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Literacy in early childhood

Updated: Apr 25, 2019

What exactly is ‘early literacy’ and what does it mean for my child? How does climbing, jumping and running have ANYTHING to do with literacy?

In this bulletin, we explore the concept of early literacy – what it means, how it works and what you can do to help your child to have the best literacy start to life… and our suggestions may surprise you.

Early literacy is so much more than books and writing. In fact, early literacy is primarily about talking and playing (Gardner, cited in Milne 1997)

Babies are born with the ability to hear the sounds from every language on earth! As babies hear people speak, their neural pathways for those sounds strengthen, the pathways for other sounds (not produced in the parents language) weaken.

By the time they are 6-months old, babies will generally only reproduce the sounds they hear around them. When we take into consideration how the brain develops (see left) we can begin to understand the importance of oral language.

Now lets take into consideration what we know about play. When children are engaged in their own self-directed play, they use more complex language, have longer concentrations and plenty of opportunity to practice listening and talking than in teacher lead activities.

Taking all of this into account, we can begin to see how the foundations of language and literacy are based primarily around talking and playing.

What about books and reading?

We know reading to children is important for language and literacy development. It also enhances concentration and provides a great amount of one-to-one time with children. However, not all children can sit still long enough to listen to a story so its important choose books carefully to develop this skill – short books with pictures to discuss.

When books are proving difficult, lots of talking and singing with children works wonders to provide base literacy skills.

Language use and brain development.

The brain is a complex circuitry system with billions of neurons (brain cells).

Our brain develops by making connections between neurons. This process forms neural-pathways for learning and development.

A bit like a building, the brain is built from the ground up, with each layer building upon the previous layer. Imagine a building without a solid foundation. The brain is similar; in all aspects of early learning, we need to ensure the required foundations are established so children can successfully add the multiple layers of learning in future.

The general rule of thumb states a stimulating language environment will lead to greater and more robust neural connections and sophisticated neural pathways.

The type and amount of oral language expression and interactions in the early years is a significant influence in brain development and lifetime literacy. (Fellows & Oakley 2010)


Early literacy and the importance of physical play

Learning to read and write involves a relationship between physical movement and learning.

Until children have experiences of actively orientating their own bodies in space – by moving up, down, in front of, left or right – they may have difficulties in aspects of reading and writing such as the orientation of letter symbols on a page.

For example: ‘b’ and ‘d’ are both composed of a line and a circle; the only difference is which side of the circle the line is on. We learn this kind of distinction first through our own movements in space (Olds, 1994, cited in Milne 1997)

This is why outdoor physical exercise plays a significantly important part of our program at KRCC

Putting the theory into practice at KRCC.

Next time you’re at the centre, take a moment to look and observe. You’ll see our team working to develop children’s language in a variety of ways.

Nappy change time:

Have you noticed how we talk with babies while changing nappies? The change table is an amazing opportunity to developing language. We talk with children about what we’re doing “OK shall we change your nappy now? How about we start by undoing some buttons huh?”

We might talk with children about what they are seeing, we might sing a little song or even talk about the weather“oh my its COLD today…lets be quick in the bathroom!”

Dramatic Play:

Dramatic play spaces such as a hospital or café offer children a chance to add to their growing vocabulary and explore new terms or ways of describing things.

As children move through our centre, you’ll see age appropriate props being used; a money till, order forms, patient examination forms for example. These props provide children ways to explore language and literacy in new ways including oral and written language.

Helping clean up:

From young infants, children are encouraged to help out. Again, these conversations add lots of opportunity for developing language. We’ll use nouns, verbs and adjectives “Can you put the blue truck on the top shelf?…thank you – I really appreciate your help!”

Meaningful conversations:

Take a moment to listen to conversations. You might hear us ask a lot of questions….sometimes answer children’s questions with yet another question! We might ponder some thoughts with them…all the while growing their literacy skills and understandings of the basics of language.

Music and singing:

Recent research makes claims that music underlies children’s ability to acquire language. (Brandt, Gebrian & Slevc, 2012) You’ll see us using music in a variety of ways through our programs – inside, outside, with props, with small and large groups.


- Fellows, J., and Oakley, G. (2012). Language, Literacy and Early Childhood Education. Oxford University Press, Vic, Australia.

- Milne, Rosemary & Free Kindergarten Association of Victoria (1997).  Marketing play : using marketing strategies to explain the benefits of a play approach in early childhood education. Free Kindergarten Association of Victoria, Richmond, Vic.

- Rice University. (2012, September 18). Music underlies language acquisition, theorists propose. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 15, 2017 from

'I spy with my little eye'

- a great game for ALL ages.

The game of ‘I spy with my little eye’is a quick an easy way to support your child’s language and literacy development.

Try this on your way to and from KRCC. Just five minutes twice a day can have a huge positive influence. Here’s how to adapt the game for various age groups, so younger siblings can join in the fun…and the learning!

Adapting “I spy” for all ages. This is just a guide as children develop at different rates, so pick the stage your child is able to understand.

1-2 years

“I see a big truck over there – can you see it?”

Develops your child’s vocabulary knowledge and their understanding of the rhythm and sound of speech (phonological awareness). Here, you do most of the talking and pointing.

2-3 years

“I spy with my little eye a red car / some blue flowers / some tall trees / power lines / a black car”

Further developing vocabulary but with detail. At this age, children can take part by pointing and responding, “I see it!”

3-4 years

“I spy with my little eye, something beginning with sshhh.

Here we are introducing the sounds letters make – or phonics. This is very important for spelling and reading.

4-5 years

“I spy with my little eye, something beginning with P, pah.”

By linking the letter with its phonic sound your child starts to understand that letters are building blocks for words.

5+ years

“I spy with my little eye something beginning with G.”

Linking words with letters: vital for reading, writing and spelling.

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