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

A recent study of reading in 34 countries (Mullis, Martin, Gonzales & Kennedy, 2003) found that successful readers had engaged in many early literacy activities prior to school entry. The document Becoming a Nation of Readers (1985) maintained that reading aloud to children is the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading coupled with the engagement of the child (Levy, Gong, Hessels, Evans, & Jared, 2006; Phillips, Norris, & Anderson, 2008; Sénèchal, 2006). Many educators, psychologists and reading researchers (Calkins, 2000; Deloache & Mendoza, 1987; Fox, 2001; Holland, 2008; Honig & Shin, 2001; McMahon, 1996; Nash, 1997; Neuman, 1999; Ninio, 1983; Shore, 1997) have reinforced and extended this thesis by including the positive literacy opportunities afforded infants and toddlers through frequent read-alouds. Studies point to the receptivity of infants to read-alouds, finding that they are ready to listen to stories by 16 weeks, and that by 6 months they are capable of reacting to the intonation and inflection patterns of a reader's voice (Curtis & Schuler, 2005; De l'Etoile, 2006). Developmentally appropriate literature selections introduce infants to the world of communication and learning, and they create a medium for fostering and developing attachment behaviours between adults and children (Bus & van Ijzendoorn, 1988; Bus, Belsky, van Ijzendoorn, & Crnic, 1997).
While reading aloud to the very young is a necessary component of nurturing language and literacy development, it is not sufficient without the active involvement of a responsive, mediating adult and child. A sensitive parent or caregiver can initiate young children to the world of literature – to both its educational potential and the simple pleasures inherent in active interactions with books. The importance of effective strategies for actively engaging children, birth to five years, in book sharing events will be demonstrated. We describe the role each component of a book-share (reader, child and book) contributes to the quality of the interaction, and we highlight the vital role children's literature can play in developing language and literacy and ultimately readers.

Children's Literature

Definitions of children's literature vary with culture, reader and critic. In most western cultures, children's literature consists of print, while in other cultures it is shared orally through songs, lullabies and folktales. Children's literature includes fiction and nonfiction, prose and poetry, pictures and words. It is designed to appeal to children's interests, needs and preferences. A well-written children's book helps children to gain a more complete understanding of their world by promoting an appreciation for the wonder of language, sparking imagination, sharing information, and revealing the lives of others (Kiefer, 2007; Tsao, 2008). The appealing sophistication of contemporary picture books is reflected in the wide availability of multi-language, multicultural books that represent today's diverse populations.
Picture books are the first books that most children encounter. A picture book is more than simply a children's book with illustrations; the pictures in picture books are at least as important as the print. Neither picture nor print is completely effective without the other (Norton, 1999). Picture books span all genres and contain three elements: what is communicated through words, what is communicated through pictures and what is communicated through a combination of the two (Jalongo, 2004). Children learn to read illustrations along the way to becoming readers of print, and those illustrations can be drawings, paintings, collages or photographs. Many picture books are wordless, and not all picture books are intended for young children. Some picture books today are designed for adults and young adult readers (e.g., The Rabbits (Marsden, 1998)).
Picture books can provide powerful critical commentary through their multiple themes and the strength of their illustrations. Straub (1999) writes, "Since babies are illiterate 'readers' to begin with, they are drawn in [by the illustrations] to learn through their eyes while the story unfolds" (p. 83).

Engaging Pre-school Children with Books

For infants, toddlers and preschool children there are three vital facets of any dynamic interaction with a book: the adult reader, the child, and the book itself (Fletcher & Reese, 2005). Razfar and Gutierrez (2003) maintain that, "Early literacy learning is a multi-dimensional and mutually engaging process between adults and children" (p.35).

