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

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Pre-Reading Development (7-12 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 7-12 Months: Becoming Active Participants in Reading Activities

Between seven and twelve months of age, babies begin to more actively interact with their caregivers (Speech and Language). Their babbles and gestures become more meaningful as they use these sounds and actions to communicate with caregivers. Over these months, babies become more able to take turns with adults while communicating or sharing books. Turn-taking becomes even more evident after about ten months of age.

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

By seven months of age, babies start to take a more active role in book sharing activities. Your baby may babble while listening to stories, laugh and smile at favorite parts, point to and show interest in the pictures, and begin to direct the reading experience by turning the pages. These behaviors will increase over the next six months if you share books with your baby on a regular basis. When Avery was seven months old, she enjoyed looking at books put out in front of her while she lay on her tummy. When her mom pointed to Avery's favorite pictures of animals and made their sounds, Avery would show her interest by smiling, cooing, and pulling her head and neck up. Sometimes Avery would even amuse herself by flipping the pages in her cloth books and looking at the pictures.

Researchers have found that many caregivers begin reading to infants from birth and that even these young babies benefit from the experience (0-6 month caregiver reading). On average, however, adults begin reading to infants at nine months of age. These caregivers are likely encouraged to share books at this time because most nine-month-olds are able to show more active interest in reading experiences. If you have not yet started sharing books with your baby, now is a great time to start. Informal reading experiences, where adults read to children and focus on the story, assist in oral language development and build positive responses to reading. Once babies this age are familiar with the pleasures of sharing books with caregivers they will often encourage more reading together times. Older babies may request that adults read to them by bringing them a book to read or by turning the pages back to the beginning once the adult has finished reading the story. It is also important to note that babies will let their caregivers know when they would prefer to do something else rather than reading. Your baby may use sounds, facial expressions, or gestures to let you know that he or she is not interested in reading at a certain time. Sharing books with caregivers should be an enjoyable experience for children so if a child is uncooperative it is best to wait and try again later. For example, when Max was nine months old he often enjoyed listening to the book Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. One day though Max just would not sit in his mom's arms. He squirmed and made protesting sounds. She quickly realized that he wanted to practice standing alongside the sofa, a new skill he was working to master. Max's mom wisely decided to wait and look at books later when Max was tired with more active play.

One year olds continue to benefit from informal book sharing activities for enjoyment and meaning but they are also ready for more formal interactions that will help them learn book concepts and the words used for those concepts. For example, you can talk about the letters, words, and other features of the books such as the title and different types of print. For example, when Avery was one, she enjoyed listening to her dad read The Belly Button Book by Sandra Boynton. In this book, very small print is used to indicate the quiet voice of a tiny hippopotamus, large colorful print indicates shouting, and print with musical notes indicates singing. Avery's dad modeled the different types of voices indicated by the print while he read and pointed to each word. Sometimes he would comment on what he was doing, such as pointing to a word and saying, "It's small now. It's a whisper." Later, after many similar readings of the book and when Avery could talk more, she was able to tell her grandma exactly how to read the book!

Babies enjoy frequently repeated readings of favourite books. These repeated readings help them to become familiar with the language of the book. This familiarity helps them learn new words used in the book and allows them to sense when caregivers are about to read their favourite parts. If you read the same books over and over again, your baby's understanding of what he or she is hearing will gradually increase. You can also use familiarity and anticipation to help your baby develop language skills by telling the same stories about past and future events, saying the same rhymes, and singing the same songs repeatedly. For example, when Max was ten months old he enjoyed listening to a story his daddy would tell him each morning about his drive to work. Max's dad's story told about how he would kiss Max and his mommy goodbye, put on his coat, jump in the car, and drive to work. It featured sound effects for the kiss and car that Max loved even more than how his dad pretended to put on his coat and jump in the car when telling the story. Through playful repetition, babies become familiar with patterns of structure and meaning in both oral and written language. It is certainly likely that hearing his dad's story many times helped Max learn the words kiss and drive!

The more frequently your baby hears stories and enjoys interacting with you and other caregivers, the greater will be his or her appreciation for reading. Researchers have found that children who have had frequent exposure to repeated readings of favourite stories and interactions with books from an early age have a greater understanding of reading concepts when formal schooling begins at age five than their peers who have not had frequent experiences with repeated readings or interactions with books.

How Babies and Caregivers Interact When Reading

When sharing books, caregivers can change how they read in order to engage their babies and increase their interaction while reading.

Adapting the Reading Experience

Adapting the reading experience to meet babies' needs helps to make the reading experience more meaningful for them even though they cannot yet follow a story. You can help involve your baby in the reading process and maintain his or her interest by using a question-and-answer or conversational style of reading. For example, ten-month-old Avery held a story book out to her dad while they waited at the doctor's office. On the first page, the print said, "‘What shall we do today?' asked Amy's mom". Instead of reading that, Avery's dad said, "Look there's a mom and a baby girl in this book. Just like you and mommy. I wonder what they are going to do."

