What is early literacy? how do we provide experiences that promote early literacy in our tiny humans?

In this episode, Ayelet sits down with former birth-to-three early interventionist and parenting blogger, Kayla O’Neill of Parenting Expert To Mom, where she shares strategies to encourage learning in daily routines.

Kayla and Ayelet discuss the term “early literacy,” what kinds of experiences fall under that term (and how they foster and support early development), skills involved in the development of early literacy, and some wonderful tips and resources for integrating early literacy experiences into your everyday life.

If you’re looking for simple, weekly tips to weave into your daily life with your child, you can join us by signing up for Strength In Words Weekly, where we share actionable ideas that support early development through early literacy, music, and sensory experiences!

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Kayla: Website / Facebook / Instagram / Twitter


Welcome to episode 49 of the Strength In Words podcast! Today, I’m speaking with Kayla O’Neill, a former Birth To Three Early Interventionist who has worked with children with developmental delays and coached parents and caregivers on strategies to encourage their infant or toddler’s development. She has now taken that passion and put it into her writing on the website, “Parenting Expert to Mom,” where she shares strategies to encourage learning in daily routines. She’s currently a stay-at-home mom taking some time off from teaching to learn, enjoy, and raise her son, and is, at the time of this recording, also 37 weeks pregnant with her second baby! Kayla, welcome, and how are you feeling?

Kayla: Good! Yeah, pregnant.

Ayelet: Exactly! Good. Well, thanks for coming onto the show, and I’ve asked you to come on today to speak a bit about early literacy. First, though, I would love to just hear a bit about you. What brought you to the kind of work you’re doing today?

Kayla: Yeah! Like you said, I worked in early intervention for about six years, I mainly worked with that birth to three age, so working with the babies and toddlers, doing a lot of assessments, evaluations, and home visits. A little bit in the classroom, but mostly home-based, and yeah! We really focused on daily routines, and teaching parents strategies that you can do every day that encourage development. And so, did that for six years, and we actually made a big move to Indiana for my husband’s work, and I’ve become a stay-at-home mom. I really miss connecting with families and parents and other professionals that work in early childhood, so I thought I’d start a blog and I started parentingexperttomom.com, and I get to write about everything I talked about with families and the things I do with my own son, too, and with the new baby, I’m sure I’ll have lots more ideas for newborn and that fun stage when they’re just so small. So, yeah, just wanting to get back into the world of early childhood.

Ayelet: Awesome. It’s great. And I think it’s important, too, because as professionals who work in early learning, we tend to have some tricks of the trade, you know. It’s certainly not that we know anything or everything about being a parent – that’s learned when you become a parent! But when you work with children, you have a few little tricks up your sleeve, so we would love to hear a few of those that you have today! Let’s talk about early literacy. I think, first of all, a lot of people equate that term with “learning to read.” So, can you tell us a little bit about the difference between those two things, and about some of the other skills that are involved in the development of early literacy as it relates to infants and toddlers!

Kayla: Yeah! So, early literacy… I think a lot of people think of sitting down and reading with their kid – that’s early literacy. But yeah, you’re right! Literacy is so many different parts. And it’s not only that reading and understanding words and books, it’s writing, it’s being able to speak… there’s a lot of different things connected. And so when I think of early literacy for babies and toddlers, I usually connect that with the five areas of development. So, we’re looking at cognitive skills, language skills, social/emotional skills, self-help and… what am I missing?

Ayelet: Motor! Motor and sensory!

Kayla: Motor! Yeah! So I was thinking about that, and thinking when I talk to parents about early literacy, really all the skills in each of those areas connect to make your early literacy skills. So, working with any of those areas of development, you’re actually encouraging early literacy! For example, when you look at cognitive skills, we’re thinking about having kids process skills and following directions… if you’re working on that during the day, you’re really working on early literacy. In the communication domain, we have the receptive language (so, the understanding) and then the expressive – both of those are very important. So, when a kid is learning to talk, there again, it’s early literacy. And even motor – which people don’t think about motor skills and reading, but it’s huge to have your kid point to a picture in a book and to turn pages, and without motor skills, we can’t do either of those, and so that’s included. For self-help, those are the skills to become more independent. And so, a child to be able to look at a book and decide what they want to learn about independently, I feel, is a big part of self-help. And then social skills – children can learn so much from the social/emotional piece to literacy. So, when we’re looking at books and we’re looking at the faces of the characters, that’s a great way to explore that social/emotional side, as well. Really, early literacy just encompasses all of those areas of development. So, depending on which area you’re working on, it’s probably going to help them in the future with their early literacy skills!

