While your little learner isn't quite ready to tackle the literary giants, young children are already beginning on the road to reading. Beyond reading, children who are under school age are also developing new, and more sophisticated, language and communication abilities. Although each child grows at her own pace, there are major milestones and a general path that most kids follow during early language and literacy development.
Language and literacy development doesn't wait for school to begin. While literacy sometimes seems as if it is synonymous with reading, the two aren't always the same thing. Instead of only including speaking or communicating and actually reading books, early language and literacy in the beginning years -- the infant and toddler periods -- can also encompass learning how to hold and physically manipulate a book. For example, a 1-year-old who is turning the pages of a book without taking note of what is on the pages is still engaging in an early literacy-based activity. This type of activity can help to build a basis for later literacy development.
Early Language Skills
There are two main types of language skills that children develop: Receptive and expressive. Receptive language includes the child's own understanding of what others are saying to her. Infants and young toddlers gradually build their receptive vocabulary, typically understanding 50 words by 12 months and 700 words by 24 months. This number jumps to roughly 3,000 words by 4 years. Expressive language focuses on the child's expression, or what she is saying and how she is saying it. While a baby under 12 months may only say three words, she can also express her needs by nonverbal communications such as pointing. Preschoolers over age 3 have a much more extensive vocabulary than their younger counterparts, and can communicate using complex, multiword sentences.
Early Literacy Development
Before reading a child must master many different early literacy skills. Phonological awareness, or the awareness of sound, begins early on with an understanding of rhymes and basic letters. In terms of book-related activities, infants and young toddlers may look at pictures, but often show little interest for print words. As young children move into the preschool years they will begin to develop a deeper understanding of books, sequences of story lines and the words themselves. A 4-year-old child may have the ability to retell a favorite book, recite words that she memorizes, recognize the difference between upper and lowercase, and pick out a few different letters.
Helping Language and Literacy Development
You can help your child's language and literacy development through an array of activities, depending on your little one's age. Infants up to 6 months may enjoy playing with cloth or board books that feature different textures and colors. Older infants and young toddlers can benefit from picture books that feature photos of family members or favorites such as animals and other children. By age 3, you can read more complex picture books to your child, start asking her questions about the story as you read (or directly after) and even translate favorite tales into pretend plays. Don't forget that communication is key at any age. Talk to your child, even if you aren't sure that she understands you entirely. This will help to familiarize her with the spoken language and start building her vocabulary.