Understanding a child’s language and literacy development

Chris Kliewer, Ph.D. Professor of Inclusive Education, Disability Studies, & Early Childhood University of Northern Iowa

Language and literacy development in children cannot be separated. As young children grow in their language abilities, they are learning to listen, speak, read and write. Each of these four language systems begins to develop at birth. They expand in the weeks and months that follow. The language systems develop at the same time and in interaction with one another, each strengthening the other.

This is a new idea for many people. Beginning with language studies in the 1960s, an overwhelming amount of research now demonstrates that all language systems develop together. This is called the Concurrent Model of Language/Literacy Development, reflecting the idea that the listening, speaking, reading and writing systems in children develop concurrently, each affecting the other. Language growth is very fluid and interactive. Growth happens as a child begins to explore and make sense of the surrounding world.

Most of the attention given to communication is directed at a young child’s emergent speech. In our society, speech is the most noticeable way that young children begin to make their needs and wants known. Typically, adults notice when infants begin to coo and babble in response to people talking with them. This is a celebrated milestone, as adults realize that these early efforts at talking demonstrate that the child has been listening to the language around her/him and is now attempting to engage in the beginning of language.

However, what receives less attention is the young infant’s growing ability to focus on pictures, attend to surrounding objects and activities, point and gesture to communicate, or grasp markers to scribble on paper or walls. All of these early efforts are wholly linked to the young child’s global language development, including to their reading and writing. When we know what to look for, we can see the beginning of reading and writing even in very young children. The key is recognizing and comprehending the true building blocks of literacy and language.


Do understand that speech is just one of the four language systems

Not all young children begin cooing and babbling in response to adults talking with them. Often, these children are described as experiencing language delays, but it is important to remember that speech is just one of the language systems. Systems other than speech may be developing more quickly, but go unnoticed.

For children who do not begin cooing and babbling at an expected time, some adults will actually try to force the emergence of speech--even when other language systems (listening, reading and drawing) may, at that moment in the child’s life, be more efficient and effective for the child’s communication needs.

Balancing an interest in the young child’s speech with opportunities to develop, use and strengthen the other language systems may support the expansion of early speech efforts on the part of the child. Unfortunately, too often there is a narrow focus only on speech.

When a child is a late talker, he/she may also have other physical, motor movement or coordination struggles that make it difficult to explore and make sense of the world in the same way as other children. Children who face these obstacles may not be able to reach out to books, toys, crayons and other resources without adults supporting these efforts. This requires that adults recognize these efforts as vitally important to language development from the earliest age. They may need to bring the activities and objects to the child.

Do focus on play in early childhood

Every child is born with a natural curiosity about the world around them. This drive to make meaning and sense of people, events, activities, and environments is the foundation of all learning. We see this natural curiosity in infants as they learn to focus on the faces of surrounding people and when they put objects into their mouths. They are learning about those people and objects. We see this curiosity when young children begin to crawl, then eventually walk, toward desired toys or people. We see this curiosity when young children watch their parents read a magazine and mimic what they saw, and we see this curiosity in young children’s play.

Play in early childhood is vitally important to learning. It is through play that children begin to develop stories with one another about how the world works. As children play, their language grows and as their language grows, their play becomes more and more complex.

An important point about this drive to make meaning is that it is a social process. This means that it is largely carried out in interaction with other children and adults using symbols, including the symbols of language. We learn from active engagement with one another and with literature. We cannot separate the literacy community from the social community.

Sometimes, young children do not behave in ways that we associate with this drive to make sense and meaning. They may not seem to focus their eyes on others for extended periods of time. They may not crawl toward objects. They may not play with toys or other children as expected. When this occurs, sometimes people make the assumption that the child does not have the interest or ability to make meaning and sense of the surrounding world. This is never the case. All children are interested and able to work with others to form understandings of the world. For some children, this may simply require certain supports that are not necessary for other children.

Do remember that symbols are central to communication and language

When infants begin cooing, babbling, and, as they grow, saying understandable words, it is because they have actively been involved in interactions with others. These interactions use symbols. Spoken words are symbols. Speech is a system of symbols that let us express and understand ideas, plans, emotions and stories.

We also make use of other symbol systems. For instance, body movements can be symbols. When we shrug our shoulders, we are saying, “I don’t know.” When we point, we are saying, “Look over there.” Drawings are also symbols. For example, in children’s drawings, circles often symbolize heads, dots are used for eyes, and lines are used for mouths, torsos, arms and legs. Of course, heads, faces and bodies are more than these simple shapes, but children learn they can convey ideas and tell whole stories using simple symbols that other people understand.

