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Early language development: why are books so important?

by Sue Meikle 

Books and stories can be really crucial in supporting a child’s early language development (sometimes referred to as pre-linguistic skills). 

Early language development is the foundation that is laid, before a majority of other learning is able to take place. 

Early Years Professionals will always be looking for evidence of a child’s pre-linguistic skills, to monitor and assess ‘typical’ developmental mile stones.  

So, let’s break early language development down:

Early language development typically includes: 


Why is the skill of attention and listening so important?

Because ‘established’ attention and listening skills, allow children to further develop:

Developmentally a lot of young children find it hard to sit / listen / focus, even for short periods of time, whether it’s during a meal time, a school assembly, during structured activities, in play or even when another person is talking to them. 

How do books support and help to develop attention and listening skills?

Because books and stories (e.g., board books/picture books) provide the perfect opportunity, for short-burst activities, to build this developmental skill. 

How do you know which book to choose?

Start small is the answer. Start with books with a lower word count and fewer pages (typically board books) and build up from there. 

Salaryia’s Farm friends’ collection are early books that will suit babies, toddlers and children who are just starting to develop their attention and listening skills – they include key words and short, simple rhyme. 

The Whales on the Bus by Katrina Charman and Nick Sharratt is a great example of a picture book written in song. It can be sung or read and actions can be used. These particular books offer familiar rhymes/songs, so are therefore predictable.  

Incy Wincy Spider by Emily Bannister is another example of familiar rhyme, but has the added bonus of being a ‘touch and feel’ story. Touch and feel stories are really engaging, because using the other senses, not only encourages a child’s attention skills, but they also support a child’s holistic development. 

Usbourne’s ‘That’s not my …” collection, are also fun and sensory board books, that have a nice repetition.   

Lift the flap books provide a really interactive experience. My favourite is Rod Campbell’s Dear Zoo – It has a shorter word count and clear and simple pictures, that represent the words of the story being told. Lift the flap books allow the adult to engage the child and build suspension e.g., “Shall we see who’s in the box?” or “I wonder who’s hiding in the basket?” My own children favoured Eric Hill’s Spot – A lift the flap hide and seek book, with a very lovable puppy! Flap books offer a cause-and-effect reaction, which also supports early language development.

Remember to consider individual interests too. Children’s interests vary over a broad spectrum – dinosaurs, trucks, mermaids, fairies, horses, unicorns, robots, aliens, trains, the list is endless, a child is more likely to engage, if it’s a subject that they love! Just the same as in the adult world! As humans, we will always be drawn to what interests and motivates us, so go with it! 

Children will soon let you know when they are ready for longer/more detailed books. It’s a little like a child learning to crawl or walk – there is no set time, each child will go when they are ready and the same rule applies to stories … Just follow their lead and share their joy.  

IMPORTANT NOTE: Children develop pre-linguistic skills at different speeds. There are of course occasionally other factors that can affect early language development, but these will usually be picked up on by a health care professional or a teacher. If a parent/carer has any concerns about their child’s development, it’s always advisable to speak to a GP, Health Visitor or teacher for advice.  

About the author:

Sue Meikle (Meikle rhymes with Treacle) is an Early Years Professional, specialising in the field of language development. She lives in Cheshire, in what was once a derelict barn, with her husband, two children and dog, Buzz. Sue has worked in education for over 25 years and has previously co-written a training manual for schools on Language Enrichment in the Early Years. She is also an aspiring picture book writer. In 2017, she was long-listed by the National Literacy Trust, with a re-imagined fairy tale and in 2021, she was short-listed for the Stratford/Salariya Picture Book Prize. 

Sue is a member of the SCBWI_BI and has been selected as one of this year’s picture book mentees, with author Amy Sparkes. 

When she’s not working or writing, Sue can usually be found chauffeuring around her teenagers, walking the dog or watching Grey’s Anatomy. 

Find Sue on Twitter: @Sue_N_Meikle  

The opinions expressed within this article are solely the author’s and do not reflect the opinions or beliefs of The Salariya Book Company or its employees.

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