Language and Literacy in the Early Years

Posted: October 3, 2022

Although human babies are pre-wired with certain skills and reflexes that help us survive; it’s also our ability to learn from our environment that sets humans apart from other mammals (Yost P., 2007). An infant is still dependent on caregivers, it is that novelty to life experiences that allow us to learn from the world around us. Specifically, during the first few months children can recognize individuals speaking different tongues. However, over months of development children lose the universal ability to understand various languages, as they are exposed to their primary language (Yost P., 2007). The brain begins to prune the pathways that are no longer being used. For example, a child can recognize their parents speaking in Polish, however if the child is not consistently exposed to this language, they will lose the ability to identify it over time. Particularly, if the caregivers are speaking to the child in English, the child will prune the neural pathways of recognizing Polish.


According to the Ontario Ministry of Education (2013), “literacy is the ability to use language and images in rich and varied forms to read, write, listen, speak, view, represent, discuss and think critically about ideas” (p.3). It is never too early to begin communicating with your child. This begins by being attentive to the children’s needs, by talking and nurturing their attempts at communication. For example, responding to their coos during diaper changing time shows you are attentive, and encourages additional communication by supporting socialization.


Interacting one-on-one, using infant-directed speech (often referred to as “parentese”)—which involves speaking in a higher tone of voice, exaggerated pitch contour, and a singsong quality — enhances infant attention and reinforces the relationship between words and what they represent in real life (Bergelson E., Alsen RN., 2017). A practical way to incorporate infant-directed speech is through storytelling and reading together. Storytelling integrates social elements of language, stories are told directly and expressively–often with vocal intonation, gestures, facial expressions, and body movement–and young listeners often better understand a story when it is told than when it is read (Isbell, 2002).

Here are some tips for reading together:
• Use facial expressions and sound effects
• Use different voices for characters
• Change the tone of your voice (loud, soft, high, low)
• Pause for your child to be involved with rhyming or familiar words
• Talk about the pictures or ideas in the book
• Add a twist to the story or use your child’s name as the character!



Bergelson, E., & Aslin, R. N. (2017). Nature and origins of the lexicon in 6-mo-olds. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(49), 12916–12921. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1712966114

Isbell, R. T. (2002). Telling and Retelling Stories: Learning Language and Literacy. Supporting Language Learning. Young children, 57(2), 26-30.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2013). Paying attention to literacy: Six foundational principles for improvement in literacy, K-12.

Yost P., (2007). Science of Babies National Geographic Media.