An Overview of Child Development
and Early Literacy Skills
Getting a child ready to read is important - a gift that lasts a lifetime.
Studies show that the most important thing we can do to help our children
succeed in school is to prepare them to read BEFORE they start school.
The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)
defines early literacy as, "what children know about reading and
writing before they actually learn to read and write."
Neurons and Connections
definition of early literacy suggests that reading readiness starts at
birth, when parents and caregivers talk to babies. This perspective
is consistent with brain research and emerging understandings of child
At birth, babies have one hundred billion neurons, brain cells.
These neurons, however, are not connected. In order to stimulate
connections, electrical impulses, the developing brain needs stimulation -
sensory experiences like tasting, touching, seeing, hearing, smelling, and
A child's learning is the result of a stimulus causing electrical
stimulation across a synapse or gap between neuron cells. From
birth, the brain rapidly is creating these connections that form our
habits, thoughts, consciousness, memories and mind. Two chemicals
play a prominent role in how brain development occurs, serotonin and
Serotonin. This hormone builds electrical transmissions
across neurons, building connections. It is produced naturally when
a child feels loved, cared for, and happy.
Cortisol. Another hormone that is produced under stressful
conditions, this chemical can inhibit the production of serotonin.
High levels of stress for extended periods of time inhibit connections
between neurons which are necessary for learning.
As the picture above shows, at birth, there are few connections between
neurons. By the time a child is 3 years old, the brain has
formed about 1,000 trillion connections — about twice as many as adults
have. A baby's brain is superdense and will stay that way throughout the
first decade of life. Beginning at about age 11, a child's brain gets rid
of extra connections in a process calling "pruning," gradually making
order out of a thick tangle of "wires."
The remaining "wiring" is more powerful and efficient. The increase in
synaptic density in a child's brain can be seen above. The
interactions that parents assist with in a child's environment are what
spur the growth and patterns of these connections in the brain.
As the synapses in a child's brain are strengthened through repeated
experiences, connections and pathways are formed that structure the way a
child learns. If a pathway is not used, it's eliminated based on the "use
it or lose it" principle. Things done a single time, either good or bad,
are somewhat less likely to have an effect on brain development.
When a connection is used repeatedly in the early years, it becomes
permanent. For example, when adults repeat words and phrases as they talk
to babies, babies learn to understand speech and strengthen the language
connections in the brain. This same process can be applied to
stimulate brain development and prepare children with the early literacy
skills needed to be ready to read.
Early Literacy Skills
The American Library Association has identified these six key skills that
will prepare children to become readers when they enter school:
Print Awareness. Noticing print everywhere, knowing how to
handle a book, and following words on a page.
Letter Knowledge. Knowing the difference between how letters
look, their names, and their sounds.
The single most important thing a family can do to
help their children succeed in school is to prepare them to read.
Scientific studies are documenting the physiological changes that occur in
the brain that enable this to happen.
Nurturing a baby's healthy development, stimulating brain development,
and maximizing learning work hand-in-hand with early literacy skills.
When we help children become ready to read - help that begins at birth -
we are addressing other important developmental needs as well.