The Adult Reader

Neuman (1999) explored research that examined effective adult-child interaction strategies. Two important components were found to be important: a) an environment rich in print and with accessible books (the physical proximity of attractive, high quality books in the children's sightlines seemed to encourage interest and use) and b) a caring adult to read to the children who exposes them to rich vocabulary and linguistic forms, talks about events, and focuses attention on ways to better understand text, and how to participate as readers by predicting, chiming in, and retelling stories. The mediating reader (adult) conveys the message that written language makes sense, is enjoyable, and can and should be an integral part of life. Neuman also found that consistency and ritual (such as a cozy space, and the time of day) added to the value and benefits of reading aloud. Book choice, adapting a book when necessary, taking the child's pleasure into account, rereading familiar books, and asking questions were also important elements of a quality shared read-aloud experience.
Overwhelming evidence points to the importance of increasing the volume of children's playful, stimulating experiences with good books in promoting their early language and literacy development (Anderson, 1995; Elley, 1989; Feitelson, Kita, & Goldstein, 1986; Whitehurst, et al., 1994). It appears that the greater the physical access to books, plus the greater the verbal interaction around literacy, plus the greater the time spent reading and relating to books, the greater the prospects for reading and writing development.
The active construction of knowledge also appears to be an essential component of a quality interaction with books. Very young children need multi-dimensional experiences to construct knowledge, for example, holding an apple, tasting it, hearing it crunch, hearing about it in a story, exploring it in a picture book, and relating the two letter "p's" to it (Zeece, 2008). Owocki (2001) writes, "Children's unique interests, ways of knowing, and dispositions influence how and to what extent they participate in early literacy events, and in turn, the knowledge they construct" (p. 5). Zeece found that a keen eye and the patience of parents helped infants 'put the pieces together' on their way to mastering new concepts and skills.

Most research to date that examines reading with infants has focused almost exclusively on the adult reader's behaviour (usually a parent). Researchers have demonstrated that parents often label pictured objects, comment, and ask questions about pictures when reading (Bus, Belsky, van IJzendoorn, & Crnic, 1997). With infants up to 18 months of age, parents will deviate from the print and use attention-getting strategies such as pointing to, labeling of and commenting on the illustrations. With children older than 18 months adults ask more questions and engage in extended conversations with them. Adults appear to talk in more complex ways during a read-aloud event than during free-play settings, and parental speech measures such as length of utterance, nature of responsiveness to the child's utterances, and degree of abstraction are higher in book reading contexts (Namy, Acredolo & Goodwin, 2000).

Seminal research conducted in the 1980s has demonstrated that changes in parental reading behaviour can enhance young children's language development, for example, when parents of 2-year-olds are trained to use "dialogic reading" (Whitehurst, et al., 1988). Dialogic reading techniques include ways to encourage children to talk about pictures and stories with open-ended questions; the provision of feedback to expand upon children's utterances; and modification of parents' speech to match the developing child's linguistic abilities. The use of such techniques by the parent to encourage children to talk about pictured materials is preferable to techniques that place the child in a more passive role. Asking children 'what" questions' ("What is that elephant doing?"), for example, is preferable to reading to them without asking questions, or to asking them 'yes' or 'no' questions.

The Child

Well into the 20th century children were characteristically seen as non-readers until they entered the school system (Searfoss, Readence, & Mallette, 2001). Research has since legitimized the reading and writing children attempt before they reach school age (Clay, 1975; Holdaway, 1979; Sulzby, 1985/1994, 1991; Teale & Sulzby, 1986; van Kleeck, 1990) and has identified a range of skills and attributes preschoolers learn through their interactions with books, including book handling, directionality, knowledge of letters and words, the rhythms of language, the conventions of language and story, the generative nature of language, and the pleasure of reading and sharing literary experiences with another person.

Children learn to see themselves as active contributors to the reading interaction when they are offered constant opportunities to think, process, and participate in book responses from birth onwards. Key experiences that children from birth to three years need in order to develop early literacy behaviours have been identified in numerous studies (Makin, 2006; Sylva, Sammons, Sirag-Blatchford, Melhuish, & Quinn, 2001). These experiences include having books read to them frequently, opportunities to play with letters and sounds, having adults draw the child's attention to print and later to letters (though it is critically important that the introduction to the social practices of literacy come before a focus on encoding and decoding), and learning songs and nursery rhymes, which are linked to an awareness of phonological sensitivity.

