Most parents know that reading and writing are very important for children. However, how words help us understand our world and make the most of opportunities is much more than reading and writing — it is called literacy.
Children don’t wait till they start school to learn literacy skills. The experiences they have every day from birth help them develop their literacy and their knowledge and understanding of the world.
What is literacy?
Literacy is part of our daily life and how we use language in our:
- speaking and listening
- writing and drawing
- watching and using electronic media.
How children learn
Children’s literacy development begins in the family from when they are born. It continues in the family, children’s services, schools and communities as they grow up. Children learn from how their family uses language and from having lots of opportunities to talk, read, write and draw. They need to experiment and practice their skills. They need to know their learning is important and that you are proud of their efforts.
When children have lots of experiences with words and print their literacy is off to a good start.
Children’s literacy skills
Children are developing literacy skills when they:
- talk to people, listen, take turns in conversations
- ask questions
- watch and listen to adults and other children to find out what to do
- tell people how they feel, e.g. ‘I feel cross’ or what they need, ‘Please may I have a drink?’
- carry out instructions — from simple ‘Please put your cup on the table’ to more difficult ‘Please put your toys away and go to the bathroom and brush you teeth’
- talk about themselves and their own actions, e.g. ‘Me good boy today’ or ‘I’m eating a banana’
- listen to or tell rhymes, riddles, stories and jokes
- recognise problems and possible solutions, e.g. ‘The rope keeps falling down. You tie it up?’
- choose a book or ask for a story
- talk about stories and say what they think might happen
- play card or board games
- scribble, draw and paint with crayons, textas, pencils, paintbrushes
- make letter shapes with play dough
- write some of the letters of their name
- start to use the words ‘write’ or ‘draw’
- use phones, computers, games or other electronic devices.
What parents can do
Parents and others in the family are teaching children literacy by their own use of language — how they speak and listen to each other, read, write, use computer and watch TV or movies.
Speaking and listening
Families are teaching by:
- talking together
- asking and answering questions
- explaining things and giving instructions
- listening to what others say or for sounds in the environment
- planning and predicting, e.g. ‘I wonder if it will rain and if we should take an umbrella?’
- sharing stories and jokes
- singing songs and jingles, saying rhymes and chants
- problem solving, e.g. ‘You want the car to go to sport and I need to visit a friend, how can we work this out?’
- thinking out loud, e.g. ‘I am nearly ready for work — now, have I forgotten anything? Oh yes, I must put the dog out’.
Children need you and other family and friends to:
- listen, talk and take an interest in them
- tell stories and share experiences
- answer their questions
- agree and argue with them
- play word games:
- What does the cow say?’... ‘Moo’
- Why did the chicken cross the road?’
- ‘Knock, knock’. ‘Who’s there?’
Encourage children to listen to sounds and words:
- sing songs and say rhymes
- imitate sounds they hear, e.g. motors revving, dogs barking, cows mooing
- listen to stories together
- listen to the wind in the trees, the waves of the sea, birds and aeroplanes
- use different voices, e.g. whispering, happy voice, sad voice, shouting, and talking fast or slow
- help them work out what sound they hear at the beginning of a word.
- words for getting along with others, e.g. ‘Hello’, ‘Thank you’, ‘Sorry’, ‘Can I join in, please?’
- polite titles, e.g. Mr, Mrs, Ms, Dr
- social rules — when and how to talk, when to listen and how to behave in different situations.
- how people talk and listen, e.g. you have to be very quiet to listen
- how talk can be used in different ways, e.g. when people are cross sometimes they talk very loudly; when they are afraid they may talk very softly.
- what’s happened — the past
- what’s happening now — the present
- what will happen — the future
- people — what sort of job they do, where they fit in the family or community, their relationship to your child.
Use lots of different words to:
- name things, people, actions, feelings
- talk about size, shape, colour
- name the feel, scent, position or number of things.
Talk about what you are doing:
- at bed time, bath time, change time
- working in the house, the shed, the garden
- feeding animals
- planning a trip or a party
- watching a parade or pageant.
Show children their learning is important:
- listen with interest to what children say
- give them time to find the words they want — help them if they really get stuck
- take their questions seriously and help them find answers.
Enjoy spending time with your child — talking, playing and sharing together. Children learn through play — you don’t have to make everything a ‘lesson’.
What if we speak more than one language?
If you, your partner or family use a language other than English, you might wonder which one to teach your child.
There are benefits when children learn more than one language and it does not cause them confusion or any other language problem. They can build cultural or family bonds when they use their ‘home’ language with family and community.
They need to hear and practice speaking each language often to be good at them. It works best when family members speak to children in the language they are most comfortable with.
Reading and watching
Reading books with babies and young children is one of the best things you can do for their development and learning.
