Read, speak, sing to your baby: How parents can promote literacy from birth
Learning to read starts from birth. Babies learn how to read signals all around them by listening to voices, watching faces and reading body language. They need to hear and use sounds, sound patterns and spoken language. These early experiences help prepare them to learn to read, write, and succeed in school.
You can help your baby develop early literacy skills by reading, speaking, or singing to them. Not all activities need to involve books. Sign language, making music, and storytelling are other ways to nurture your baby’s brain development.
Serve-and-return interactions are the “back-and-forth” actions between you and your baby that help build their brain starting at birth.
Serve-and-return actions seem simple, but they are so powerful. Your baby does something: babbles, points, makes a gesture, or cries. You respond with eye contact, words, a similar gesture, or a hug. These moments help build and strengthen connections in their brain.
When you share books, words, and songs, you and your baby are involved in dozens of “serve-and-return” interactions. These loving moments are also essential to building attachment—the strong connection that ensures your baby feels safe and secure.
Literacy and language
Promoting literacy means surrounding your baby with language in many forms. Here are some ideas to read, speak, sing your way through the day.
Speak and tell stories
- Talk about what’s going on. Whether you’re changing a diaper, bathing your baby or taking a walk, use words that describe the actions and the things around them. You’ll help them develop vocabulary before they can even talk.
- Babies babble. It’s how they learn to make sounds with their own voices. Repeat these sounds, and turn them into real words. You’ll help your baby recognize which sounds form language. Your baby will eventually make the connection between the sounds and an object or person, like “dada”.
- For newborns and very young babies, try rhymes that involve gentle touch, such as patting their feet or giving them a little bounce while you are talking.
- Reward your baby’s first tries at making sounds with smiles and hugs. This early communication is exciting for your baby, and your approval will encourage them to keep trying.
- Once your baby starts talking, help them learn the words for the things around them. By labeling and repeating words, you’ll help your child remember them.
- Personal storytelling about shared experiences is powerful. Your baby can watch your face, participate by nodding or repeating a word, and respond with emotion. Stories are also a “passport” into a baby’s own or another culture.
- Repeat! Babies love hearing the same story over. Repetition allows them to internalize the story and master its pieces.
- Encourage your baby to participate in storytelling, with repetitive phrases, unique words, or sound effects.
There are many ways to tell stories. Some cultures have vibrant storytelling traditions. Other cultures might use fewer words, relying instead on more facial or interactive expressions to communicate. Families where someone is deaf and/or hard of hearing may prioritize sign language over spoken language.
- Make books part of routines. Making books a part of your baby’s daily routine will help nurture a love of reading. Even very young babies love picture books. It is helpful to make story time a part of your baby’s routine, such as before naps or at bedtime. You don’t even have to read the story all the way through. Just talking about some of the pictures is enjoyable for young babies.
- Help your baby participate. Babies like to put books in their mouths, so be sure your baby has access to sturdy board books. At first, your baby will need your help to turn the pages. When they get older, they will turn the pages on their own.
- Ask questions. When you say, “What’s that?” and name the picture in a book, it teaches your baby that things have names.
- Have fun! Cuddle, gaze at each other’s eyes, and use silly voices as you enjoy books and conversations with your baby.
- Invite your baby to imitate an action in a picture or to say “what comes next”.
- Encourage turn-taking to read, tell, or choose a book or story.
- Keep books visible and accessible around your home – not just on bookshelves – so your baby can explore them anytime.
- Visit the public library. Even babies can get a library card! There are many free resources to encourage your baby’s love of reading. Many libraries have free programs for parents and babies or young children that use books, rhymes, and songs.
- Lullabies and children’s songs can be used to soothe or play.
- Sing songs and use rhymes. Music makes the words easier to remember, and is a fun way to make language come alive for you and your baby! They don’t need to understand the words for these moments to be learning experiences.
- Combine gestures, actions, movement and use finger play while singing (such as, “Itsy Bitsy Spider”).
- Use song-based picture books.
- Encourage your baby to sing with you. Pause in the middle of a song your baby is familiar with and wait for them to “fill in the word” with a gesture, sound, word, or phrase.
- Join group musical activities at the library or an early years centre in your community.
How do I know my baby is developing early literacy skills?
Early literacy milestones are directly linked to other childhood developmental milestones. They may include:
|Age||Milestones||What parents can do|
Can my baby learn more than one language at the same time?
Tell stories, speak, and sing in the language(s) easiest for you to have fun with. By 4 months of age, babies can distinguish their own native language(s) from others.
Babies who are consistently exposed to 2 or more languages at home will absorb all the languages they hear. They may split their time and attention unequally between the languages, but when the home languages are combined, the size of their vocabulary is usually equal or higher than that of babies learning one language.
Are e-books as good as print books?
Babies learn best from face-to-face interactions with caring adults. Quality, age-appropriate apps and e-books can help with language development, as long as you and your baby are reading and learning together.
But even the best e-books won’t help your baby learn how to handle books and turn pages. Print books are meant to be explored, held, scribbled in, and even chewed (board books, of course!).
It is also best to keep screen time to a minimum. For children under 2 years old, screen time is not recommended. For children 2 to 5 years old, limit routine or regular screen time to less than 1 hour per day.
More information from the CPS
- Your child’s development: What to expect
- Screen time and young children
- Promoting reading in school-aged children
- Language acquisition in immigrant and refugee children: First language use and bilingualism (Caring for Kids New to Canada)
- Read, Speak, Sing: Your baby and early literacy (Video)
- Read, Speak, Sing: Fun ideas for you and your baby (Video)
- Serve and Return interactions video (Alberta Family Wellness Initiative)
- Tips and resources for parents (Canadian Children’s Literacy Foundation)
- Choosing books for babies and toddlers (The Canadian Children's Book Centre)
- Ready for Reading - Birth to 5 (Toronto Public Library)
- The Hanen Book Nook (The Hanen Centre, Toronto)
- Milestones of early literacy development (Reach Out & Read)
Reviewed by the following CPS committees
- Early Years Task Force
Last updated: March 2021