koala Lou (Fox 1988). Children can easily chime in with the familiar and tender words at just the right times when they have the support of an adult reader who indicates the 'right time' by a nod of the head and a short pause in reading while looking at the child.
The adult reader conveys the message to the child that print makes sense, is enjoyable, and is part of everyday life. Having a consistent time for reading each day (for example, after lunch and at bedtime) and a consistent and cozy place to read (on the couch or curled up on the bed) add to the value, comforts, and benefits of reading aloud.
Parents can enhance their children's language development when they talk with their children about books. Encourage them to talk about pictures and stories in response to open-ended questions (for example, How do you think Koala Lou is feeling now?); provide feedback to expand upon the child's observations and questions; and modify your speech to match the developing child's abilities. Asking children "what" questions ("What is that elephant doing?"), for example, is more helpful to children than reading to them without asking questions, or to asking them 'yes/no' questions.
Providing words to 'label' pictured objects (for example, doggie, truck), commenting on what is going on in a picture, and pointing to items in the pictures are helpful strategies to use with infants and toddlers up to 18 months of age.
With children older than 18 months of age, parents can ask questions about the pictures and talk with the child about the story or the information book they are reading. While looking at a book of earthmovers, the child might talk about the construction taking place in the neighborhood. This kind of talk can be at a high level of abstraction and sophistication, but because it is related to the book, and initiated by the child, it is relevant and helpful to the child's language development and learning.
Very young children need multi-sensory experiences in order to relate to the books around them. For example, they can hold an apple, taste it, hear it crunch, hear about it in a story, explore it in a picture book, and relate the two "p" letters to it. Children's interests also influence how they will participate in making sense of a book. A keen eye and patience on the part of parents will help children to make sense of books as they master new concepts and skills.
When necessary, adapt a book, for example, 'telling' the story rather than reading the book word-for-word if the book appears to be too long to sustain the child's attention at that time.

The Child

Until the last 30 years, children were seen as non-readers until they entered school. Now, children's attempts to read and write before they reach school age are seen as important steps in developing reading and writing abilities. There are a range of skills preschoolers learn through their interactions with books:

  1. How to hold a book (know the front of the book from the back),
  2. How to turn pages,
  3. Which is the right way up, and
  4. Which way the pages turn,
  5. That print is written and read from left to right,
  6. That pages are read from top to bottom.
  7. About letters and words,
  8. About the rhythms of language,
  9. What a story is, and
  10. That language is playful and that it can be played with.

Peg and the Whale (Oppel 2000) was one of Jesse's favorite books. One day he asked to change the characters around. "Read whale instead of Peg and Peg instead of whale", he insisted. And so the story began, "Whale was born upon the bright blue sea. There she is, swinging from a bucket in the rigging of her boat" (eventually Peg swallows the whale, rather than the other way round). Jesse's pleasure at these imagined scenarios was contagious and provided enjoyment for both adult reader and child. Children learn much of the pleasures of reading through read-alouds and sharing book experiences with another person long before their first formal days of school.
When children are offered lots of opportunities and regularly have the pleasure to think about stories and participate in read-alouds from birth onwards, they see themselves as "readers" – they belong to the 'Reading Club'.
From birth to three years of age, children need to have books read to them frequently, have opportunities to play with letters and sounds, have adults draw their attention to print and later to letters, and they need opportunities to learn songs and nursery rhymes. Books such as Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (Martin 1967) and Each Peach Pear Plum (Ahlberg & Ahlberg 1978) are special favorites with many young children because of the active engagement the books demand. Each Peach Pear Plum contains this rhyme: "Cinderella on the stairs, I spy the Three Bears". The rhyme invites the child to explore the picture on the facing page to discover exactly where the Three Bears can be found.  
Play provides another way for children to make connections between oral and written language, and children often help each other with literacy-related events during their play times. In their conversations, children will label literacy-related objects (for example, "Look, a dinosaur"); negotiate the meaning of things with each other ("No, that's a crocodile"); and talk about what they understand in the books they have seen. Their conversations with each other around books are often similar to the conversations adults have with children during read-alouds. It is important that parents and caregivers understand that children's informal conversations are necessary in their understandings of written language.

The Book

Children's literature must be well chosen – and the first criteria for book selection must be the pleasure, interests and capacities of the individual child. Choose a book that you particularly enjoy and which the child enjoys as well. Encourage the child to choose a book and be willing to reread familiar books many times. The more times you read the same story, the more familiar the child becomes with it, and the more familiar the child becomes, the better the child's memory develops. Children's memory development is very important to becoming a good reader. So, if a child asks for the same book to be read over and over again – that's wonderful – read it as many times as the child asks.
Adults can take their cues from children for literature selection by watching as children explore their environments. Note what sparks young children's interests and passions and what increases their understanding of the world of literature, be it airplanes, wizards or rabbits.
Parents and caregivers need to be aware of the playful activities embedded in many of the books designed for young children – enticing rhymes that are fun to recite and action games such as those found in We're Going on a Bear Hunt (Rosen, 1993). Children enjoy acting out their own version of the bear hunt: " Oh-oh! A snowstorm! A swirling whirling snowstorm. We can't go over it. We can't go under it. Oh, no! We've got to go through it!" A thoughtfully chosen children's book like this one can provide both parent and child with stories and activities that enrich their lives and time together.
Parents and caregivers are advised to expose children to a wide range of literature and an array of genres, thereby providing children with opportunities to build understandings, learn vocabulary, develop memory, and have a host of vicarious experiences. Handling and playing with cloth, board books, and plastic bath books is an early way for babies to actively interact with books. Today, many classic picture books are available as board books including Good Night Moon (Brown, 1947), Owl Babies (Waddell, 1992), and Good Night Gorilla (Rathmann, 1994).
Public libraries offer sessions for parents and caregivers on ways to share books effectively. They also provide information about the library as a place for resources, expertise, and literacy programs.

