What Does "Transforming the Workforce" Say About Developing Young Children’s Language and Literacy Skills? Part 2

Blog Post
June 28, 2016
This is part two of a two-part blog post. The first part focuses on teachers of children in pre-K through third grade and the second focuses on teachers of infants and toddlers.

I used to work in a child care center with children ages six-weeks-old to 18-months-old. Sometimes I worked with Mary, a center director who had been running her own pre-K program for over 20 years. Once a week, she taught the infants and toddlers. Mary arrived at 7:00 a.m. with an enthusiastic smile, eager to care for the little ones. She spent the day changing diapers, rocking babies to sleep, heating up bottles, feeding meals, singing songs, reading books, playing with toys, and providing a safe and comforting environment. While these might sound like tasks that any patient person can do, it’s how she performed them that mattered.  

Mary talked all day long at work-- but not just to me and the other caregivers. Unless they were sleeping, Mary spoke to the children she was caring for. When feeding them lunch she explained what foods they were eating, she sang songs when changing their diapers, she taught them about sharing their toys, asked them questions about how they were feeling, and encouraged them when struggling with something new. Whether she was flipping through a board book and pointing out the different color shapes or narrating how to clean up toys, she kept the children actively engaged throughout the day.

Teachers working with infants and toddlers need to be intentional about building language and literacy skills, which requires significant knowledge and skills. From the moment children are born they are absorbing information around them. Their language comprehension and oral communication skills are built through their relationships and interactions with adults. Toddlers are growing their understanding of the world around them and learning news words each day. And, we know from research discussed in the National Academy of Medicine’s Transforming the Workforce report, the size of 2-year-olds’ vocabulary  can be linked to their reading comprehension in fifth grade.

Transforming the Workforce offers a handful of strategies for teachers of infants and toddlers to develop language skills. First, it’s essential for teachers to use high-quality interactions to form bonds with children as early as possible. Teachers must be aware of children’s emotions and talk to them and encourage them accordingly. Second, teachers should talk to children and use elaborate language, ask them questions, explain what they are doing and narrate the day. They should also expand on children’s language. For instance, when a toddler looks at the teacher and says “baby,” the teacher could respond, “Do you want to play with your baby doll?” 

Teachers should also encourage language-rich play that includes both adult-child interactions and interactions with other children. They can help scaffold language during play time. For example, when an older toddler is playing with colored blocks, his teacher could count the blocks, pointing to each one, and explain what colors or shapes they are. She can ask the child what he is building, slowly introduce new objects, and encourage another child to join them.

Last but certainly not least, teachers of infants and toddlers need to read (and reread!) books to their children. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that caregivers read to infants and toddlers every day. Even at these early ages, rereading books can encourage extended discourse (talk that is about more than the here and now), which has been linked to children’s literacy development.

I loved working with infants and toddlers and have fond memories of the children I cared for. But I also look back and realize how underprepared many of my coworkers and I were to be working with young children. Mary, with 20 years of experience and significant knowledge of child development, was not the norm. Most of my coworkers rarely engaged in high-quality interactions with youngsters. The center I worked at, like far too many throughout the United States, did not require teachers to have even a high school diploma. In fact, many states do not require state licensed child care center to hire teachers with any kind of specialized early childhood training. (See the map below.)  And at my center, we received no professional development other than mandatory CPR training. More is needed.

Transforming the Workforce makes clear how important it is for teachers to have the ability to build children’s language and literacy skills in the very earliest years of their lives. As the Early & Elementary Education Policy team discussed in our recent paper examining state policies that support early literacy, “The first eight years of children’s experiences, from birth through third grade (B–3rd), lay the critical foundation of cognitive, social, and emotional skills on which the entirety of their future learning rests. Children who have weak literacy skills at age eight face a series of potentially damaging short- and long-term consequences. Many will repeat a grade and some will drop out of school.”

And yet only around one-third of fourth-graders are proficient in reading according to the nation’s report card. The numbers are even lower for children from low-income families and dual-language learners. But as explained in Transforming the Workforce, “it is not enough to be immersed in environments that offer multiple opportunities for exposure to multiple and rich language experiences. Rather, the process also needs to be socially mediated through more knowledgeable persons who can impart their knowledge to the learner.” Teachers need to be able to create a classroom language environment that encourages learning and back-and-forth interactions. With solid education and training, teachers and caregivers can play a prominent role in building young children’s language and literacy skills.