Do consider augmentative and alternative communication (AAC)

Many children are born able to hear, but they still struggle to speak. Often this is because speech is actually a very complicated physical motor act that requires children to coordinate all sorts of muscular, cardiovascular (breathing) and neurological systems. This coordination of systems is very inefficient for everyone when we are young. But the tendency is for these systems to begin to work together in more and more efficient ways as we grow and interact with others.

However, some children face more obstacles than others in this process. For example, children born with cerebral palsy, a physical disability, may experience difficulties with integrating all the systems required to express spoken words. When a child is born with clear physical disabilities, adults should be prepared to recognize that the child may struggle to talk. Adults involved with this child should be exploring Augmentative & Alternative Communication (AAC) systems for the child from birth.

Waiting for communication can be devastating to a child’s development. This is recognized in the Concurrent Model of Language/Literacy Development where the systems of listening, speaking, reading and writing are understood to develop together from birth and in interaction with one another. Language development requires active participation with others using symbols. If a child is left out of this process, he/she is missing out on vital opportunities to grow in language skills, which is why it is so important to provide children with AAC systems.


Do not believe that using AAC will deter a child from talking

More than two decades of language research and science has documented that AAC is essential for some children’s communication and that it promotes speech. Because each language system supports the others, as one system is strengthened, all systems are strengthened. Children use whichever system they have access to that is most efficient and effective.

For some children, AAC systems and devices will remain most efficient and effective for their communication. These systems and devices will become more complex as the children develop in their efforts to make sense and meaning of the surrounding world. Other children will move from the early use of AAC systems and devices to speech as speech becomes most effective and efficient

Do not forget that symbol systems and cognition grow together

Cognition is used to describe a child’s developing ability to make sense and meaning of the surrounding world. Symbol systems are not only used to say what we know--but are a part of the process of knowing. Symbol systems allow young children to store ideas
in organized ways in their minds. They allow young children to deepen their understanding through building connections with new ideas and experiences. Symbol systems, particularly language, are the tools of thinking.

Do not assume that children’s efforts with written language resemble those of an adult

Within a comprehensive language and communication model, a child’s developing literacy must be supported from birth on. Literacy is most often thought about as a child’s skill with written language, such as reading and writing. Young children’s early efforts with written language do not look like adult efforts--or what is sometimes described as conventional literacy. In fact, children’s efforts with written language often do not begin to look conventional until they have been in school for several years.

Pay attention to your child. If he or she is developing focus, learning to interact with others, learning about books, drawing and writing, and telling stories through play and symbols, you can be assured that your child is making efforts with written language. All of these efforts will foster comprehensive language development, build children’s vocabularies and support literacy development.

Do not overlook the importance of reading, writing, listening and playing together every day

In early childhood, these must occur without judgment or evaluation from adults. This means that when a child shows a parent a drawing, the parent does not critique or criticize its quality, but rather praises the effort and asks for details. When children play together, parents must not interfere or try to improve the play--unless arguments have developed--but allow the children to develop whatever story is being told.

From birth, many children have three or four years to explore and learn about language in important ways before entering preschool. In a high-quality preschool, the children’s earlier language efforts are extended and built on with minimal evaluation or judgment, and ample time is provided for children to play with one another. This occurs in high-quality preschools because of the recognition of how important play is in children’s language development.

Jumping cartoon

Each of the four language systems--listening, speaking, reading and writing--begin to develop at birth and expand in the weeks and months that follow. These systems develop at the same time and in interaction with one another, each strengthening the other.

While a majority of the attention is focused on a young child’s emergent speech, what receives less attention is the child's growing ability to focus on pictures, attend to surrounding objects and activities, point and gesture to communicate, or grasp markers to scribble on paper or walls. All of these early efforts are linked to a young child’s global language development, including to his or her reading and writing. When we know what to look for, we can recognize and comprehend the true building blocks of literacy and language.

More expert advice about Kids with Speech and Hearing Challenges

Photo Credits: bookstore by Gustavo Devito via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas - Fotolia.com

Chris Kliewer, Ph.D.Professor of Inclusive Education, Disability Studies, & Early Childhood

Chris Kliewer is a professor at the University of Northern Iowa. He has taught early childhood special education in both segregated and inclusive situations. He earned a master’s degree in the area of autism and emotional disturbance and a Ph....

View Full ProfileRecent Articles