Play and literacy share common boundaries in the developing minds of young children. Strong evidence demonstrates that play serves literacy by providing settings that promote literacy activities, skills and strategies (Roskos & Christie, 2000, 2004). Play provides an arena in which connections can be made between oral and written modes of expression. Neuman and Roskos (1991) studied the effects of peers as literacy coaches during informal play. They found that children's utterances around literacy events echo the types of conversations adults have with children during shared reading. In their conversations, the children labeled literacy related objects (e.g. "Look, is that a dinosaur?"), negotiated with each other to establish shared meaning, and interpreted meanings of the texts. The researchers also identified coaching attempts by children to help each other overcome some type of literacy-related obstacle (often involving the spelling of words, forming letters, or demonstrating routines). Neuman and Roskos suggest that children in enriched literacy environments can and do provide substantive input to one another's literacy learning. These instructional conversations are embedded in the flow of their ongoing play. They argue for an increased awareness of the impact of informal conversations on children's understandings of written language.

The Book

It is generally acknowledged that children's literature must be "well chosen and wisely shared" (Zeece, Harris & Hayes, 2006). The first criterion for book selection must be the interests and capacities of the child. Zeece (2008) suggests that adults take their cues from children for literature selection and to watch as children explore and interact with literacy-related materials in the environment. A perceptive adult will 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. A second is that a book must provide a mutually pleasurable experience for both child and adult if the interaction with the book is to be dialogically engaging and self-perpetuating (Straub, 1999). She writes, "Without the intimate pleasure, experience and awareness of the range and fun of books for children, new moms may continue to wait for proper schooling to read to their babies" (p. 85). Parents 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 (Prelutsky, 1983), and action games such as those found in We're Going on a Bear Hunt (Rosen, 1993), Brown Bear, Brown Bear (Martin, 1967), and Goodnight Moon (Brown, 1947). A thoughtfully chosen children's book can provide both parent and child with stories and artwork that enrich their lives.

Although picture books are pervasive in literate societies, it has been found that the range and quantity of books varies as a function of socio-economic status. Lower-SES children have less exposure to a range of print-related experiences (Anderson & Stokes, 1984; Heath, 1983; McCormick & Mason, 1986; Teale, 1986). This disparity can have pernicious consequences for low income children's long term success in schooling. Literacy campaigns in many parts of the world (Makin, 2005; Millard, Taylor, & Watson, 2000; Moore & Wade, 1996; Neuman, 1999; Straub, 1999) have attempted to narrow the gap by providing books and emphasizing the value of picture book sharing. Additionally, these initiatives have offered training courses for parents and caregivers on ways to share books effectively. They also educate families about the library as a source for resources, expertise, and literacy programs.

The philosophy of the home and the value placed on reading are shown to be strong factors influencing book selection (Holland, 2008). Once the benefits of children's literature are recognized, caregivers would be advised to expose children to a wide range of literature to maximize the educational potential of book sharing. Holland maintains that with an array of genres and formats, infants have increased opportunity to build schema, learn oral vocabulary, and enjoy 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.

 Zambo and Hansen (2007) address children's developmental stages and the types of books appropriate for each stage. An age-appropriate approach to book selection is the most prescriptive. For example, the researchers suggest that since children at 4 to 6 months have developed their pincer grip, they should be given cloth and board books. Calkins (2000) reminds parents and caregivers that we should not underestimate children or the "magic of the words" to inspire and engage young readers in literature and literacy activities.

Benefits of Early Engagement with Books

The role picture book reading plays in young children's language and literacy development has been well documented. Next, we highlight the multiple benefits resulting from frequent, sensitively mediated picture book interactions in the early formative years.

Vocabulary Development

Pre-school children who regularly share picture books with their caregivers know more words orally than children with fewer book-reading experiences (DeBaryshe, 1993; Sénéchal & Cornell, 1993; Whitehurst, et al., 1988). Labeling (identifying objects) by adults during read-alouds has been shown to increase oral vocabulary, with the majority of 15- 18 month-olds learning a novel word and generalizing the word to a referent after a single reading interaction (Ganea, Pickard, & DeLoache, 2008). Children exposed to a range of literature and genres become familiar with highly specific vocabulary rarely used in everyday conversations, for instance the names of flora and fauna found in books about the jungle or foreign lands (DeTemple & Snow, 2003). While children build a more complex oral vocabulary repertoire to describe the world of people, places, things and emotions, they also become familiar with the specialized vocabulary necessary for dealing with print. They understand the meaning of words such as read, write, draw, page, story, and book, though words such as letter, capital and word might be outside their cognitive grasp when beginning formal education (Goodman, 1986). Children who have deficits in the basic oral vocabulary used to talk about print-related phenomena are at risk for failure in early reading instruction (Van Kleeck, 1990).

