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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

This 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 development. 

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 activity.  

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 cortisol . 

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.

Synaptic Density

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:

bulletPrint Motivation.  Being excited about and interested in books.
bulletPhonological Awareness.  Playing with the sounds in words.
bulletNarrative Skills.  Telling stories and describing things.
bulletEnriched Vocabulary.  Knowing the specific names of things.
bulletPrint Awareness.  Noticing print everywhere, knowing how to handle a book, and following words on a page.
bulletLetter 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.

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