Ayelet: This is such good information, right? Because, it’s like, “so whatever I’m doing, I’m actually working on early literacy skills” in some ways!

Kayla: Pretty much! It’s pretty hard not to be working on early literacy at all times, because when you think of yourself reading a book or writing, there’s so much that goes into it – it’s not just cognitive skills, it’s not just language skills, it’s everything, really!

Ayelet: Can you tell us a little bit about the specific kinds of things that go early literacy skills. Like, I tend to tell people about how, like you said, it doesn’t necessarily mean sitting down and looking at a book. But just pointing things out, pointing out letters, having things like alphabet blocks around, or print awareness…

Kayla: Yes.

Ayelet: Or, like, literally, if your child is mouthing a book, that’s early literacy!

Kayla: Even if you’re taking a walk outside and you’re looking at the stop sign – that’s early literacy. That’s an example of the environmental print that you’re talking about. I think environmental print is – I mean, that’s just the print that’s on your food labels, on your shampoo bottle. And so, just taking a moment and just looking at that stuff with your child. And sometimes, that’s the first thing that they will recognize, is, they may not be reading it, but in a way, they are – they understand that the symbols mean a certain thing. And so, using environmental print to teach actually takes off the pressure to have tons and tons of books, which, I love books, books are great – but using things like environmental print in your grocery ads, looking at your mail together! Something me and my son do is on Wednesday, the grocery slicker comes, and we sit down and we look at everything in it. And even him crunching it up in his hands and throwing it – that’s ok, too! It’s part of discovering paper. And so, looking at those experiences, I think. And like you said with the little babies! Even when their vision is just starting to come in, so they’re starting to follow things with their eyes – we consider that early literacy development when we do assessments. How do they move their eyes, can they reach up for something, like you said, a lot of things go into early literacy.

Ayelet: Yeah! I think it’s really important that people understand that sense of… when we break down all of these different domains of development, we have age-appropriate skills. And those often look very different! Emerging skills look different from a skill that is already acquired. So, for instance, in the context of communication, if you have a child who is babbling, at around 6 months, that is an emerging expressive language skill for a 6-month old, or a 4-7-9 month old! That is an age-appropriate skill related to expressive language. And so, when we’re talking about early literacy in an infant, just like you were saying, Kayla, we’re looking at emerging skills like, is the child looking around at things – like those high-contrast images, for instance. Awesome. That’s fantastic, and I think really helpful for parents and caregivers.

So let’s actually take just a quick break to hear a word from our sponsors, and then we will hear a few tips and resources from Kayla about specifically how to foster early literacy skills in infants and toddlers.

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Ayelet: Alright, Kayla, let’s hear it! Give us your top three tips for parents and caregivers! How can we foster early literacy skills with our infants and toddlers?

Kayla: Yeah! So the first tip that I would say is be patient. I remember working with parents is that sometimes it can be frustrating when you want your toddler to sit and look at a book, or maybe your baby is not interested in a book. Just be patient with that love of books to come – it might not be right away, and it might be different than you expect. And, you know, looking at that developmental side of what’s appropriate. So, sitting and reading a book from front to cover with your toddler… it may work – some days it works at my house, he will sit and listen to books three in a row! And other days he won’t, and that’s ok. So, I would say just to talk a little bit about the book side, that, don’t think your child isn’t interested in early literacy or is lacking some skills because they’re not interested in books. Like we said before, there’s a lot of other things that go into early literacy, and looking at books is something just to be patient with. Always explore and give them the option, but just be patient with it – that interest in books will come. Just don’t expect to sit and read for an hour, you have to really look at what’s appropriate!