Functions of Language

Along with enhanced oral vocabulary, young children learn about the functions of language – communication, form and function, purposeful verbal interactions, and play with language (Isenberg & Jalongo, 2001) – through engagement with children's literature. Responding to repeated readings of 'More' Said the Baby (Williams, 1990), a small group of three- year olds were documented 'practicing' these components during free play (Stressed & Splotch, 2007) as follows:
Communication: The children pretend to be caregivers, gently bidding the babies "Goodnight, sleep tight".
Forms and functions: One child scolds the "babies" when they don't go directly to sleep while another softly lulls them to bed with a song.
Purposeful verbal interaction: Children discuss how best to undress 'baby', and propose materials they could use for a blanket.
Play with language: The children make-up silly names for the baby – 'Little Quack Duck' referencing one of the babies named 'Little Bird' in the book.

Functions of Print

When children have been immersed in an array of literature and print-related experiences from a very early age, they come to appreciate that print serves multiple functions. These functions can include such things as a means of acquiring knowledge, a portal into an imaginary world, a vehicle for self-expression, a form of entertainment, a way of coping with emotions, a support for memory, a problem solving tool, a way to make announcements, or a means for conveying instructions (Anderson & Stokes, 1984; Schieffelin & Cochran-Smith, 1984).

Phonological and Phonemic Awareness

A steady flow of nursery rhymes, poetry, and word games as part of the read-aloud ritual enhances a child's ability to focus on sounds in language. Studies show that children's familiarity with rhyming and alliteration is related to increased reading and spelling achievement in later years (Bradley, 1988). Ideas from books such as language games to play with your child (McCabe, 1992) can be easily embedded in book sharing at home or in childcare centres.

Topical Knowledge

It makes sense to assume that young children's experiences with books contribute to their development of world knowledge. Van Kleeck (2003) points to a possible gap that future research in the field of literacy development and children's literature might address:
Though I know of no specific research on the impact of book sharing on children's general knowledge, this may be because the impact is so basic and obvious. Any time children share a book about an experience that they have not personally had, or about a place they have not been, they are undoubtedly learning something new about the world. (p. 293)

Social, Emotional and Psychological Benefits

Parents' responsiveness and warm physical contact have been identified as fundamental characteristics in securing healthy attachments during infancy. When read-aloud is practiced as a daily routine, both responsiveness and warm physical contact are central to the experience. During book-sharing the comforting presence of the reader's voice, touch and emotional attunement, and the act of holding the infant securely, help to establish social, emotional, cognitive, and physical connections between the young child and the caregiver (Zambo & Hansen, 2007).
When children are sensitively and mindfully encouraged to be active participants in book reading sessions, they develop a sense of self-efficacy, as well as form dispositions that foster life-long learning such as self-esteem, interest, involvement, confidence, and playfulness. Through shared book reading babies are 'taught' about their role in these experiences, their ability to affect these experiences, as well as their mother's expectations of them in the experience (Makin, 2005).


A crucial component of young children's literacy development is their engagement with literature through read-aloud. However, an important component of an effective read-aloud is interaction with an adult reader. A patient and sensitive adult reader, who engages the child in playful interactions with books using 'dialogic' reading strategies, can help children to see themselves as active contributors to the reading event. Proximity to books and consistent rituals around books are additional components that 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 infants and young children has been shown to affect vocabulary development, to provide opportunities for using the many functions of language and for learning the functions and conventions of print. Picture books also provide a context for children through which they can develop healthy attachments to adults, find comfort and a sense of self-efficacy, and develop a positive disposition towards reading.

Bainbridge, J. & Gellner, J. (2009). Research Review: 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 - 7. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development