Language and Literacy in Early Childhood

young child reading book with mask on

By Agnieszka Ciarkowska and Robin Goldstein, RJW ECC Educators

Our ECCs sprang into March with a Book Week devoted to celebrating early literacy. The children shared their favorite stories, learned more about how books are written, dressed up to bring their favorite characters to life and came together as a community to read.

The development of early literacy skills varies by age and our classrooms are committed to introducing reading in engaging and developmentally appropriate ways. However, the overall goal for all ages remains the same. We support children as they grow their vocabulary, learn the fundamental components of language, begin to connect letters to sounds and most importantly, develop a love of reading.


We intentionally create an environment that is rich in literacy. Regardless of age, our classrooms will have a variety of books to choose from as well as a multitude of opportunities to engage with printed words. For our toddlers in the Olam Class, repetition is important, whether it means singing familiar songs or choosing to read our favorite stories repeatedly. Hearing a story over and over helps toddlers learn about sounds, meanings, rhythms, and tones of words.

All morning the children run to pick out books they want read to them, or they sit and look at books on their own. As we strive to take children’s needs and interests into consideration, we understand that sometimes toddlers play while listening to a story or just want to flip through the pages of a book or go back and forth between a page or two. These are common practices and behaviors during the toddler years. We take their lead so we can keep literacy positive.

Even when the children leave the story area, we continue to read to those who are close by, recognizing that those who have walked away are still listening. We watch them gaze back at a book being read as they walk to another activity. We always notice their interest in stories being read even when they’re in another part of the classroom.

Similarly, our Pre-K children in the Mayim Class are welcomed into a print-enriched environment with labels, puzzles, and a variety of printed materials like menus, signs and directions available around the room. Throughout the year, we try to interact and plan different experiences promoting children’s emerging literacy skills in thoughtful and purposeful way. Every morning as the Pre-K children enter the classroom, they sign their name on the dry erase board. What better way of understanding that writing conveys meaning than learning to recognize and proudly recite or write the letters from one’s name?

Children develop the skill to write their own name by first scribbling and experimenting with different writing tools, then starting scribble writing and creating letter-like forms, until they begin writing recognizable letters or even words. They start to notice words that sound the same or start with the same letter and reading simple things like EXIT signs.

During Book Week, the children wanted to write their bedtime stories. Some of them wrote the beginning letters of each word, some used what is called “inventive writing” or copied words from a book. These are all important stages in sound-symbol connections. We can see more examples when children are writing letters, signs, invitations, journal entries, and their own books!


Providing opportunities to read is the first step but engaging with the children as we read with them is vital in building their connection and engagement in the story. Our toddlers show enthusiasm when they point out what’s going on in stories - the mood a fish is showing on a page in a book, silly things birds do when it’s snowing and identifying different pictures. Sometimes, instead of reading the words in a book, we talk about the pictures and guess what the characters, animals, or sea creatures are doing.

The Olam class frequently initiate naming pictures in books—highchair, ball, yellow truck, duck, or excitedly respond to our questions, “Where is the frog?” “Who is the brown bear looking for?” We encourage these conversations, responding to their questions and comments, “What’s he doing Robin?” “He’s sad,” “That’s my favorite fish!” By sharing our excitement around literacy every day, we encourage the children to engage in our comfortable book area or ask for stories to be read during snack.

For our Mayim Class, exploring books means noticing the characters, the setting, the sequence of events and more. They pretend to read, using the pictures to guide them or recalling details from when they heard the story before. They explore books about topics of interest, or with interesting plots, imagining themselves in those roles. One of their favorite books is called The Book With No Pictures by B.J Novak—they have even memorized some of the pages!

As children develop, we encourage them to learn more about the author and illustrator and begin to write their own stories as well. The books are not the only thing they create! From the beginning of the year, the children in the Mayim Class showed a lot of interest in board games, cards, dice and more. Sometimes they follow the rules of the game and sometimes they create their own rules or their own games. We ask questions and encourage the children to verbalize their ideas.


Early literacy is intrinsically connected to language development. Informal conversations that arise during play between peers or with the teachers, playful songs, rhymes, and reading aloud all support developing vocabulary and language. The Mayim Class enjoys retelling stories through puppet shows and performing in plays. In recent days they’ve been recreating the events from the Purim story, assigning each other roles, and creating the dialogue to tell the story.

Whether greeting their classmates or chatting over snacks, the conversations in the toddlers classroom are just as important. We even value the time we spend changing diapers, using this opportunity to connect one-on-one, share facial expressions, and talk about what they have done during the morning.

It is important for us all to remember that early literacy is more than just reading and writing, it is about connection and communication. Our job is to engage with the children and create opportunities to encourage their development.