Find time to share a book with babies soon after they are born — it’s never too early!
Point at the pictures they show interest in and name what they are looking at. Baby will gradually learn that the words have meaning.
Keep reading books together as they get older.
Let children see you reading and watching:
- books, magazines, newspapers
- TV guides, recipes, instructions, letters, labels, menus
- signs, maps, traffic lights, ATM screens
- television, movies
- computers, tablets, mobile phones.
Talk about what you read and watch:
- ‘This program is about how people live in China.’
- ‘These instructions tell me how to set up my new mobile phone.’
- ‘I enjoyed reading that book about machines.’
- ‘This label tells me what is in this food.’
- ‘I’m going to try this new recipe’
- ‘This magazine has a really interesting story about fresh food markets.’
Point to print when you go out — road signs, bus and train stops, shop windows, t-shirts, posters, letterbox numbers.
Play looking games to help children notice details:
- ‘Look for the person wearing red shoes.’
- ‘Find the mouse in the picture.’
- ‘Find a word beginning with “s”.’
- ‘Find a number plate with a “three” in it.’
- ‘Let’s look for writing as we walk to the shops.’
- ‘Let’s follow this trail of footprints in the sand.’
Help children think about what they see and read:
- ‘Which way should we go?’
- ‘Which baked beans do we usually have, this kind or that?’
- ‘Can I park here?’
- ‘What happened? What will happen next?’
Talk about the importance of your child’s name, what it means, how you chose it.
Help children recognise their name and the letters in it, especially the first letter.
Look for letters from their name in other words.
- games which involve imagination and pretending
- board games such as Snakes and Ladders
- card games such as Snap
- matching games with real objects, shapes, pictures or words
- jigsaws and puzzles.
Offer children a variety of things to read:
- old magazines, calendars, catalogues, blank forms
- boxes and packets
- books with pop-ups, flaps or interesting pictures, books about children’s interests, rhymes, poetry and music, storybooks and books about facts.
Show children their learning is important — encourage them to keep practicing. But remember they need plenty of time to play on their own and with others too.
Drawing and writing
Let children see you:
- doodling, drawing, painting
- signing documents, paying bills, filling in forms
- writing lists, cards and letters
- doing crossword puzzles.
Talk about reasons for writing and drawing:
- ‘I’m writing a shopping list so I’ll remember what to buy.’
- ‘Ahmed loves to draw. Perhaps he’ll be a famous artist one day.’ Maybe visit a gallery or exhibition.
- ‘Peter has written a note to say he’ll be home late.’
- ‘Jenny has drawn a picture to decorate her book.’
- ‘Anna has drawn a map to help us find our way to her house.’
Help children develop hand–eye coordination and finger strength — it helps them learn to write and draw.
- pour water
- make and use dough for baking
- do puzzles
- paint, hammer and thread things
- use mud, sand or clay — for squeezing, shaping and drawing in.
- helping children solve drawing problems, e.g. ‘How can I make a straight line?’
- showing them how to hold pencils or use the computer
- showing them how to form letters, especially the letters in their name
- writing down what your children say.
Let children practice skills by providing:
- paper — lined and blank, old envelopes, letters and cards
- order forms from catalogues, old diaries and cards
- crayons, chalk, pens, pencils and textas
- a ruler and eraser
- a computer or tablet.
Encourage children to draw and write by:
- drawing a picture about something they have seen or done
- illustrating a story
- writing their names
- making a shopping list
- making books with sheets of paper stapled together — about your child, family, animals, birthdays, shopping, a place or holiday.
Show children their learning is important:
- give them time to experiment and practice
- notice and appreciate their achievements
- help them when they get stuck
- encourage them to keep trying
- put their drawings on the fridge and get them to tell you about their drawings and writings.
It is important to work with your child’s carer or teacher to support their learning. You might:
- let them know about your child’s interests, activities or fears
- ask how your child is going and how you can help
- be as involved as you can in school activities, e.g. reading or cooking with children, school council or parent group
- visit the service or school
- talk briefly to staff when you drop off your child, e.g. ‘Jack didn’t sleep very well last night, so he might be a bit tired today’.
If you are concerned about your child’s learning talk with their teacher, carer, doctor, or child health nurse.
Don’t force young children into reading and writing. They will participate when they are developmentally ready and see a purpose for it.
Looking for more information?
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This guide’s content was produced by Parenting SA.
© Department of Education and Child Development, Government of South Australia. Reproduced with permission and adapted by the ACT Government to reflect Australian Capital Territory laws (11/17).
Important: This information is not intended to replace advice from a qualified practitioner.
Published by ParentLink, Community Services Directorate
GPO Box 158, Canberra ACT 2601, telephone 13 34 27, email firstname.lastname@example.org
ACT Government Publication No. 16/1363 (November 2016)