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Literacy-Rich Environments:

Conversations That Count

Families are their children's first teachers. As a family member you begin teaching your babies about language as you welcome them into the world with smiles and caring words. You respond to your children's coos, babbles, early words, and simple sentences. By the time your children are preschoolers, they know a lot about language. You have spent many hours listening, talking, reading, and writing with them.

How do young babies learn?

Katie is in the bathtub splashing in the water with both hands. Her father sits on the floor next to the tub making sure she is safe.

"Katie, Katie," he says as he picks up a washcloth. "Are you ready to play our special game?"

Katie looks up and sees her father's smiling face. She smiles at him and laughs. He says, "Let's play Peek-a-Boo," and puts a washcloth in front of his face.

Katie reaches out and pats the top of his head. Her father says, "Peek-a-Boo, Katie, I can't see you." He lowers the washcloth so his eyes are no longer covered. Katie squeals with delight. He covers his eyes again and says, "Peek-a-Boo, Katie, I still can't see you."

Katie's father holds the washcloth out toward her, saying, "Your turn, Katie." She takes the washcloth from his hand and puts it in front of her face. Her father says, "Where's Katie?"

Katie drops the washcloth in the water and splashes with her hands. She babbles to her father, "Dadadada. Babababa." He says, "I think you're saying that you're tired of playing Peek-a-Boo. Let's play with your sponges."

Like many young babies, Katie is learning about language:

  • She knows that it's fun to play with another person.
  • She looks up when her father says her name.
  • She smiles when her father smiles at her. 

Katie's father helps her learn about language:

  • He talks with her during a daily activity--bathtime.
  • He says her name again and again so that she will learn to recognize it.
  • He takes several turns in their game and then encourages her to take a turn.
  • He responds to her babbles as if he knows what she is saying.

How do crawlers and walkers learn?

Marcus picks up a book with cardboard pages and a duck on the cover. He puts the book in his mouth for a moment, then waves it in the air.

Marcus looks at his big sister, Maria, and makes noises that sound a lot like words. Maria says, "Do you want to read? Bring the book to me. We can read together."

With book in hand, Marcus crawls to Maria. She lifts Marcus into her lap and holds the book so that he can see it. She points to the duck on the cover. "That's a duck. Let's see what's inside."

Marcus turns the page. He pats the picture and says something that sounds like words. "That's right," says Maria. "The baby is in the bathtub."

After looking at a few more pages, Marcus squirms and wiggles. "Okay," says Maria. "Have you read enough? Let me help you down." She puts Marcus on the floor and he crawls away.

Like many other crawlers and walkers, Marcus is learning about language:

  • He knows that people will respond to his sounds and actions.
  • He thinks it's fun to look at books with another person.
  • He knows how to wait for his turn while talking and reading with his sister.

Marcus's sister, Maria, helps him learn about language: 

  • She responds to his sounds and actions as if he were saying words.
  • She lets him turn the pages of the book.
  • She talks to him about what he seems to be saying.
  • She lets him find something else to do when he has lost interest in reading.

How do toddlers learn?

Rosa tugs on Ms. Vega's arm and says, "Wet." Ms. Vega says, "Your diaper is wet. Let's go change it."

Rosa lies down on the changing table. Ms. Vega washes her hands and tells Rosa what she is doing. "I'm washing away all the germs so you will stay healthy. I'm taking off your shorts. They're red, like your sneakers." Rosa says, "Red sneakers."

Ms. Vega takes a diaper from the shelf. She replaces Rosa's wet diaper with a dry one. "All done," says Ms. Vega. "Wash hands?" asks Rosa. "Yes," says Ms. Vega, "let's wash our hands."

Rosa heads for the sink, singing. "This way, wash hands, wash hands, wash hands." Ms. Vega sings along, then says, "Rosa, you learned a new song to sing." "Sing song," says Rosa.

Like many toddlers, Rosa is learning about language:

  • She communicates her needs using groups of words.
  • She repeats words she hears adults speak.
  • She learns a simple song.
  • She asks questions.
  • She answers questions.

Rosa's caregiver helps her learn about language:

  • She responds to Rosa's request by answering with a group of words.
  • She describes what she is doing and names a color--red.
  • She asks a simple question that Rosa knows how to answer.
  • She sings with Rosa, then congratulates her on learning the song.

How do preschoolers learn?

Gina bounces out of bed and hurries to the kitchen. She opens the cabinet, takes out a box of cereal, then puts it back. She takes out another box and says, "Grandpa, this is my cereal. It has a big 'P' and lots of stars."

Grandpa says, "That's good thinking." Gina points to a letter on the box, "That's a 'P'." She traces the letter in the air and says, "'P' as in Peter. Peter's name starts with a 'P'. It's on his cubby."

Grandpa makes an offer. "Today, we can have our regular story time and then write together. I need to write a letter to a friend. You can write, too."

Gina puts her empty bowl in the sink and runs to find her mother. "Mom, I'm gonna read and write with Grandpa." Her mother says, "That sounds like fun. When I take you to family child care, I'll tell Ms. Jenkins that you like to write. You can write at her house and at home."

Like many preschoolers, Gina is learning language:

  • She knows that letters (the P) and pictures (the stars) have meaning.
  • She knows there is a "P" on her cereal box and at the beginning of Peter's name.
  • She knows that people take turns when talking to each other.

Gina's family helps her learn about language:

  • They have a regular story time every day.
  • Grandpa encourages her thinking, so Gina continues exploring the letters on the box.
  • Grandpa offers to write with Gina.
  • Mom talks to Ms. Jenkins, so that Gina can write at family child care and at home.

Author: Derry Koralek.
Source: U.S. Department of Education.

Conversations That Count