Saturday, August 6, 2011

How does talking to babies improve literacy?

Last week we talked about the effectiveness of talking to your baby. The question might be, “How does this improve literacy?” Here is one reason.
The brain of a newborn is prewired to learn any language. A two-month-old can distinguish between two different languages. How do they do this? The rhythm of languages differs greatly and babies rely on rhythm, not on sounds to distinguish between languages.
This is pretty impressive, but there is more. By the time babies are eight to ten months of age they will focus on the sounds that are in their own language. Babies were tested to see if at this age they could tell the difference between the sounds, ‘pa’ and ‘ba’. Researchers did this by electronically monitored a pacifier. When babies heard ‘pa, pa, pa’, they sucked strongly for a time. But then the sucking diminished. When the sound changed and they heard ‘ba, ba, ba’, they showed their interest by sucking strongly again.  Of course there was a control group who only heard one of the sounds. This proved that the babies who heard both sounds could tell when the sound changed.
There have been many, many studies similar to this that indicate that even very young infants pay attention to sounds in their environment. It is because babies are wired to be interested and to be able to distinguish sounds at a very early age, that they can learn the language in any culture they in which they are raised. However, it takes lots and lots of quality talk time to insure that babies have had practice in discerning sounds.
So what happens if there are very few sounds as in the case of a parent who rarely speaks to his or her baby. This baby’s brain has had very little practice time. I guarantee this little one will be much slower in learning to read than their peers whose parents talk with their babies.
I would like to share two great resources on this topic. The first was given to me by Hollis Helmeci, our librarian. It is a website and a blog that gives many strategies for helping your child learn to read. The second is a book that I have mentioned before, How Babies Talk, The Magic and Mystery of language in the First Three Years of Life. Happy talking!

I’m a little sunflower, I’m so small
Soil, sun, and water make me tall.
When I get all grown up
You will see
That I’m as big as I can be!

Sit, crosslegged on floor, Pat the floor for soil, round the arms for sun and wiggle fingers for water. Sit on knees Stand with hands on hips. Stand tall with arms reaching high.

(tune:  Sing a Song of Sixpence)

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