Something we say over and over again at TPK is: You (mom and dad) are your child’s first and best teacher. Your children learn so much from you throughout their development. This is never more evident than during the very early years of your child’s life, during which they show incredible growth and development. Did you know that by the time they start school, children could have a vocabulary of as many as 3,000 words? Some children will have more, others fewer, and that’s okay – but regardless of the pace, learning words is part of most children’s developmental process.

Today I want to share with you some practical ways that you can influence your child’s early literacy development. It’s very simple: by thoughtfully incorporating early literacy concepts in your everyday life.

I want to bring some of these ideas into your everyday life to show you how you can help your child’s literacy skills grow just by doing the things you have to do day in and day out.

At the grocery store… Moms, if you sometimes feel like going to the store with your kids is a chore, you are not alone. But maybe you have a day when you have a few minutes to spare, and you and your kids can explore the produce section together. You can talk about the shape, size, weight, flavor, and names of different foods you find there. Maybe you can even pick something out to take home and prepare together. This is language acquisition right here: your child is learning the names for things, different words to describe things, and how things are used in daily life. Now when your child encounters the word “apple” on the page of a book, he has a mental picture of an apple, he knows the flavor of an apple, and he has several words he can use to describe the apple.

In the car… When I was a child, long before the days of smartphones and tablets and in-car DVD, we had to make up our own games to keep us busy in the car. We would play the license plate game (looking for license plates from every state), or we would count the number of blue cars and red cars and green cars, or we would read the words on the side of large trucks and wonder what was inside them. And you can use the same kinds of strategies with your own children. If you see a fire truck, you and your child can talk about the big red fire truck with the loud siren and the flashing lights. If you see a tractor-trailer with a picture on the side, you and your child can guess together what might be in there. See how early literacy can occur here too – your child is learning the vocabulary of things, associating symbols with physical objects, and making predictions and educated guesses.

On the way home from school… Instead of just asking “How was school today?” you can ask your child questions about the sequence of the day. What did you do first, what did you do next, what was the last thing you did at the end of the day?  You can also ask relational questions. Why do you think Tommy was sad at school? What did the teacher do to help him? Do you think he will be happier tomorrow? These are ways you can help your child learn to tell a story with empathy – thinking about why someone would do something the way that they did, and predicting what the future might bring. These are narrative skills, and learning how to retell a story becomes important as your child’s education progresses. Sequence, prediction, and empathy are major ways that your child will learn to interpret what she’s read.

When you are playing with your child… Your child’s toys can illustrate so many things. In addition to telling stories, being creative, and just simply bonding with your child,  you can demonstrate all kinds of vocabulary skills in your play. You can talk about direction (up, down, left, right); you can find opposites (on/off, over/under, together/apart); you can rhyme; you can identify letters and letter sounds with your child (block starts with “B”, and so does baby).

Perhaps by these ideas you can see that language is less “taught” than “caught”. This is shown in the professional research, too; researchers have found that children whose parents interact with them intentionally and use language with them have better language skills in school. If your child has a language delay or is learning English as a second language, talking to them is a great way to support their development. Using words in familiar, everyday, concrete settings helps reinforce the words with tactile or visual learning. You don’t always have to sit down and “do” early literacy activities with an active child who just wants to play – you can create early literacy opportunities everywhere.

I’m attaching to this post a series of handouts created by the Early Literacy Initiative, talking about ways you can participate in your child’s learning. There are three: one for babies/toddlers, one for toddlers/preschoolers, and one for preschoolers/early-elementary age. You’ll see that each handout has a series of early literacy skills – vocabulary, print motivation, narrative skills, print awareness, letter knowledge, and phonological awareness. This is one of the ways in which early literacy practitioners (such as teachers and librarians) categorize the skills that children develop in their language and literacy acquisition. But I don’t think you need to get too caught up in the technical names for these skills – look at how the example activities suggested in the handouts can be fun, playful, engaging, and fit into your everyday life.

You really are your child’s first and best teacher. Just by engaging your child in conversation as you go about your everyday life, you can provide your child with opportunities to express himself, to learn words and sounds, to tell a story about something that happened, to learn letters and colors and shapes… This is one of the reasons that these early years with your children can be so fun and interesting, because you can watch your child learn something new every single day.

What’s something fun that you do in your home to help your child learn? Share your ideas with us!