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

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Pre-Reading Development (0-6 Months)click to print Print
Research Review / Parent

Written by: Heather Sample Gosse, University of Oklahoma and Meridith Lovell, University of Alberta

Introduction to Pre-Reading Development 0-6 Months - Learning about Literacy Begins

Babies begin to learn about reading and books from the first time they hear a story or place a book in their mouths. Sharing books with newborns gives them a different and important experience with language. These types of early experiences set the stage for future listening, speaking, reading, and writing development. Because caregivers are often close and cuddling with babies while sharing books, even these very young children start to develop positive feelings about books and reading. For the babies, this feeling of warmth and security is more important than actually understanding what the book or rhyme is about. They will simply enjoy the gentle tone of a caregiver's reading voice.

How Caregivers Support Babies' Pre-Reading and Language Development by Sharing Books

You may have already noticed that newborns are quite responsive to human voices. Researchers have found that infants can distinguish human voices from other noises and respond by turning their heads towards the speaker. Babies are most responsive to their mother's voices (see Listening). By three to six months of age, your baby will begin to show preferences for known voices by looking away from unknown voices when a familiar voice is heard. For example, during a family gathering held when Avery was four months of age, she was carried out of the kitchen into another room by her aunt. It soon became evident to everyone that Avery was turning towards the sound of her mother's voice in the kitchen. Caregivers can take advantage of young infants' interest in voices to share books with them. When a caregiver shares a book with a very young infant, the baby will be most interested in the tone of the caregiver's voice, his or her touches and hugs, and the overall sound of the language. The experience helps build a positive attitude towards language and reading. Babies are not expected to focus on pictures or print at this age as they are just learning to focus on the objects and faces around them.

Infants also enjoy the sounds of repetitive language (e.g., Look, there is a bird. Look, there is a puppy.) and rhyme. Caregivers can comfort and amuse young babies by reading the same book, saying the same rhyme, or singing the same song many times. For example, Max's grandmother was able to keep him happy by bouncing him on her knee and singing "Little Boy Blue." Babies, like all children, enjoy having favourite stories read to them again and again. Young babies demonstrate their enjoyment of familiar language by making sounds, smiling, making eye contact, and moving their arms and legs. Around three months of age, your baby will begin to anticipate familiar stories, songs and rhymes, especially if these are read, sung or said to him or her many times. Max came to expect the "Little Boy Blue" song from his grandmother and sharing the song became a special part of their relationship.

If given the opportunity to hold books and touch them (or mouth them!) while listening to stories, young babies will come to focus on books as interesting objects by the age of three to six months. If read to consistently, young babies will develop positive feelings about the sound of story language and about books by the time they are six months of age. You can promote these positive feelings by giving your baby your complete attention when sharing a book, using a positive and interested voice, and holding him or her close as you turn the pages and point to pictures. Because babies this age will not stay focused on a book, the quality of interaction between adult readers and babies is most important.

Loving reading experiences make babies feel safe and entertained, enable them to learn about language, and come to associate reading and interacting time with enjoyment. Short, frequent experiences with books promote an infant's later reading and language development. These experiences do not need to be formally planned. Any short, quiet break during the day is an excellent time for reading, singing or just talking to babies.

Specific Pre-Reading and Language Skills Developed by Babies when Caregivers Share Books

Awareness of Books as Unique Objects

If they are exposed to books on a regular basis, even very young babies will learn important things about them. Researchers call this the "preliminary period", meaning that the babies are just gaining a general awareness of books and print. A young infant will typically ignore a book until it directly touches his or her body. By three to six months of age, babies will explore books with their hands and mouths just as they do with other objects of interest to them. While this type of exploration can be concerning to parents it is a natural and important part of child development. Cloth, vinyl and board books are very useful for young infants. These types of books are both durable and easily manipulated by babies. Babies particularly enjoy touching books with textured pages such as those featuring special patches of soft, rough, or crinkly material. When he was born, Max received a cloth book with crinkly pages and bright, simple pictures of animals that later became one of his favorite playthings. These types of books add to the sensory experience of sharing books. Although young babies remain unaware that books, words or even letters hold meaning or convey a message, by exploring books with caregivers they will come to value books as important and interesting objects.

Knowledge of Story

Many cloth, vinyl and board books for babies do not have a story but simply show pictures with labels. For example, a book may have a picture of a puppy and then the word, "puppy" written beneath. Pictures in board and vinyl books tend to be simple with bright colours and plain backgrounds, making the picture attractive to babies and easier for them to focus on. This type of book is very appropriate at this stage. By naming the pictures, pointing to them, and talking about them you can help your baby begin to learn the words that are used for different objects.

Sharing the same short stories and songs with young babies many times helps develop their memory and knowledge of story. Babies as young as three to six months will anticipate the actions, gestures or speech patterns that occur in familiar stories or songs. For example, when Avery was five months old, she would anticipate the action at the end of a familiar rhyme. Avery's mom recited, "Trot Old Joe, Trot Old Joe. You ride better than any horse I know. Trot Old Joe, Trot Old Joe. You're the best horse in the country - o" while bouncing Avery on her knee. Facing her mom, Avery would watch and listen attentively as her mom's talking slowed at the end of the verse before she said, "Whoa Joe!" and gently lowered Avery backwards. Avery's careful watching and attentive expression showed that she anticipate the final movement. As time passed and the rhyme was repeated, Avery waited for longer periods between the rhyme and the final movement, demonstrating her memory of the rhyme and its actions. Memory development is an important part of pre-reading. Avery was demonstrating a beginning awareness of sequence (first, next, last) and the predictability of language in stories.

Words and Pictures

Although young babies are able to focus on the print on a page, they treat the words as part of the picture. However, by pointing out words on the page as well as the pictures, caregivers can help babies become familiar with print. For example, when sharing a simple book with four-month-old Max, his dad pointed to a picture, saying, "Look a truck" and then to the print under the picture, saving, "This says truck." This type of interaction helps children learn to separate print and pictures at later stages of reading development.

Awareness of Sounds in Spoken and Written Words

From birth, babies demonstrate increasing awareness of the sounds around them. Newborns respond best to the voices of their mothers. At first, infants experiment with making many kinds of sounds to see which will gain the attention of their caregivers. In turn, caregivers respond to and praise only those sounds that approximate the sounds of their own language. This behavior reinforces these sounds for babies. For example, when five-month-old Avery made the "ma-ma" sound, her mother recognized the sound, smiling and hugging Avery and repeating the sound to encourage her to say it again. As they approach six months of age, babies are most able to understand and produce the sounds of the language used in their homes, whether it be English, French, Spanish or another language (Speech and language, emotional development.)

Babies gradually learn to differentiate the different sounds they hear as well as the sounds they make themselves. They learn that these sounds have meaning and that different sounds have different meanings. The meaning is found in the different responses from caregivers. For example, a crying noise will result in a different type of response than the response to a laughing sound. The ability to differentiate different sounds and meanings that begins to emerge with attentive and responsive caregiving in the first six months of life continues to develop as children grow older. Learning about the sounds in their home language and adult language patterns forms an important basis for later speaking and reading.

Sample Gosse, H., & Lovell, M. (2008). Parent/Caregiver Narrative: Pre-Reading Development (0 - 6 Months). In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 3. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development