The 5 Early Literacy Practices: Talk

Little asian baby boy talking on a green retro telephone.

“This post is one in a series about the five literacy practices of sing, play, read, talk, and write.”

What is talk? For this post, the definition of talk will be: “The act of emitting sounds with the intention of communicating a specific desire, need or thought”

Have you ever seen a baby babbling to its mom or dad, moving his arms and body, trying to communicate or express something? And then you say or think “the baby is talking to his mom or dad”

I have a 14 month old niece who is always the center of attention for our family. Last time I called, my sister and mother were talking very enthusiastically to each other and paying almost no attention to my niece. So the baby decided to interrupt our conversation by yelling in her baby language, babbling and moving her arms. We laughed and included her in the conversation.

For her, the conversation her mom, grandmother, and aunt were having was a social interaction and she wanted to be part of that. Nobody likes to feel left out of a social interaction happening in their presence. But sometimes we don’t see it like that with babies. We might be tempted to think that they will not understand what is going on. But science has shown us the opposite: studies have demonstrated that a human fetus is capable of recognizing sounds and speech patterns of its mother’s voice and able to differentiate it from other sounds after birth.

How do we learn to talk?
Is it listening, imitating? Playing and singing with parents and caregivers? Is it reading books and having social interactions? All of the above.

Our brains are wired to talk, to speak a language, but the language we will speak and even how we speak it will be influenced by our environment and the people around us. On November 4, 1970, a girl named Genie, was found in Los Angeles, California. Genie spent the first 13 years of her life in isolation, strapped to a potty or a chair. If she made any noise, her dad would beat her. She was never spoken to. She was a feral child, a child that has lived in isolation from human contact or social interactions. Genie’s brain was wired to talk, but her brain never received stimuli to connect those wires, so she couldn’t learn how to talk through a human language.

The Critical Period Hypothesis (Lenneberg 1967) claims the ability to acquire a language is biologically linked to age. This hypothesis claims that every human has a window of time in the first years of life to acquire language in a linguistically rich environment. They also claim that after this time frame, language acquisition becomes much more difficult. Other researchers prefer the terms “sensitive” or “optimal” instead of critical.

Taking those points into consideration, we could say that a child has a “sensitive” time in its development for language acquisition, and those are the early years.

Tips on talking with your child
(Some of the tips have been extracted from Zero to Three and Get Ready To Read)

Infant –babies
(Birth to 12 months)

We have learned that your baby will recognize your voice, and he likes the sound of your voice because it is familiar and comforting.
• Sing to your baby before and after he/she is born
Talk to your baby before he/she is born. After he/she is born, talk to him/her and smile.
• When you talk to your baby try to make eye contact. That way she is able to see your face and expressions.
• If he tries to make the same sound you do, say the word again.
• Using a mirror, let the baby look at herself. Ask questions like: Who’s that? And say her name. Where is the baby’s nose? And point at her nose. You can use other features of her face or part of the body.
• You can help your baby “talk”: Show her how to blow a kiss and say: “Muah”

(12 months to 18 months)
• Ask your child questions about the pictures in books. Give your child time to name things in the picture.
• Ask about things you do each day—“Which shirt will you pick today?” “Do you want milk or juice?”
• Build on what your child says. If he says “ball,” you can say, “That’s your big, red ball.”
• When he points at or gives you something, talk about the object with him. “You gave me the book. Thank you! Look at the picture of the baby rolling the ball.”

Toddlers (18 months to 2 years)
• Teach your child simple songs and nursery rhymes. Read to your child. Ask him to point to and tell you what he sees.
• Teach your child to say his first and last names.
• Ask open-ended questions that don’t have a “yes” or “no” answer.
• Take him to story-time at your local library. Your toddler will enjoy sharing books with you as well as peers.
• Do lots of pretend play. Acting out stories and role-playing creates rich opportunities for using, and learning, language.

Preschoolers (3-5-year-old)
• Make conversation with your child a two-way street. Take time each day to listen to and talk with your child.
• Encourage your child to use language (and not just gestures or actions) to express ideas, observations, and feelings.
• Engage your child in activities and games that require listening and following directions.
• Read and sing nursery rhymes with your child.
• Read books and ask your child questions about the story
• Participate in pretend play with your child.


Other resources:
• Lenneberg, EH, Biological Foundations of Language, 196 New York John Wiley & Sons, Inc
• Tips on learning to talk.
• Understanding Language Development in Preschoolers.
• Preschooler language development.
• Serve and return.
• Talking to babies.

Pamela Mejia de Rodriguez
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