During the first three years, young children begin to read their world. Initially without verbal labels, they discriminate self that is me from not me. They also define familiar caregivers of course, wordlessly at first. Infants and toddlers begin early to discern familiar objects and to formulate the laws that systematically govern their properties: “When mommy holds me in a certain way, it is time to eat.” As infants’ random movements and utterances are interpreted to convey emotions and ideas, they learn that gestures and words share meanings among groups of people. Thereby, young children take giant steps into the world of communication. They go on to learn that print carries meaning (books are for reading) and that caregivers can read books over and over and over again.
From this foundation of basic learning and subsequent daily explorations with everyday people and objects, the young child builds many other understandings of self and others. The child builds sophisticated understandings, elaborate vocabulary, complex reasoning, and a growing power to influence others by verbal and written arguments. Thus, young children begin to “read their world” and to have wider and greater impact upon it.
Every caregiver can, in culturally appropriate ways, help infants and toddlers grow in language and literacy. Caregivers, like parents, need presence, time, words, print and intention to share language and literacy with infants and toddlers. All five qualities are important but it is intention that turns the physical activity of diapering into a delightful exchange of sound play, a trip to the grocery store into a vocabulary lesson about colors and the names of fruit, or the retelling of a game on the playground into a description that teachers sequencing and narrative skills. Caregivers need knowledge of the cultural supports for the language and literacy learning of the children and families they are serving. They need to have sufficient skills in guiding small groups of children in order to give full attention to individual young children’s language and literacy efforts. They need to draw out shy children while they help very talkative ones begin to listen to others as well as to speak. Caregivers need to arrange environments that are symbol rich and interesting without being overwhelming to infants and toddlers. Even the simplest exchange becomes a literacy lesson when it includes the warmth of a relationship coupled with words, their concepts, and perhaps a graphic symbol.
Excerpted from Rosenkoetter, S.E., & Knapp-Philo, J. (2004). Learning to read the world: Literacy in the first 3 years. Zero to Three (25)1.