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Literacy Library Bulletin

Immersion into Language: Speaking and Writing

by Tim O'Keefe

February 2023

Parents and caregivers are children’s most important teachers, especially in the early years.  After all, family and close friends spend children’s young lives not only as loved ones, but as their first teachers. 

Consider how we learn to talk.  Children are surrounded by the language of their home as soon as they enter the world.  They are immersed in meaningful talk well before they speak their first words.  They are cooed at, they hear TV, radio, and music.  Those close to young children speak to them well before babies can give a verbal response.  They are sung to, read to—almost bathed in language. 

When children say their precious first words, they are usually approximations (attempts).  One might hear, “Maa,” and respond with something like, “Did you hear that? He said ‘Mama!’”  Then the mother might repeat “Mama,” many times in an effort to get the child to say that word.  Those early sounds are reinforced and strengthened, even though they may only be similar to the actual words parents desperately want to hear.  But with continued patience their speaking gradually becomes more recognizable and celebrated. 

Learning to write has a similar foundation.  That foundation is built quite naturally in the home.  Children are surrounded by print in books, advertisements, billboards, TV—everywhere.  They see family and caregivers writing, word processing, and texting. Children’s early attempts at writing are also approximations.  The squiggles, scribbles, random letters, and letter-like marks, are the first steps toward writing conventionally (correctly).  These approximations, like their first words, should be celebrated and reinforced to help them gain confidence in their abilities.

Children’s earliest writing is experimental.  It won’t look like their writing as they mature, but the first steps in learning to write are important.  Children’s early markings on paper, just like their first spoken sounds, show that they are beginning to understand how written language works.

Rebecca’s letter to Santa

Grocery list written by a four year old

How can caregivers help develop confidence in their young writers?

  • Have writing tools available and encourage children to write “the best they can.”
  • Include the child in writing activities, such as writing stories, making grocery lists, writing notes, writing about a shared experience, etc.
  • Reinforce their writing efforts by asking them to read their writing to you.
  • Demonstrate conventional writing by writing with your child

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