Benefits of Early Engagement with Books

Parents and caregivers understand that when children and adults share a book about a place or an experience they may not personally have had, the children (and the adults) are undoubtedly learning something new about the world. In addition to this self-evident benefit, we present here the many other benefits resulting from frequent read-alouds.

Vocabulary Development

Pre-school children who regularly share picture books with their caregivers learn more words than do children with fewer book-reading experiences. Labeling and identifying objects during read-alouds increases a child's vocabulary, with the majority of 15 to 18-month olds learning a new word and generalizing the word to the specific object or person after only a single reading. Children exposed to a range of literature and genres become familiar with highly specific vocabulary that is rarely used in everyday conversations. Readers of the beloved classic, The Story of Ferdinand (Leaf, 1936) become familiar with the proper names for the various bullfighters: banderilleros, picadors, and matador. While children build their vocabulary to describe the world of people, places, things, and emotions, they also become familiar with the specialized vocabulary necessary for dealing with print. By engaging in reading on a regular basis, children grow to understand the meaning of critically important words such as read, write, draw, page, story, and book.

Functions of Print

When children have been immersed in a range of literature and print-related experiences from a very early age, they come to appreciate that print serves multiple purposes. From what the adults around them do with print, children learn that:
  1. Print can be a form of entertainment,
  2. Print can serve as a way to gain information (for example, movie listings),
  3. Print can encourage imagination (for example, We're Going on a Bear Hunt),
  4. Print can be a way of coping with emotions (for example, a book about a difficult subject, such as Waiting for the Whales by McFarlane,1991),
  5. Print can be a support for memory (for example, a shopping list),
  6. Print can be a problem-solving tool (for example, reading an information book on how to build a toy), or
  7. Print can be a means for conveying instructions (for example, a children's cookbook).

Phonemic Awareness

A steady flow of nursery rhymes, poetry, and word games as part of regular read-alouds will enhance a child's ability to focus on the sounds of language and enhance their memory. Children's familiarity with rhyming is related to their increased reading and spelling achievement in later years. Parents and caregivers can take ideas from books such as Language games to play with your child (McCabe, 1992) and easily include them in book-sharing activities at home or in childcare centres, for example, The Random House Book of Poetry for Children: Selected and Introduced  by Jack Prelutsky (1983).

Social Benefits

A parent or caregiver's attention and warm physical contact are fundamental to children being able to develop healthy attachments to others during infancy. During book-sharing the comforting presence of the reader's voice, touch, and emotional attunement, and the act of holding the infant securely are times for the young child and caregiver to connect socially, emotionally, and physically.
When children are sensitively and mindfully encouraged to be active participants in book-reading sessions, they develop a sense of independence and an awareness of their own abilities. They form attitudes that foster life-long learning such as self-esteem, interest, involvement, confidence, and playfulness. Through read-alouds babies and toddlers are 'taught' about their role in reading, their ability to change or control these experiences, and their parents'/caregiver's expectations of them when reading and sharing books.


A crucial component of young children's literacy development is their engagement with literature through read-alouds. However, an important element of an effective read-aloud is interaction with an attentive and caring adult reader. A patient and sensitive adult reader, who engages the child in playful interactions with books (e.g., by asking the child to name things in the pictures, encouraging children to join in when reading familiar parts, asking children questions about what they are reading) helps children to see themselves as contributing to the reading event.
The easy availability of books and consistent rituals around books also support literacy development. Book selections for infants and pre-school children should be based on the interests and capacity of the child, and should result in mutually pleasurable reading experiences for both child and adult.
Sharing books with young children fosters vocabulary development, provides opportunities for learning about print, and develops an awareness of the sounds of language.
Picture books also provide a context through which children can develop healthy attachments to adults, find comfort and a sense of their own abilities, and develop a positive disposition towards reading.


Details on the Books Mentioned

Ahlberg, J. & Ahlberg, A. (1978). Each Peach Pear Plum. London: Kestrel Books.
Badoe, A. (2002). Nana's Cold Days. Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books.
Brown, M.W. (1947). Good Night Moon. New York: Harper Trophy.
Brown, R. (1985). The Big Sneeze. New York: Mulberry Books.
Day, A. (1986). Good Dog, Carl. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Fox, M. (1988). Koala Lou. London: Penguin Books.
Leaf, M. (1936). The Story of Ferdinand.New York: Viking Press.
Marsden. J. (1998). The Rabbits. Port Melbourne, Australia: Lothian Books.
Martin, B. (1967). Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do You See? New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
McCabe. (1992). Language Games to Play with Your Child: Enhancing Communication from Infancy Through Late Childhood. New York: Insight Books.
McFarlane, S.(1991). Waiting for the Whales. Victoria: Orca Books.
McGugan, J. (1994). Josepha: A Prairie Boy's Story. Red Deer, AB: Red Deer College Press.
Oppel, K. (2000). Peg and the Whale. Toront
Prelutsky, J (1983). The Random House Book of Poetry for Children: Selected and Introduced by Jack Prelutsky. New York: Random House.
Rathmann, P. (1994). Good Night, Gorilla. New York: Putnam.
Rosen, M. (1993). We're Going on a Bear Hunt. London: Walker Books.
Steffan, C. (2003). A New Home for Malik. Calgary, AB: Calgary Immigrant Women's Association.
Waddell, M. (1992). Owl Babies. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.

Bainbridge, J. & Gellner, J. (2009). Parent/Caregiver Narrative: Children's Literature 0 – 60 Months. In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 – 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 8. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development