In the section called Ages and Stages in the American Academy of Pediatrics’ website, healtychildren.org, is a discussion on literacy.

What is literacy? Simply put, it is our ability to read and write and learn. It’s been said that we spend the first few years of our lives learning to read, and the rest of our lives reading to learn. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), good literacy skills include being able to read and understand age-appropriate information (comprehension), put letters together to form words (spelling), and write meaningful phrases and sentences.

As with many other aspects of a child’s growth, her literacy level is affected by genetics and environment. The genes a child inherits from her parents determine her brain’s basic “wiring,” while the home environment she grows up within helps determine how efficiently the “wires” are connected, and how well she adapts to the world around her.

Many people believe that children learn to read and write in kindergarten or first grade. However, the foundation for literacy skills is laid years before children enter school.

In light of a child’s need for early and frequent brain stimulation, there are several important steps parents and caregivers can take to help a child’s brain and language skills develop.

Engaging a child’s senses is very important right from birth. Singing, rhyming, and talking are very important. Babies develop listening skills and an interest in sounds and words from this activity.

Eventually, the baby learns to understand certain patterns of sounds and tries to reproduce them, which marks the beginning of personal expression and two-way communication. Reading books aloud, showing pictures, and letting even infants handle written materials encourages to the child to learn visual recognition and to identify what she hears with what she sees.

“Parents don’t always think of giving books to infants,” says Jill Fussell, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. “But even young infants can visually attend to book pages with black-and-white patterns or with bright, contrasting colors for short time periods.”

No one expects an infant to read, but simply having a book in her hands can start the process of getting familiar with books and reading materials.

“Although a 9- to 12-month-old may chew on a book or bang it on the floor, parents should still encourage children by including books in their repertoire of play objects,” says Fussell. “The same goes for reading to younger infants and toddlers. Parents need to be reminded of the power their voice has, and how their own babies will prefer to attend to their parent’s voice, given the opportunity, over other noises — such as a television.”

An important and normal part of developing early literacy skills for very young children is repetition. Sure, they may want to read the same storybook or look at the same pictures over and over. But this activity is actually “hard-wiring” their brains and providing consistent stimulation for language development, the cornerstone of literacy.

Sally Robinson is a clinical professor of pediatrics at UTMB Children’s Hospital. This column isn’t intended to replace the advice of your child’s physician.

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