How Early Communication Can Pave the Way to Literacy

Learning how to read starts in babyhood and shapes one’s ability to think critically for decades to come. #ProjectLiteracy

Encouraging infants to communicate any way they can could help them read and think critically decades down the road. Image by Flickr user Sarah Gilbert.

You probably don’t remember your first lessons in literacy. That’s because learning how to read and write starts in the hazy early days of babyhood, when a nascent appreciation for the ebb and flow of human communication begins to shape one’s ability to learn and think critically for decades to come.

A number of purportedly educational programs and gizmos have popped up in recent years, claiming to positively influence the preverbal human brain, with mixed results. It’s looking more and more like attentive, communicative parenting is what has a positive impact on infant learning, whether or not supplemental tools are involved.

But one seemingly trendy development—baby sign language—shows a lot of promise. The phenomenon works exactly how it sounds—using signs or gestures with a preverbal child, with the expectation that he or she will sign back. Proponents suggest that baby sign language advances brain development and bonding between parents and children. With most babies naturally starting to use their hands and arms to communicate at around nine months, the practice makes a lot of intuitive sense.

Through signing, many parents hope to get a grasp on what their baby needs or wants before he or she is able to speak, and, at the very least, reduce frustration. Many parents start with the sign for "milk"—as a baby is nursing or drinking a bottle, Mom or Dad makes a squeezing gesture within the baby's line of sight. Over time (anywhere from a week to a couple of months), the baby makes the connection, recognizes the sign, and signs back—and in the future, signs when hungry, rather than crying.

Whether signed, spoken, or sung, language exposure in a child's early years is critical. A baby's developing brain soaks up vocabulary and grammar, no matter how language is presented, according to Joseph E. Fischgrund, Executive Director of the Council on Education of the Deaf and former Headmaster of the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Philadelphia. But, he adds, "language goes to the brain by eye as robustly and effectively as by ear."

Quite a bit of research into the kind of natural language exposure that occurs through baby sign language has substantiated the link between symbolic gesturing and more advanced vocabulary levels in early toddlerhood. Though some recent research has shown that the difference may be overstated, it’s clear that parents who sign with their babies “speak” more with them—expanding on newly learned ideas and concepts because they're paying such close attention to their child's non-verbal cues, and they are attempting to bring more focus on the signs they're trying to teach their baby.

A study by Jana M. Iverson and Susan Goldin-Meadow revealed that gestures (even those that aren't specifically intended to function as sign language) pave the way for language development because they provide cues for a parent (or other caregiver) to respond to, which opens up more crucial learning opportunities.

Child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley were determined to find out how language acquisition in the early years may or may not impact future literacy and vocabulary. They found that the state of a child's language development by age three was a very strong predictor of reading and vocabulary skills by ages nine and 10, thus concluding that "experiences in infancy establish habits of seeking, noticing, and incorporating new and more complex experiences, as well as schemas for categorizing and thinking about experiences," they wrote.

Hart and Risley's research also noted the disparity between children of professionals and children from low-income homes, estimating that by preschool age, children born in poverty had been exposed to 30 million fewer words than their peers who came from wealthier homes, which directly translated to differences in reading comprehension by the time the kids were in school.

Sign language is, of course, one way a parent can boost their baby's future literacy skills—especially because it requires so much of Hart and Risley’s seeking and noticing. But it's not the only way, and is certainly not required. "There is a tremendous amount of evidence about both the impact of early reading and of the involvement of parents in reading with their children," says João Oliveira, Ph.D. He notes that it’s wise to introduce books to children as young as four months of age, and to take cues from your child as you read. "Books are interesting, but you are even more interesting to your child," he says. "Use verbal, body, sign, any kind of language to make the interaction more interesting."

Meredith Scott, program director for the Children's Literacy Foundation (CLiF), agrees. "Long before she is able to read herself, you're imprinting that reading is a safe, fun activity, a way to learn new things and explore the world, and something you value enough to share with her," she says. When you focus on reading with a child, you're not distracted by work, your phone, or other responsibilities. The most important thing at that moment is the child, and the child understands this.

While sign language is a valid option for creating more language learning opportunities at home (and wherever their adventures take them), simply talking and singing to a child works, too. One effective communication method involves asking even the youngest of babies questions, then acting as if an answer is expected. It’s also helpful to point at and label items—even people—around the home, expanding on nouns, adding adjectives, and going beyond the scope of what a parent can expect a child of a certain age to comprehend.

Encouraging language development in whatever way makes sense for any given family will boost the learning potential of a child. As the brain works hard to keep up with the interaction and external stimuli, those pathways make a permanent change. Making an effort to communicate with children at a young age, whether through sign language, reading or talking, will do more than help them communicate better—it can create better learners, which benefits society as a whole.

AFP News Agency / Twitter

A study out of Belgium found that smart people are much less likely to be bigoted. The same study also found that people who are bigoted are more likely to overestimate their own intelligence.

A horrifying story out of Germany is a perfect example of this truth on full display: an anti-Semite was so dumb the was unable to open a door at the temple he tried to attack.

On Wednesday, October 9, congregants gathered at a synagogue in Humboldtstrasse, Germany for a Yom Kippur service, and an anti-Semite armed with explosives and carrying a rifle attempted to barge in through the door.

Keep Reading Show less
via Andi-Graf / Pixabay

The old saying goes something like, "Possessions don't make you happy." A more dire version is, "What you own, ends up owning you."

Are these old adages true or just the empty words of ancient party-poopers challenging you not to buy an iPhone 11? According to a new study of 968 young adults by the University of Arizona, being materialistic only brings us misery.

The study examined how engaging in pro-environmental behaviors affects the well-being of millenials. The study found two ways in which they modify their behaviors to help the environment: they either reduce what they consume or purchase green items.

Keep Reading Show less

One of the biggest obstacles to getting assault weapons banned in the United States is the amount of money they generate.

There were around 10 million guns manufactured in the U.S. in 2016 of which around 2 million were semiautomatic, assault-style weapons. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry's trade association, the U.S. industry's total economic impact in 2016 alone was $51 billion.

In 2016, the NRA gave over $50 million to buy support from lawmakers. When one considers the tens of millions of dollars spent on commerce and corruption, it's no wonder gun control advocates have an uphill battle.

That, of course, assumes that money can control just about anyone in the equation. However, there are a few brave souls who actually value human life over profit.

Keep Reading Show less
via Reddit and NASA / Wikimedia Commons

Trees give us a unique glimpse into our past. An examination of tree rings can show us what the climate was like in a given year. Was it a wet winter? Were there hurricanes in the summer? Did a forest fire ravage the area?

An ancient tree in New Zealand is the first to provide evidence of the near reversal of the Earth's magnetic field over 41,000 years ago.

Over the past 83 million years there have been 183 magnetic pole reversals, a process that takes about 7,000 years to complete.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via Pixabay

The final episode of "The Sopranos" made a lot of people angry because it ends with mob boss Tony Soprano and his family eating at an ice cream parlor while "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey plays in the background … and then, suddenly, the screen turns black.

Some thought the ending was a dirty trick, while others saw it as a stroke of brilliance. A popular theory is that Tony gets shot, but doesn't know it because, as his brother-in-law Bobby Baccala said, "You probably don't even hear it when it happens, right?"

So the show gives us all an idea of what it's like to die. We're here and then we're not.

Keep Reading Show less