How To Jump Start Early Language Learning

 

mother sits on the floor with young baby, reading a book

You may have heard the advice from friends, family, and even your doctor, to read, read, and read some more to your child from a young age. {And if you haven’t, consider this your friendly reminder}. But the advice often stops there. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 1 in 3 children will start kindergarten without the needed early language skills to learn to read.

The critical window to supercharge that electricity exploding in their growing heads is in those first three years of life, before most kids gain any sort of formal educational experience. By age 7, that spongey brain that impresses you so much begins to lose its amazing capacity for rapid learning.

The questions start flooding your mind. Just how early do I start developing early language skills with my child? How do you read to a baby who won’t sit still? What if I want my child to learn more than one language? Which books should we be reading?

I hear you. As parents, the weight of advice coming from every direction begins to bear on our overloaded shoulders, and we often don’t know where to start. Or how to start. We want to do what’s best for our child, but we worry we may not be doing it right.

Together, we will break down early language literacy into short, manageable steps looking at our two biggest groups: infants and toddlers. While there are many things you can do to develop your child’s speech {parent responsiveness, tone, nonverbal cues}, this article will focus solely on the role of books and reading with children. At the bottom, you will also find a few of my favorite books for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, as well as bilingual books in Spanish and in Arabic.

Remember to visit with your child’s doctor routinely to monitor their milestones. Bring up any concerns you may have about their speech and language development.

Infant {Newborn – 12 months}

mother reading to young baby

Developmental skills

The first few weeks of the newborn period are a whirlwind. This is not the time to worry about reading. Find your sweet spot bedtime routine and work on building story time into that later. By age 3 months though, your baby has better eye sight, attention, alertness, and awareness. They will be in a better position to start engaging in storytime. Active interest really starts to ramp up at 6-12 months when they can sit up and grab at pages.

What kind of books to look for

Board books, sensory books, music books, multilingual books. But you don’t need a full library {especially when there are so many great libraries with children programming in Houston}. Reading the same book over and over is actually both more enjoyable for your child and a power boost to building those language connections in their brain.

How to read

Follow your child’s cues when determining how long to read. Even a few minutes at a time is enough to start developing early language skills. If your child has a favorite page or picture, stick with that one page. No need to worry about following through a whole story. Name pictures, describe the page, make silly animated sounds- anything to capture their attention and develop a love for this time with you.

When to read

Bedtime is prime time to do stories. Incorporating it into your bedtime routine with baby doesn’t need to be complicated, but making an effort to bring out a book as often as you can will do wonders.

Toddler {1- 3 years old}

toddler sitting on bed with stuffed animal looking at a picture book

Developmental skills

This age thrives on taking control, so let them be in charge! Encourage your child to practice fine motor skills by holding and turning pages on their own {this is easiest to start with board books}. Older toddlers will be able to repeat words and phrases and ask thoughtful questions.

What kind of books to look for

Same types as infants, but now we can start adding in longer stories to capture that blossoming curiosity. If your child is great at handling books, introduce regular books with paper pages. Let your child start to choose the books you bring home. Look for ones that align with their interests but don’t be afraid to explore outside of this. The more unique sounds, words, phrases, and sentence structures your child is exposed to, the more connections their brain can make about the rules of the language {and this goes for any language}.

How to read

Explain the cover page, move your fingers along the words, use voices for characters. Ask questions and let your child interrupt to ask their own. Kids are very aware at this age, so make this one-on-one time truly focused. Try to put your phone on silent and minimize any distractions that may send the message that this is not an important time.

When to read

Bedtime, naptime, meal times. Consider making a weekly trip to the library a part of your schedule. Have a book on hand when you’re on the go, at the park, in waiting rooms or on a grocery store run. Think outside the box! Read cereal boxes, menus, recipes, outdoor signs, anything and everything to them. The more reading becomes a part of their daily routine, the more your child will associate positive feelings with it.

The Multilingual Learner

grandmother reading with grandson

The ability to speak more than one language has been shown to have many positive academic, cognitive and social benefits. All children in early childhood have the ability to learn more than one language. While the idea may be difficult for us to understand as adults, the rapid growth and plasticity of a child’s brain makes it the perfect incubator for language explosion.

Exposure to two or more languages from infancy can result in simultaneous learning. By the time the child is a preschooler, they will be able to separate the languages, with the occasional mixed sentences.

Whether your child comes from a multilingual home or you just want to teach them a new language, you can begin building their vocabulary through multilingual books. Exposure to new words, sounds, and patterns of speech is key. The more variety you bring, the more pathways of learning and brain connections your child develops.

Doctor Recommended Books

Here are a few of my favorite books for early language learning. If you have found particular success with any books of your own, especially in other languages, please leave a comment and let us know. Happy reading!

Infant

  1. Bedtime Baby: A Touch-and-Feel Book, by Tiger Tales
  2. A Parade of Elephants, by Kevin Henkes
  3. See, Touch, Feel: A First Sensory Book, by Roger Priddy
  4. Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, by Mem Fox
  5. Baby Play, by Skye Silver
  6. 100 First Words, by Edward Underwood

Toddler

  1. The Goodnight Train Rolls On!, by June Sobel
  2. Will You Be My Sunshine? By Julia Lobo
  3. Guess How Much I Love You, by Sam McBratney
  4. Beautiful Oops, by Barney Saltzberg

Preschooler

  1. Grumpy Monkey, by Suzanne Lang
  2. The Little Ghost Who Lost Her Boo! By Elaine Bickell
  3. Who Does What?: A Slide-and-Learn Book, by Stephanie Babin
  4. Papasaurus, by Stephan Lomp
  5. Llama Llama Misses Mama, by Anna Dewdney

Spanish-English

  1. Besos for Baby: A Little Book of Kisses, by Jen Arena
  2. ¡Te amo, te abrazo, leo contigo!/Love you, Hug You, Read to You! By Tish Rabe
  3. Quiero a Mi Mama Porque, by Laurel Porter Gaylord
  4. Quiero a Mi Papa Porque, by Laurel Porter Gaylord
  5. I Like it When… Me Gusta Cuando…, by Mary Murphy
  6. Coco Learns Spanish Vol. 1 Musical Spanish Book

Arabic-English

  1. Alif Baa Taa: Learning My Arabic Alphabet, by Asma Wahab
  2. Al-Alwan, Al-Ashkaal, Al-Arqam: Learning My Arabic Colors, Shapes & Numbers, by Asma Wahab
  3. Kalimaatee Al-Oola: Learning My First Arabic Words, by Asma Wahab

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Cindy Dafashy, MD
Cindy is a first-generation Ecuadorian-American who grew up in San Antonio but discovered her love of Houston while completing her undergraduate degree at Rice University. She then moved around Texas for her medical training, before returning to the area for her Family Medicine residency at UTMB. To challenge her time management skills further, she got married and had two children (2019, 2022) during her training. Together with their families, Cindy and her husband are raising these kiddos to discover their Ecuadorian and Egyptian roots through language, food and music. In her downtime from being a mother, Cindy works as a Family Medicine doctor in her own clinic, Archway Family Medicine Direct Primary Care. She is passionate about patient education, price transparency, and helping others navigate the currently dysfunctional healthcare system. You can find her on Instagram @archwayfamilymed teaching tips and tricks in both medicine and understanding how our healthcare works.

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