As early literacy can be a predictor of educational attainment, earnings, health and social outcomes later in life, it is really important that we support parents and carers to build their child’s literacy. But what do we mean when we talk about ‘literacy’?
Literacy is often broken into different types. There’s the literacy related to language development and then there’s social and emotional literacy. While we tend to see them as distinct, the reality is that they overlap in significant ways.
For instance, literacy and language development is about communication. A big part of communication is being able to read body language and social cues. So language-based literacy, like learning to talk, is intimately tied to social and emotional literacy.
Also, evidence shows that children learn to talk, read and write best when they are supported by nurturing and emotionally engaged adults. It is their attachment and sense of psychological security that enables children to build their language skills most effectively.
Four simple ways to support children to simultaneously build their language skills and social and emotional literacy
Reading and sharing stories with children
Seems obvious, right? But reading with children has benefits beyond just teaching them to read.
While the goal of reading with children is usually to build their language literacy, what we often don’t acknowledge is that reading with children actually builds their social and emotional literacy too. It does this by increasing their attachment to their caregivers (sitting and reading together can be a very nurturing and connecting activity) and enabling them to learn about the social and emotional life of other people through stories. Reading stories also teaches children key social skills like problem-solving and decision-making.
Encourage parents to read with their child as often as possible. It doesn’t actually matter too much what is being read, as long as it is age-appropriate and is done in a positive, non-stressful way. If parents have low literacy levels or English is a second language, they may choose to use books with few words or make up new stories using the pictures as prompts. As long as children experience books and reading in a positive way, they are more likely to embrace other learning opportunities.
Talk to children, a lot!
Research also shows that there is a direct relationship between how much time a parent or caregiver spends talking to a child and the size of their vocabulary when they go to school.
Talking to young children, even before they can talk themselves (perhaps especially before they can talk) not only exposes them to new words, it also helps them to understand the world through the eyes of their caregiver. This helps them build social and emotional awareness, read different situations and people, build empathy and connect words to emotions and body signals.
By simply explaining what they are doing as they go about their daily tasks—I’m washing the carrots, walking the dog, buying milk—parents and caregivers are potentially exposing their child to hundreds of new words a day. They are also giving the child a context for these words which helps them understand the nuanced meanings of different words. It may feel a bit silly at first but this is a simple, tried and true strategy to build vocabulary, and overall literacy.
Encourage unstructured play
One of the unique things about humans is that we have an imagination. Imagination can be a tool for creativity and it can also be used to process experiences and understand the world. By encouraging children to ‘make up’ and act out stories, they learn to use language to ‘name’ their world, process change, try on different identities and put words to their feelings and emotions.
Unstructured play is particularly powerful for contemporary children as their lives are often very structured and regulated. Somehow, we have come to see being bored as a bad thing, when in fact, boredom is often the mother of growth, insight and creativity. When we are bored, we find new and interesting ways to engage with the world. This is often when learning happens.
Play can include things like building a cubby, drawing, acting out stories with stuffed animals or other toys, playing in a sand pit, making things from random materials, taking things apart or creating collections.
Use tools like cards or other resources that name feelings and body signals
Cards, games and other resources that include words and images, particularly those related to feelings and body signals, can help children build their general vocabulary while also giving them a language to describe what they are feeling.
Using tools like these can also help them build respectful relationships as they are more able to recognise emotions and body signals of others. Having a language for emotions and feelings also increases empathy, awareness of safety and social skills. Resources can also be used to ‘act out’ emotions, which helps embed the language and meaning of words.
These are just a few ideas for supporting parents and carers to build their child’s literacy. We would love to hear from you if you have other suggestions and ideas.