Laying firm foundations for literacy

Laying firm foundations for literacy starts from the very beginning with babies, because enthusiasm for communication starts within those early weeks and months. Over the first year of life, babies can become keen on books, songs and nursery rhymes. Older babies show you that, as young as they are, they have developed a sharp ear for the sounds of their language.

Let’s pretend

Over that second year of life very young boys and girls make the intellectual leap into pretend play. At the simplest level they are beginning to weave their own stories, making the link between experience of how their daily life works and weaving that knowledge back into their imaginative play.

Pretend play is often brief and relatively simple in this second year of life. But the development is important for the build-up of early literacy skills for two reasons. It is an indication that young children understand representation or symbolism, that one thing can stand for another, a doll for a real baby and a pretend phone for a real one for example. The other positive sign for supporting early literacy skills is that young children start to create stories through their pretend play.

Rich oral communication

Young children need to build a strong basis of rich oral communication, because they need to be very familiar with the sounds of their language. Children need to be able to talk spontaneously and express themselves. They need to be able to listen and understand what is said to them. Unlike reading and writing, babies and young children do not need formal instruction in talking and listening. Children only need a special language programme if something has gone awry: either their development has been affected by disability or familiar adults have provided very limited communication.

Very young girls and boys simply getting on with this learning task in a relaxed way with adults who know them well and care very much about them as individuals. From the earliest months of babyhood, men – as fathers or early years practitioners – are equally able as women to provide these rich experiences of communication. Young boys especially need familiar male role models who are able to show, within ordinary exchanges throughout early childhood, that grown-up men definitely do books, reading and writing.

Physical movement

Physical movement is an integral part of moving towards being able to learn to write. Young children need to build up their muscle strength for large and fine physical skills and movements. They need plenty of time to explore how to make deliberate marks – and to create their own marks again and again, with different tools and with a variety of materials. Young children use their hands, fingers and tools to make a wide range of marks and this playful experience enables them to understand how they can, if they choose, deliberately recreate a mark or try something similar but not identical.

Young children need time to work out which hand feels better to lead their mark making. These young children are getting plenty of happy and absorbed practice that will enable them, in due course, to decide whether they are right or left-handed, or genuinely flexible for different tasks. The majority of the world is right handed, so children who emerge as left handed benefit from some special materials, for instance from the organisation Anything Left-Handed, full details in the Resources section

Environment and materials - Indoors

Music, rhythm and tuneful communication

Babies are very responsive to music, rhythm and tuneful communication. Parents around the world sing to their babies and children, because very young children light up with the rhythm and repetition of simple songs. Young children who enjoy singing and rhymes will have practised, in a most enjoyable way, the sounds of their own language(s). Nursery rhymes gives plenty of enjoyable material. The happy repetition, supported by the regular hand movements of the rhyme, give plenty of practice in saying the words and sharpening the ability to hear similar sounds, like the rhyming ends of some words that come close together – spout and out, rain and again.

Young children in nursery should have the same kind of personal attention and opportunities to learn their own favourite rhymes. Perhaps there will, in nursery, be times when a small number of children enjoy songs and rhymes together. But there should also be plenty of times when a familiar adult is easily available for a child.

Putting their thoughts into words

Keen talkers, even under-3s, are able to put their thoughts into words. When children are ready to learn, writing is not only about the technicalities of handwriting. School age children need to be able to talk out and plan what they want to write. Keen talkers also learn different uses of language, which in time will be reflected in their communication through writing. Older 2s and young 3-year-olds use their spoken language to inform and explain, to tell about an event in the recent past, to remind adults about ‘what you said we’d do today’. A broad use of spoken language will later support good reasons why children might want to write something down, for instance to capture a written record of an event or to make sure something important is not forgotten.

What helps young children

What helps young children is often very straightforward. Valuable experiences for early literacy skills do not always need resources in addition to you, an interested adult. ‘Keep it simple’ is a good message, along with the fact that the best voices to use are your own (yours and that of the baby or child). You do not need the voices of total strangers captured inside a plastic toy or electronic console and powered by batteries.

Chatting with friends

However, children become increasingly important to each other, as friends whose shared play is built by time together in their own home and a predictable pattern to the week that means children really get to know each other well at nursery, pre-school or playgroup. Older 2s and young 3s will start to have their own detailed conversations.

Pulling it all together

Young children need to build up their confidence with large and fine physical skills and movements. When children are genuinely ready to learn how to write, then they will need the focussed physical skills that enable them to hold and control a fine tool like a pencil and to lift it off and onto the page. However, those fine physical skills are supported with happy practice within a wide range of freely chosen play activities. Fine physical skills depend upon young children’s confidence in their own bodies and their ability to make large, as well as small scale, physical movements, to fine-tune their vision and co-ordination.

Young children with an enthusiasm for books also learn a very great deal about the art of story telling. Good early years practice is to keep the groups small and to be responsive to young children’s requests for a story.

Similarly when young children have had plenty of experience of songs and rhymes, they start to make up their own. It is very endearing to listen and watch as young children make up their own songs and tuneful ditties. It is also worth standing back and admiring how much they have learned in order to create in this way.

Becoming bilingual

Many young children across the UK are tackling more than one language within their early childhood. Young children’s brains are programmed ideally for learning language. Being bilingual or multilingual only seems to be unusual, or an inevitable problem, to adults who grew up monolingual. However, children are very busy learning vocabulary from more than one language. Some will soon become aware that their family language is written in a completely different way from English. Early years practitioners need to be fully aware of the learning task for these children, who are or are becoming bilingual.

Of course, if you do not speak a child’s home language, then you cannot make an informed judgement whether she or he is speaking and listening up to their age. You certainly must not judge their language ability exclusively by English, especially if children have not long started to take this language on board. It will be important to get a reliable idea of a child’s ability in their home language. If parents are bilingual, then you will be able to have a conversation with them. If not, there will be very good reason to find a bilingual practitioner, even if not from your own setting, who can give you a more accurate view. That practitioner should also explain to the child’s parents why you have asked for some help in this way.

Early literacy is supported whenever children are keen to weave stories: talking out loud, creating plots and characters. When young children’s mark making moves towards letter-like shapes, stories are sometimes what they most want to ‘write’. Children who have created lots of narratives through play are adept at planning their stories when they get to start writing properly.


After watching the short video, what are your thoughts about:

  • How the children are communicating?
  • The children’s level of language development?
  • The value of this type of pretend play for the children?


What would you do to:

  • Support the children’s development of their languages?
  • Encourage children to extend their game? Are there games which children play again and again? Can you support the build up of a song repertoire that children can use in their games?
  • Extend their learning – e.g. building up a repertoire of songs they can sing in more than one language?

What next:

  • Do you need to encourage more of this kind of play and learning for the children your setting? Do you have children with English as an additional language in your setting? Can you learn some songs in both their home language and in their additional language?


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