Long before children learn how to read words on a page, they develop and hone the skills needed to understand how language works. Rapid growth occurs in the language centers of the brain during the early childhood years. Before the age of 8, children form the foundation for language and literacy development by discovering that speech has patterns and symbols have meaning. As a result, successful early language development is a vital part of later achievements in reading.

A plethora of research has proven that early literacy is closely linked to language development in the preschool and kindergarten years. Disparities in ethnic, linguistic and socioeconomic backgrounds contribute to language skills delays and smaller vocabularies that cause students to fall far behind their peers.

Exposure to structured, age-appropriate instruction during these formative years helps bridge this achievement gap. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that preschool enrollment among 3- to 5-year-old children has increased from 59 percent in 1990 to 65 percent in 2014. This upward trend in participating in early childhood education is preparing students to enter school equipped with the tools they need to be successful English Language Learners (ELL).

Strategies to Support Language Development and Literacy

Building verbal skills in early learners should revolve around playful, interactive experiences. In addition to having plenty of opportunities for speaking and listening, young children need exposure to printed materials to develop a rich understanding how to use words correctly. Whether you are searching for new ideas to bring into the classroom or activities to support early literacy at home, these strategies build confidence in young ELL students as they explore new concepts and expand their oral skills.

Building a Varied Vocabulary

Boosting a child’s vocabulary is a critical component in language development and literacy. Young children increase their receptive (listening) and expressive (speaking) vocabularies primarily through social interactions. There is an explosion of word awareness between ages 3 and 5. Preschoolers enter an early education program knowing anywhere from 500 to 1,000 words. By age 6, this increases to an average of 10,000 words. A larger vocabulary supports a child’s ability to recognize printed words and comprehend the meaning of stories.

Pretend Play with Peers

While children are engaged in pretend play and group activities with their peers, they are using language skills to negotiate those interactions.

Rich Interactions with Adults

When they talk with adults, children are exposed to a greater variety and more complex words. During daily routines, asking open-ended or multiple-choice questions and providing prompts when children need help expressing themselves gives them the tools to think critically about what they are observing. Offering ongoing commentary about activities that are occurring or describing objects in the environment also introduces children to contextual language.

Pick a topic, such as winter, colors or zoo animals, and then have each child throw out a word that belongs in the category.

Have students create journals that allow them to share their thoughts on what is happening during their day or about a book that they have read. Young children can draw pictures while older children can add written observations.

Increasing Phonological Awareness

Before children can learn how to read, they need to develop a strong ability to hear sounds in the spoken language. Phonological awareness includes recognizing rhyming words, matching sounds to letters, identifying words that begin and end with the same sounds and creating new words by switching letters. Reading aloud and playing word games are great techniques for encouraging phonological awareness. At this age, repetitious rhyming is also an important tool for teaching kids the cadence and patterns of speech as well as how to listen for syllables and distinguish differences in similar-sounding words.

Reading books aloud stimulates the auditory cortex, the part of the brain that processes sound. Point to pictures in the book when you read a corresponding word. Occasionally label an object with the wrong word to keep the kids engaged in the story and to encourage their ability to link the written and spoken word. Discuss what you read after the story ends.

Playing in pairs or small groups, the first person says a word that starts with a particular letter. The next person comes up with a new word using that same letter. When someone is stumped, pick a new letter and then begin again.

Label a jar with a word, such as hat, and then write matching words from a rhyme family on popsicle sticks, such as bat, cat, mat, sat and rat. Include pictures with the words to help early readers.

Singing Nursery Rhymes

From Dr. Seuss to Mother Goose, silly poems and songs that have rhythmic, repetitive verses increase memory skills and demonstrate the structure of language. Add gestures to connect words with actions, such as jumping over a stick or blowing a horn.

Letter of the Week

As you plan weekly activities, think about thematic ways that you can incorporate a specific letter of the alphabet. When children read a book about astronauts, draw a picture of an airplane and learning a rhyme about marching ants, they are able to make associations between words.

Encouraging Story Comprehension Skills

Storytelling encourages children to use language in a concrete way. Whether they are recounting a tale that they just heard or sharing a personal experience, they are learning about syntax, reinforcing comprehension and building their vocabulary.

A story basket gives children permission to let their imaginations run free. Gather themed items in a basket and then have students create a story using the contents.

My Favorite Things

Place a few favorite items in a container. As the child removes an object, have them tell you what it is, how they use it and why they like it.

Have students create a scrapbook by cutting out pictures from magazines of items that they like. Provide page prompts, such as My Family, My Favorite Foods and Things I Like to Do, to help students expand their awareness of their own life stories.

Before turning the page, ask students what they think will happen next. At the end of the story, ask students how the outcome could have changed if the main character had made a different decision.

Supporting Decoding Skills

In order to read, children must first be able to recognize that letters have sounds and sounds have patterns. Early learners need to develop their decoding skills to understand that letters are symbols that have meaning, just as the Golden Arches represents McDonald’s. Guessing games are a great way to get kids thinking about connections between abstract concepts and real-world objects.

Offer a library of entry-level reader books that provides pictures next to written words. This technique supplies clues to help early readers decipher the meaning of the words.

? Using silly images, such as an elephant driving a car, a fish roller skating or a dog walking a human, have students identify what is wrong with a picture and how they can fix it.

What am I Thinking?

Give students descriptive clues to help them identify an object that you are thinking about. Clues for a dinosaur might include, “It was the largest animal on Earth,” or “It lived a long time ago.” Variations on this game include I Spy, Guess Who, and a scavenger hunt.

LLI: An Early Reading Intervention Strategy

Students who do not meet grade-level reading expectations need additional support to catch up to their peers. One program that has been successful in reaching this goal in a short timeframe is Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI). Designed for kindergarten, first and second-grade students, this accelerated literacy development system uses engaging leveled books and planned lessons to increase vocabulary, comprehension, and phonics.

Small groups of three students at the same reading ability gather daily for 30 minutes to read together and play word games. Currently utilized in 15 states, the LLI early reading intervention system developed by Fountas and Pinnell (F&P) has helped struggling students make significant gains in letter naming, word recognition, and decoding to become proficient readers.

Supporting Early Literacy at Home

Parents play a crucial role in helping children develop their early language development and literacy skills. The home learning environment should include a variety of developmentally appropriate materials, including books, toys, and games, that support language growth. When working with little ones at home, start with shapes, colors, and letters. These are concepts that are easy to illustrate with concrete symbols and printed words.

Shared book reading not only introduces children to print concepts but also exposes them to a varied vocabulary and expands their phonemic skills. While reading and at the end of the story, ask open-ended questions about the characters, objects, and events that are part of the book. Whether a child has access to an early education program or speaks a different language besides English in the home, the quality of these parent-child engagements is the biggest predictor of how prepared students are to become fluent readers in school.