The science of reading with infants

As all early childhood educators are aware, infant childcare settings are busy spaces. Much of the day revolves around attending to children’s needs, whether that involves comforting or feeding them, changing their diapers, or helping them rest. While the quality of care a child receives during these key moments is essential to their healthy growth and development, infant educators know that our youngest learners are highly capable and always absorbing what’s happening in the world around them.

Research indicates that reading to infants regularly is predictive of skills development when they enter a preschool curriculum, including fine motor skills such as a child’s ability to write their name, as well as literacy and language development. Though reading to infants also has benefits beyond language and literacy development—it impacts growth in all of the learning domains, including cognitive development, social emotional skills, gross motor skills and ultimately kindergarten readiness.

So what does the science of reading with infants look like, and how can you leverage your curriculum and create meaningful learning experiences that promote high-quality reading and child development in your classroom? 

Infant Language Development

To understand the science of reading with infants, it’s important to know how they develop language skills. Research reveals that babies are born with a unique ability to pick up on language. They can hear and distinguish all of the sounds and languages of the world. By two months of age, infants make sounds other than crying, by four months of age, they will make sounds back to you when you talk to them, by six months, they will take turns making sounds with you, by nine months, they will make sounds such as “babababa,” and by a year old, they may use terms such as “mama” or “dada” for special people.

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University tells us that we can foster infant language development by engaging in “serve and return” exchanges that will encourage children in their language development. Serve and return exchanges are exactly as they sound: An educator or caregiver shares positively in the child’s focus and goes back and forth with the child about the object of focus by naming and describing it and describing the child’s actions as they engage with the object. Such interactions support infants in vocabulary acquisition, building funds of knowledge, and establishing bonds with educators and caregivers.

Setting the Stage for Reading Experiences

Understanding infant language development is just one part of creating high-quality reading and learning experiences. Knowing what to read to children and how to stage the environment for specific learning objectives are equally important.

In partnership with Head Start, the National Center for Family Literacy offers the following tips for engaging infants with books: 

Content

Birth to 6 months: Choose books that have large, simple pictures or bright/bold illustrations set against a contrasting background.

7-12 months: Choose books with basic drawings of everyday objects and activities, medium to large photos, and/or bright/bold illustrations. 

Language

Birth to 6 months: Babies will appreciate wordless picture books or those with a single descriptive word for the picture. Try reading books that contain phrases, short sentences, and nursery rhymes so infants can hear language. 

7-12 months: Babies begin to make connections between the content in books and their environment. Read books with simple stories and learning objectives, and that typically have one line of text per page.

Design

Birth to 6 months: Together, look through stiff cardboard books, books with fold-out pages, cloth or soft vinyl books, and books with handles.

7-12 months: Infants and younger children like to handle stiff cardboard, cloth, and vinyl books.

Reading Aloud

Birth to 6 months: Give your full attention to the experience of reading in your lesson plans. Talk about details in illustrations. Read before rest times. Recite nursery rhymes.

7-12 months:Follow the child’s lead. Reading experiences may be short as children become mobile. Remember “serve and return.” Notice what the infant focuses on in the book. Help children learn by naming details. Invite the child to notice a detail and wait for their response (verbal or nonverbal).

Designing childcare curriculum that fosters language development

Being intentional about how you plan and structure reading and learning experiences with infants in early childhood education will be beneficial to everyone involved. As we’ve discussed, when you engage children in reading experiences, it creates special moments that build a bond between you and each child and creates the space for the development of language and literacy skills.

Reading to infants is part of a high quality curriculum and optimal learning environment in early childhood. It provides teachable moments, where they may explore movement, learn about social conventions and culture, and begin to develop age-appropriate skills in sequencing, noticing shapes, and much more.

Consider the following essential elements when planning reading experiences within your childcare curriculum:

  1. Identify reading opportunities: What part of your routine allows space for reading?

  2. Prepare the environment: Where will you keep books? Where will you store teacher resources (reading tips, props, etc.) so that they are easily accessible?

  3. Choose books: What have you observed about children’s interests within your classroom community? Are they interested in animals? Are they noticing different textures? What skills are children developing? Are they attempting to turn pages or lift flaps? What are families saying about children’s interests and abilities? Answering these questions will help you to create intentional learning experiences.

  4. Respond to the moment: How can you ensure access to books, props, and rhymes when the need arises?

  5. Document the experience: How did children respond to a book? What skills did individual children demonstrate (turn pages with assistance; babble; focus on details of pictures)? Where can you provide support for skills development? Are there any patterns emerging from children’s behavior?

Reflecting on answers to these questions will help you build a solid foundation to plan meaningful reading opportunities and empower children. Though these experiences with infants tend to be short and simple, over time and cumulatively, they make lasting impacts. Before you know it, infants will have grown into preschoolers with the necessary skills to be successful in their preschool program and beyond.

To support educators and leaders as they build language and literacy learning experiences for young children, browse our professional development platform Lillio Academy, for certified training sessions across the North America.

Teresa Narey

Teresa Narey is the Director of Educational Content at FunShine Express and has been in the field for 17 years. She is passionate about social-emotional learning, professional development, understanding theories of child development, and neurodiversity. Prior to joining FunShine, Teresa held various roles in ECE, including assistant director, lead toddler and pre-K teacher, Title I tutor, after-school program instructor, and nanny. Teresa believes high-quality curriculum can be a powerful training tool and equip educators with the knowledge necessary to advocate for the childcare profession. Her educational background includes an MEd in ECE with an Administration specialization from Champlain College, an MFA in Creative Writing: Writing for Children from Chatham University, and a BA in English from Rutgers University.

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