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How Early Communication Can Pave the Way to Literacy

by Monica Beyer

April 30, 2015
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.

We think words mean power, and so should you. Through Project Literacy, GOOD and Pearson are building partnerships for a more literate future. Follow the #ProjectLiteracy hashtag and visit good.is or projectliteracy.com to tell us your stories, help us ask the right questions, and take action in your community.

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How Early Communication Can Pave the Way to Literacy