Q&A with Dr. Amy Emerson: Building Early Language Skills

In March 2014, the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF) and Too Small to Fail jointly launched a new partnership aimed at improving early brain and language development. Tulsa is fertile ground for this campaign; over many years, GKFF has laid a solid foundation for high quality early childhood education through its support of local Educare Centers and other programs focused on improving parenting and child development.

The following fall, GKFF and Too Small to Fail rolled out our ground campaign “Talking is Teaching: Talk, Read, Sing” in Tulsa with help from trusted messengers in the medical community, among others. Hundreds of Tulsa-based pediatricians, family practitioners, nurses and medical facility administrators have helped educate parents about the importance of early brain development, and given out free materials during routine pediatric visits that prompt parents to talk, read and sing more to their children from birth.

Dr. Amy Emerson is a critical partner in this campaign, championing early literacy programs like Reach Out and Read and contributing to the Educare model for many years. In the post below, Dr. Emerson underscores the importance of parents as teachers in promoting early brain development and literacy in young children.

How can parents and caregivers best promote and support early literacy?

The best ways to promote and support early literacy are actually very simple and most effective when integrated into a daily routine. For babies, repeating the noises that they start making and talking to them while looking into their faces are some of the earliest ways to encourage language development. As children grow older, simple activities such as narrating, or explaining activities throughout the day and then asking a child open-ended questions to help them think about these activities are very important. Likewise, children thrive when they have routines, and studies have shown that when children are read to daily it helps with school readiness. Often bedtime is a great time to spend a few minutes reading together. Even singing songs, such as Old McDonald, and saying nursery rhymes support brain growth.

When selecting books to read with children, what are some of the things caregivers should be looking for?

For babies, look for board books (books with thick cardboard pages that are easily turned) with pictures of other babies, animals, bright colors and few words in them. For toddlers, simple is still better; books with objects they are interested in such as construction equipment, trains, or animals can help capture their attention. Repeating sounds the animals on the pages make or funny rhyming words make reading together fun. As children grow older, they enjoy books that tell a story, and they often enjoy becoming the storyteller themselves when asked to do so.

How do I incorporate my child’s personality in the books that I select for them?

It’s helpful to think about activities your child enjoys or objects in which they may have shown an interest. Some children love animals or anything with wheels that go zoom! Little hands often enjoy holding little books and turning thick cardboard pages. If you find a particular type of book or an author that your child really enjoys, it’s fun to visit the library and ask for help in finding similar books.

What are some strategies that parents and caregivers can use to improve children’s reading skills?

It is important that caregivers foster a love of reading during the early years, and not worry about teaching a child to read. There are many ways to help children develop “pre-reading” skills in the course of the day. When you are driving in your car or shopping at the grocery store, ask your child to look for letters of the alphabet and make it into a game. Ask a child what sound a letter makes and try to think of more words that start with that sound. It’s fun to make up silly songs and help your child find words that rhyme. Always have scrap pieces of paper, pencils, crayons and other supplies readily available for children to use at home, and encourage them to draw shapes and pictures.

Why should parents talk, read, and sing to their children from birth?

Many parents don’t realize that our brains are growing fastest and changing most rapidly in the first few years of life. It’s never too late to start talking, reading, and singing, but more importantly—it’s never too early! Studies have shown that children from homes in which more words are said to them in the first few years of life will enter kindergarten with larger vocabularies and a head start when compared to their peers.

What are the developmental milestones of early literacy?

When babies are about four months they will often start cooing when someone speaks to them. This is the beginning of verbal exchanges, which form the basis of language development. Around six months of age, a baby may start patting the pages of a book when excited or she may even try to put the book in her mouth. This is the way babies explore the world around them! Pointing to objects when asked to find them is a critical milestone at about 12 months of age, and this is also the age at which a child who is read to frequently will turn the book right side up when it is handed to him upside down. Around 18 months of age, a child will easily turn pages of a book and often becomes attached to one book in particular, often “reading” it to her stuffed animals. This is a great age to start asking the child to name objects on the page. Amazingly, a toddler will often memorize favorite lines from a book and will start noticing if you skip a page or leave out part of a story.

Is there any advice you can give caregivers on how often they should read the same book to a child or when to introduce a new book? For example, should they read the same book multiple times during the same week or should they read a new book each night of the week to improve the child’s vocabulary?

One of the best things about sharing books together is that there is never a right or wrong way to do it! As long as the two of you are having fun and enjoying time together turning pages and talking about a book, your child is learning. Children often love to be in control of story time, which usually means they want to pick out the book (for toddlers, this might mean the SAME book everyday), and they may not even sit for the whole book. Instead of allowing this to create conflict, let them guide the time spent together and make it fun! Repetition is a great way for them to learn words, and they often will end up memorizing a favorite book and enjoy “reading” it to you.

How should caregivers set routines for reading with their child?

Just as with anything, starting a new reading routine may be a little tough at the start, but don’t give up! Incorporating books into other routines is a good way to establish good habits. For instance, many children don’t want to go to bed, but if every night they are allowed to pick out books to read together, it can make the bedtime routine go more smoothly. For some children, late afternoon can be a time when they are tired and cranky, so spending a few minutes lying in bed reading books together can be a time for them to relax and enjoy slowing down with you. If there just doesn’t seem to be time in your day to set aside for reading, perhaps you can keep a few books in your kitchen or in your car, so your child can turn pages as you talk about what he or she sees.

When it comes to engaging a child in talking, reading, and singing, what are the best types of environments to ensure a child gets the most out of the experience?

The best environment is one that is not over-stimulating, or full of things that are competing for your child’s attention. Studies have shown that even having a television playing in the background can be very disruptive to a child’s time spent playing and learning, causing them to frequently stop what they are doing to look at the TV. When you spend time talking, reading, and singing with your child, you are not only helping your child’s brain grow, but you are also building wonderful lasting memories together. During these moments, your child should feel nurtured, loved and safe. Any moment spent talking, reading, and singing with a child is never wasted!