When reading with a baby, an adult reader can adjust the language to a level that will encourage the baby to respond, just as Avery's dad did in the above example. Adult readers can point to pictures, ask questions (and wait expectantly for answers, even when they know the infant cannot yet speak), talk about the meaning of what is read, and encourage imitation of sound patterns, such as the sounds in key words from the book (i.e., "buh-buh" for a book featuring bubbles).

In addition to helping to engage a child who cannot yet follow along with an entire story, this question-and-answer or conversational style of reading helps babies learn new words and understand language and appropriately matches their short attention spans and interest in quickly turning pages. As a result, this style of reading strengthens reading interactions between babies and their caregivers.

Engaging in the Reading Experience

Although listening to stories helps babies learn to follow storylines and increase their attention spans, at seven to twelve months of age, babies will typically follow the individual pictures more closely than what the adult reader is saying. In fact, you may notice that your baby will engage in the reading experience by turning the pages in the book you are trying to read to find favourite pictures. Because you are used to reading a story from beginning to end, this type of action by your child may frustrate you. Avery was a baby who loved to turn pages in books and search out favourite pictures while her mom was eager to share the whole story with her. However, your baby's ability to show preference for certain pictures or pages in a book and communicate these preferences to adults is a positive development. These actions show that your baby is able to interact more meaningfully with you and that he or she is starting to see reading as an engaging and interactive activity. Avery's mom learned to engage Avery in the reading experience by working with her interest in turning pages and looking at pictures by switching to a more conversational style of reading until a time when Avery was ready to listen to more of the story.

Interacting in the Reading Experience

Just as it did in the first six months of life, interacting with caregivers while sharing books often gives seven- to twelve-month-old babies great pleasure. When babies find experiences pleasurable or rewarding, they are more likely to repeat the experiences. For this reason, the warm quality of the interaction between you and your child is at least as important as reading the book. Children this age do not recognize any pressure to "read it right" and are simply focused on taking enjoyment out of the experience. If this enjoyment is fostered it may very well promote a lifelong interest in reading.

You can foster positive feelings towards reading by holding your baby close when reading, speaking pleasantly to him or her, smiling, and finding ways to engage his or her interest in the activity. You are modeling the reading process and the enjoyment of reading. Your child may even come to demonstrate increased interest in the reading experience by signaling you to read favourite books or rhymes again. For example, ten-month-old Max was able to let his grandma know that he wanted her to read his favourite teddy bear book again by flipping the book back to its front cover and patting it repeatedly while babbling excitedly.

How Babies' Experiences with Language Support Pre-Reading Development

Between the ages of seven and twelve months, babies' communication becomes more intentional than at earlier ages (Speech and language 7-12 mo caregiver link (no such link)). Between seven and twelve months of age, your child will discover that the sounds used in verbal communication have meaning. He or she will learn that specific sounds and sound combinations result in certain outcomes. For example, a baby this age will have developed a specific cry that indicates that he or she wishes to be changed, with a different cry indicating hunger. In communicating with adults, seven- to twelve-month-old babies also begin to learn that different words used by adults have specific meanings or outcomes. For example, they learn that mommy has a very different meaning from the word no.

Seven- to twelve-month-old babies use these new language skills to interact more and get more meaning out of the process of sharing books with caregivers. They continue to enjoy hearing their favourite stories again and again and may now show this enjoyment by making babbling sounds in response to the book. Their growing ability to take turns with others makes it possible for caregivers and babies to take turns mimicking the sounds of animals and other objects in pictures. At nine months of age, one of Avery's favorite books was Old MacDonald Had a Farm. She would point to the pictures of the different animals and look expectantly at the adult reader, waiting for the reader to make the animal's sound. After hearing the sound, Avery would try to make the sound herself.

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

Increased Awareness of the Unique Characteristics of Books

During the seven to twelve month period, babies often begin to pay more attention to the book when adults read to them. At seven months of age, babies may begin to watch the pictures on the page when an adult is reading to them, point to the pictures, and respond with babbles and gestures. They may even turn the pages in a book, although not always from the front to the back of the book. By the end of the seven to twelve month period, researchers have found that babies can choose books to be read to them based on preference and familiarity with the cover image and can turn to pages they remember and enjoy.

Robin Campbell, a professor and researcher in early years' education detailed his granddaughter's reading development. In Campbell's granddaughter's case, her parents read stories to her regularly, played alphabet games with her using pictures of letters and objects, demonstrated the parts of a book, and asked many questions to help her learn about books. As a result, she showed a very early understanding of vocabulary related to books, such as book and story, and she showed some understanding of the parts of a book. It is important to remember that her familiarity with book language and book concepts was fostered through the adults' conscious efforts to use the words book, cover, story, beginning, and end. Her parents also used several other words for parts of the book with her and demonstrated these concepts to her at a very young age. Campbell's granddaughter may be an exceptional case, but this example does show that even very young children may come to understand the words for book, cover, story, beginning, and end if adults use this language when reading and sharing books with them.

