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: Meridith Lovell, University of Alberta

Introduction to Pre-Reading Development

From the first time infants hear a story, touch a book or place a book in their mouths their experiences with and attitudes toward reading, knowledge of how books work, and understanding of story structure start to develop. Sharing with books also provides a different and important exposure to language. Babies' first experiences with books are provided for and nurtured by the adults around them and often very young children associate books and reading with warmth, embraces and security (Whitehead, 1990). For infants, this feeling of warmth and security is more important than actually understanding what the book or rhyme is about. Infants enjoy the tone of the caregiver's reading voice.

Listening, talking, reading and writing are stimulated from the moment a child is born (Whitehead, 1999). In fact, researchers are very interested in the literacy experiences of young children and even babies, as possible predictors of later reading achievement in school. As Levy, Gong, Hassel, Evans and Jared state, "… experiences during the preschool years are believed to set the stage for children's literacy development" (2006, p. 64).

How Infant-Caregiver Interactions with Books Support Pre-Reading and Language Development

Infants enjoy the sound of patterned language and rhyme (Baldwin & Meyer, 2007; Campbell, 1999; Whitehead, 1990). The tones of adults' voices while speaking and their gestures and embraces all help infants build a positive attitude towards language. Babies respond more to the adult's voice than to a book and focusing on pictures or print is not an expectation since babies are just learning to focus on objects and faces in their immediate environments at about three to six months of age (Campbell, 1999). Infants are most responsive to their mothers' voices (Listening), although they can distinguish human voices from other noises and respond to voices by turning their heads towards the speaker. As they reach three to six months of age, babies begin to show preference for known voices by averting their gaze away from unknown voices when a familiar voice is heard.

By about three months of age, babies begin to anticipate familiar stories, songs and rhymes, especially if these are read, sung or recited to the baby many times (Campbell, 1999). Between three to six months, babies begin to focus on books as objects. They will hold books and touch them while listening to stories. Babies, like all children, enjoy having favourite stories read to them again and again (Campbell, 1999). By six months of age, infants start to develop "strongly positive associations with the flow of story language and with the physical characteristics of the books" (Holdaway, 1979, p. 40). These associations develop because while sharing books with babies, adults give their complete attention to the baby, read with positive and interested voices, and hold the baby while pointing to the page. As babies will not focus on the book, the quality of interaction between adults and babies is most important. Holding the babies closely, looking at the babies and smiling at them, and using a positive tone of voice whether reading, singing, speaking, or interacting are important ways to include babies in the language experience and build closer bonds between adults and babies. These language experiences need not be planned or formalized in any way, but the more frequent the better. Any short, quiet break during the day is an excellent time for reading, singing or just talking to babies.

By six months of age, the love of reading and learning is fostered through positive and engaging reading experiences with adults. Research carried out by Senechal, LeFevre, Thomas, and Daley (1998) and Senechal and LeFevre (2002) have reinforced the importance of reading to babies in the early months of life. According to both studies, the average age at which parents began reading to their babies was nine months of age, although many began this practice much earlier. Infants benefit from these informal literacy experiences: when reading to babies, adults hold them close, smile at them, point to the pictures, and demonstrate how to hold books. In addition to the physical closeness of reading to babies, adults use a pleasant or excited tone of voice, make noises and sound effects to complement the story, and use pointing to make associations between the words spoken (usually nouns) and the label/picture. These experiences make babies feel safe and entertained, enable them to learn about language, and come to associate reading and interacting time with enjoyment. Young babies demonstrate this enjoyment through making sounds, smiling, making eye contact, and moving their arms and legs even when they are as young as two months of age (Campbell, 1999).

Pre-Reading and Language Skills Developed by Babies during Caregiver Reading Interactions

Awareness of Books as Unique Objects

Babies become aware of books as unique objects. Although they may reach out to touch a book, they are unaware that books, words or even letters hold meaning or convey messages. Yet, even by six months of age when they are able to better focus on a book, they touch the book and point at pictures (Campbell, 1999).

