Home Visitor's Online Handbook

Language and Literacy

Teacher reading with a child Although language and literacy are two different skills, they are closely related. Language is the ability to both use and understand spoken words or signs. It is all about ideas passing from one person to another. Literacy is the ability to use and understand written words or other symbols in order to communicate. Language and literacy learning begins prenatally. The child learns the sounds and rhythms of his or her home language in the womb and can develop a love of reading by being read to as a newborn. The ELOF provides a detailed progression of the knowledge and skills a child achieves in these domains.

Language is a system of sounds, gestures, and expressions that people use to communicate with each other. Receptive language is the term for the skills of understanding language, including expressions and gestures. Expressive language includes communication from the child meant to elicit a response from someone else.

The use of meaningful language with a child throughout the first five years is critical for the child's ability to become proficient in language usage throughout their school years.

Emergent literacy has been defined as "those behaviors shown by very young children as they begin to respond to and approximate reading and writing acts."

There are many ways for infants and toddlers to engage with books:

  • Holding, tasting, and turning the pages
  • Having an adult hold the child while reading a book
  • Pointing to and talking about the pictures
  • Inviting the child to finish or join in to repetitive phrases
  • Asking questions

Near the end of the first year of life, children begin to understand that pictures represent real objects and know the meaning of about 50 words. By 18 months, the child knows 1,800 words and is rapidly learning new words every day, given exposure to rich language and literacy experiences.

Daily reading to a child, beginning with telling little nursery rhymes from birth, significantly improves a child's ability to read and write.

How To

You can support a family's facilitation of their child's language and literacy by encouraging families to:

  • Talk to their child even before birth
    • Long before they can expect their child to understand their words, the child will begin to sense the rhythm of conversation and the hear the sounds of the home language
  • Describe the child's actions, feelings, and surroundings (e.g., "You are running so fast! I can see you breathing hard. But what a big smile; it looks like you're having fun.")
  • Listen patiently and with encouragement to what the child is trying to communicate; for example, "Oh, you played with Sonia. What did you do?"
  • Ask the preschool child open-ended questions and try to extend a conversation. For example, if the child is playing with dolls, the parent might say:
    • "So, you're the mommy. Tell me about your family."
    • "I see you're cooking some food for your baby. What are you making? How do you cook that? What are your baby's favorite foods?"
  • Elaborate with their language as their child's understanding increases. For example:
    • With a 1-year-old, they might just name an object: "Mmmmm, carrots."
    • With a 5-year-old, they could elaborate about the meal: "We're having your favorite tonight. Tacos! Here are some corn tortillas. The chicken is just a little spicy. I cooked onions to go with this. That's not what we usually have, but I read the recipe and it looked good. How do you want to build your taco?"
  • Interact with books and pictures with the child as soon as he or she can focus on a picture
  • Make daily reading a regular part of your routine
  • Ask the child questions about the book, such as
    • "Where is the baby's nose?"
    • "How do you think Little Bear feels? Look at his face."
    • "What do you think will happen next?"
  • Tell stories and have their children to tell stories
  • Talk with their child about things that happened recently or will be happening soon

Experience It

Watch a short video of a mother dressing a very young baby after changing her diaper. She talks to and smiles at the baby, and the baby is very responsive visually and verbally.


What did you observe?

Answers may include:

  • The mother is putting on the baby's clothes and talking to her the whole time
  • The baby is focused on the mother's face throughout the dressing process, and the mother is focused on the baby's face when she is on camera, except when she needs to look at what she is doing
  • Mother asks several questions, such as, "Can you give me a smile?" and repeats it while she is smiling
  • Baby stays focused on her face and makes a noise. She asks, "Do you feel better now?"
  • The baby grunts and mother imitates baby's noise
  • The mother gently touches the baby's eye
  • The mother asks, "Do you want to see Poppy?" then waits and looks at the baby as she zips up the suit
  • Then the father comes and takes the baby

How does this interaction support language and literacy?

Answers may include:

  • Mother talks to baby in a soft, friendly voice and smiles at baby frequently
  • Mother asks questions and changes her tone from talking to questioning
  • Mother imitates baby's sounds, which will reinforce the baby making more sounds in a back-and-forth "conversation"
  • Baby stays focused on mother and shows enjoyment in listening to mother's voice, which reinforces mother talking to baby
  • When mother asks questions, they are related to what she is doing so the baby will learn that language means something; for example:
    • "Can you smile?" and she smiles
    • "Do you want to go to Poppy?" and Poppy picks her up

What other domains supporting school readiness did you see?

Answers may include:

  • Cognition
    • Cause and Effect
      • Mother asks a question or says something to baby and follows up with a related action
        • "Can you give me a smile?" and smiles
        • "Do you want to go to Poppy?" and Poppy picks her up
  • Perceptual, Motor, and Physical Development
    • Changing diaper
    • Mother gently placing baby's arms and legs into clothing
    • Safety:
      • Having another adult pick the baby up while mother disposes of dirty diaper
    • Baby kicking and moving her arms
  • Social and Emotional Development
    • Mother and baby engaging in face-to-face interaction
    • Mother smiling at baby
    • Baby making noises and mother responding
    • Baby focused on mother's face as she talks
    • Baby kicking and moving her arms in response to mother's talking to her

How could you encourage a parent to engage in this kind of interaction during diapering or changing?

Answers may include:

  • Look for moments when the baby is looking at or paying attention to the parent and point them out
    • "See how she looks at you when you talk while you're changing her diaper?"
  • Talk for the baby
    • "You want Mommy to look at you, don't you?"
    • "I'm trying to say something to you, Daddy."
    • "I like it when you talk to me when you change my diaper."
  • Look for moments when the parent is talking or being responsive to the baby and comment on it
    • "She really pays attention when you talk to her."
    • "Look at her face when you smile; she just lights up."
    • "She put her hand out to help when you told her you were going to put her sleeve on her. She really responded when you told her what you were going to do."

Reflect on moments in home visits when you can help support the parent in promoting the child's language and literacy.

Answers may include:

  • Encourage the child to take books to the parent
  • Get excited with the parent when the child uses new words
  • Encourage the parent to look at or read books with the child; sit nearby to encourage and offer support
    • "She really likes when you just let her chew on the book or turn the pages. Those are the first steps toward learning to read."

Learn More

Center for Early Literacy Learning (CELL)
CELL promotes the adoption and sustained use of evidence-based early literacy learning practices. It offers resources for early childhood intervention practitioners, parents, and other caregivers of children from birth to 5 years of age with identified disabilities or developmental delays and those at risk for poor outcomes. CELL is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.

Dialogic Reading That Supports Children Who Are Dual Language Learners and Their Families
This professional development module is designed to guide staff on using the dialogic reading strategy to support early literacy with children who are dual language learners (DLLs).