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:
- Eye contact (e.g., we usually ‘look’ at someone when they say our name or in conversation, we don’t turn away.)
- Turn taking (e.g., we usually take turns to speak – I talk, then you talk, we don’t all talk at the same time!)
- Comprehension (e.g., we try to understand what is being said to us, so we can respond in context / understand how to follow simple instructions.)
AND THE BIG ONE:
- ATTENTION AND LISTENING
Why is the skill of attention and listening so important?
Because ‘established’ attention and listening skills, allow children to further develop:
- Communication skills (including eye contact and verbal turn taking)
- The ability to ‘focus’ (on a conversation, on a task etc)
- The understanding of language (comprehension)
- The ability to learn social skills
- The ability to follow instructions
- The opportunity to develop speech sounds
- In all areas of learning
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.
- Picture books are bright, attractive and engaging.
- They have been written in a carefully crafted language for a child to understand.
- There are vast choices of board books and picture books – some have as few as 100 words, some can be over 1,000 and some have no words at all, meaning there really is a book for every child, regardless of their developmental stage. We can select books with smaller word counts for children with limited attention and listening skills and we can gradually increase this, all the while increasing a child’s ability to focus for longer and process more information.
- Books support active listening. Words are represented by matching images (illustrations) that help explain the story and present content that a child can connect with and this will hold their attention.
- Books can encourage active participation.
- Books encourage active listening skills.
- Books encourage visualisation that help form memories and build comprehension skills (understanding). This is much easier to learn and develop from than disconnected or isolated activities and building memory makes knowledge easier to recover.
- Books can help to use a child’s existing knowledge of something and can extend and improve it.
- Books written in rhyme can have a lovely beat or metre and this can be especially helpful to young children, who are just extending on from nursery rhymes and songs (which, by the way, is a wonderful place to start with babies!) Rhyme can help young children to focus, much like song and if read repeatedly, young children can learn to chant rhyme readily. Rhyme also lends itself to actions and physical movement through actions, which also helps a child to cement words to memory.
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.