Infants will ignore a book until it directly touches their body (Crowe & Reichmuth, 2001). Babies explore books with their hands and mouths (Campbell, 1999, Crowe & Reichmuth, 2001) and consider books as "objects that appeal to their senses and offer opportunities for certain kinds of exploration and playful investigation" (Whitehead, 1990, p. 113). Cloth, vinyl and board books for are both durable and easily manipulated by babies. When babies reach the three to six month age, they enjoy touching and holding books. They particularly enjoy touching books with textured pages designed for sensory experience and putting books in their mouths (Tolchinsky, 2003). These special cloth books and board and vinyl books are designed for reading to, talking about, and playing with babies. Often, these books do not feature stories. Instead, they have pictures with labels beneath. For example, the page might have a picture of a puppy and the word puppy or dog underneath. The pictures feature simple, brightly coloured drawings on plain backgrounds so that babies can begin to focus on the pictures.

At this age, babies are entering what Anbar (1986) termed the preliminary period, meaning that they are just gaining a general awareness of books and print. Much of this awareness comes from being read to, hearing rhymes and songs and in some cases observing adults read and from interacting with print materials.

Knowledge of Story

Many cloth, vinyl and board books for babies do not have a story; rather, they have 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. Campbell described how even when a book had a story, at this early stage the adults mainly labeled the pictures instead of reading the story (Campbell, 1999). Naming, pointing and other ways of engaging the baby with the book contribute to the baby's emerging vocabulary development and ability to associate pictures with sounds.

Babies as young as three to six months will anticipate the actions, gestures or speech patterns that occur in familiar stories or songs (Campbell, 1999). In Campbell's example, his granddaughter anticipated the tickle at the end of a familiar rhyme (p. 11). While the adult was reciting "Round and round the garden / Went the teddy bear / One step, / Two steps, / Tickle under there", Alice watched the finger move across her palm and up her arm before moving up her arm to tickle her, showing that she anticipated the tickle that would come. As time passed and the rhyme was repeated, Alice would wait for longer periods between the initial four lines and the tickle at the end of the rhyme, demonstrating her memory of the earlier recitations and associated actions. Memory development is also an important part of pre-reading and shows a beginning awareness of sequence and the predictability of language in stories.

Words and Pictures

Babies are able to focus on the print on a page but they treat the words as part of the picture. However, pointing out words on the page as well as the pictures will familiarize babies with print which will help them with learning to separate print and pictures at later stages of reading development. For example, Campbell's granddaughter, who was read to extensively as a baby by her parents and grandparents, was able to first separate print and pictures by pointing at the text when asked "Where's the writing?" at two years, four months of age (Campbell, 1999, p. 46), while many of the children Ferreiro and Teberosky (1982) interviewed were unable to do this at four or five years of age, especially if they were not frequently read to by adults.

Awareness of Sounds in Spoken and Written Words

From birth, babies respond best to the voices of their mothers by turning their heads toward the sounds of their mothers' voices and as they approach six months of age the native tongue of their mother is most easily understood and replicated (Speech and language, and social-emotional development.) Infants are capable of making a wide range of sounds and experiment with making many kinds of sounds to see which will produce the desired results in adult behaviour. In turn, adults respond only to and praise sounds that approximate the sounds of their native tongues. This behavior reinforces these sounds for babies. By six months of age then, the sound and structure of their native languages are most easily recognized by babies, and will become the first sounds replicated by them because these sounds produce the desired results. For example, if a baby makes the "ma-ma" sound, this sound is reinforced because of the attention given by the baby's mother, which is often accompanied by the mother repeating the word and engaging in more language with the baby. The baby then begins to associate the "ma-ma" sound with "mother".

As babies learn more about adult language patterns and the sounds in their native language and learn to create sounds that are meaningful, the basis of early pre-reading and pre-speech behaviours is formed. At first, babies learn to discriminate between the different sounds they hear as well as the sounds they make themselves. They learn that these sounds have meaning and different sounds have different meanings or responses. For example, a crying noise will result in a different type of response than the response to a laughing sound. This cognitive ability to discriminate between different sounds and meanings grows as babies grow older and eventually begin to learn how to read (Sach, 2005).

Lovell, M. (2008). Research Review: 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 - 4. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development