As they approach one year of age, babies also come to understand that pictures in books can represent real objects. They can use object knowledge gained from reading or other experiences to respond to objects in pictures and relate pictured objects to real objects. For example, when asked to point to a picture of a duck in a book, Campbell's granddaughter pointed to or kissed the picture of the duck. When she was asked to go "get the duck" (Campbell, 1999, p. 21), she would then bring her toy duck to the adult. Infants can also learn to label objects in their environments by using knowledge gained in reading interactions with caregivers. For example, when sharing a book about cars, Max's mom would often say "beep, beep" when she pointed to the car. Eventually Max started to point to cars outside and say "bee, bee".

As they watch the world around them and see adults reading, infants between the ages of seven and twelve months will mimic reading. They learn that books are handled in special ways and they will demonstrate this knowledge when participating in reading activities. For example, at this age, Avery was able to hold most books so that the pictures were right side up and would turn the pages while looking at the pictures. There will still also be many times when these babies revert back to treating books as playthings. This often happens when a baby is no longer interested in reading. For example, despite her apparent ability to mimic reading, Avery would often start mouthing the book or throwing it. When she did this, Avery's caregivers knew that she was no longer interested in reading. Alert caregivers will follow the baby's lead and stop reading to engage in a different activity.

Knowledge of Story

In the period between seven and twelve months of age, babies increasingly anticipate words and gestures associated with familiar stories and songs. For example, when listening to adults read a book with a picture of a train on it, a child this age may follow the train track with their fingers, if this has been demonstrated by the adult readers on past occasions. As they gain exposure to more and more stories, infants' recognition of and memory for these stories grows until they are able to memorize parts of familiar stories, rhymes or songs. When Avery was nine months old she demonstrated this memory for familiar language by waiting with increasing excitement as her mom neared the part in a rhyme where a sudden clapping sound was made. Once they begin talking when they are older, they will use this memory to respond with missing words.

Between seven and twelve months of age, infants will continue to label pictures with babbles and will turn pages randomly, even while the adult is reading, in order to find favourite pages or pictures. For children this age, engaging with favorite parts of the book is more important than understanding connections between various parts. Although infants from seven to twelve months of age may follow simple and familiar stories, they do not understand traditional stories as a series of events with a plot and characters. In fact, researchers have observed that adults often forgo reading the printed words to children of this age because of this incomplete understanding. Instead, adults may do as Max's and Avery's caregivers often did; label the pictures and ask and answer questions with the children in order to keep them engaged. Research has shown that this conversational style of reading has many benefits. For an example of this type of reading and a description of the benefits, please refer to Adapting the Reading Experience.

Words and Pictures

Between seven to twelve months of age most infants will focus only on the pictures or on the adult when listening to stories. At this age, Avery was very keen to look at pictures while Max tended to focus more on cuddling with and looking at the adult reading the story. Although these older babies enjoy and benefit from the oral language interactions that accompany reading, they do not yet understand that the spoken language used by an adult is based on print. Babies this age have no awareness of what a letter, word, or sentence is nor do they seek the deeper meaningfulness of a story, information, or any other message in a book. Their knowledge of books is at the level of physical book properties, including the cover, pages and pictures. They will point to pictures in books as they are read but they are not yet able to separate the print from the picture. They should not be expected to focus on printed words.

Awareness of Sounds in Spoken and Written Words

Well before seven months of age, babies can recognize the pleasant or playful tone of voice used for reading. Researchers have also found that even young babies are able to distinguish the use of sound effects from normal speaking voices. They will respond to those sounds with babbles and gestures. For example, at five month of age, Avery would turn her head and look when she heard her mom imitate the oinking sound of a pig while reading Old MacDonald Had a Farm.

Between seven and twelve months of age, babies begin babbling in a more meaningful manner (insert speech link – caregiver speech-language 7-12 mo) and can repeat simple sounds like "ma-ma-ma". They are not, however, expected to recognize separate sounds in words. For example, although ten-month-old Max would repeat "buh-buh" after his mom, he would not have understood that the words ball and book had "buh" sounds in them.

Reading, singing, or speaking to babies continues to be very important during the period from seven to twelve months of age. While engaging in these activities will help you bond with your baby, you will also help your infant learn the sounds of his or her home language. By enjoying these language-based activities, your baby will come to learn what sounds are part of their language (vowels and consonants), which sounds have meaning when combined into words and word parts, and how the tone and intonation of your voice conveys additional meaning. For example, as they near one year of age, babies can tell the difference between a statement and a question because how the speaker's voice rises when asking a question. They show this understanding by pointing to objects in pictures when asked to point to them. For example, Avery's grandma's question of "Where's the duck?" resulted in twelve-month-old Avery pointing to the picture of the duck in the book they were reading together but when Grandma turned the page and read "Once there were two ducks swimming in the lake" she did not get the same reaction.

Sample Gosse, H., & Lovell, M. (2008). Parent/Caregiver Narrative: Pre-Reading Development (7 – 12 Months). In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 6. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development