Ayelet: Yeah. And to that end, I’m not always in the mood to sit and read for an hour. I might have every intention to sit and look at a book, and then just not have the bandwidth to do it, right, be falling asleep because I’m tired, because I’m a parent of two tiny people! But also, just the idea that, and I hope that I’m not taking on your next point or anything, that, it doesn’t have to be reading from front to back. You can sit there and just take a little picture walk, look at the pictures and point to specific things and talk about the things you see, or ask about what they see – or, “hmm, I wonder if we can find this!” – things like that. But, I’ll let you continue, Kayla!

Kayla: Yeah, those are great ways to explore books with children, other than just sitting and reading. The next point I had was to follow your child’s lead. So, that goes with looking at books – follow their lead with it, watch their cues, do they want to look at the book, do they want to move on, do they want to flip the pages? That’s ok! Follow your child’s lead. When you’re looking at early literacy skills, you can pick an area of development that they’re maybe interested in or you want to work on, and use that as that early literacy time, so if they want to draw with chalk on the sidewalk? That’s huge! That’s great early literacy, if that’s something they’re interested in, is drawing. Or, if you’re at the grocery store and your little one is sitting in the shopping cart, what are they interested in as far as environmental print? You know, watch their cues, are they starting to point at things? And so, you just kind of build up on what they’re doing and what they’re interested in. And that goes for all areas of development! We watch their lead. And then we can just kind of encourage skills that way, instead of maybe picking something that they have to do in order to make that skill happen. I hope that makes sense.

Ayelet: I totally followed along! I think that’s so important, and something that we, often, as grown-ups have to re-learn how to do, because we’ve now been programmed as adults to think of things so linearly, right? “If I sit down and help my child… if I get these blocks out, then here’s what they have to learn is, how to build a tower, right? That’s how we play with blocks!” But, thinking about things a little bit differently, and just, like you said, following your child’s lead. If they want to mouth the blocks? Awesome! Just talk about what they’re doing, or model to them another way to do it. But, accepting what they’re doing and then talking about it or taking it a step further is a wonderful way to follow your child’s lead. Great, Kayla.

Kayla: Yeah. Like, for my son, he’s a busy little guy, and, you know, coloring isn’t a huge thing for him! Now, if I were to get out finger paints, he loves that! And you’re working on the same skill. So, you can have two activities that work on the same skill that are very different, and pick the one your child enjoys. You can always offer other activities, but don’t feel bad about the not wanting to sit and draw or, you know, find a different way to work on the skill!

So, that kind of leads into my next point, which is just to be creative, and just have fun with it! Don’t stick yourself in a box as far as how to work on early literacy. Keep it open, use what’s around you, look at – when you’re in different environments – how you can encourage a skill, so you know even taking a trip to the library! That’s a great way to introduce… obviously, there’s lots of books there, too, but you don’t have to just pick out one book. Follow their lead with that! But just be creative, don’t get too stuck on just looking at books as far as working on early literacy skills. Depending on your age of your child, you’re going to use different techniques, too, to just encourage the skills that they will need someday to read or write, and to understand/comprehend books.

Ayelet: Yeah. I love it! And I think your point about bringing the environment into whatever you have – and I think, like, the mailer, those things that go often straight into the bin (or we cut out the coupons, whatever our thing is!) those things are gold for infants and toddlers! And I loved your point about how even just crinkling it up and throwing it into a box or something…

Kayla: My son’s favorite toy from probably like 6 months to 12 months old was just digging out all the recycling containers. So, every box he had, he would dump it out of the floor, every container, but look at all the print he was looking at, and all the pictures, while he was doing that… and you wouldn’t sit and say, “well I’m going to teach my kid about early literacy. Here, look at these Tupperware!” You know, he found it on his own! It was interesting to him, and he would sit and be entertained, and he’s working on fine motor skills, he’s opening and shutting things, he’s looking at pictures, processing information. But really, when you let kids explore, and then just encourage it that way, that’s a great way to go about learning.

Ayelet: Exactly! Awesome. So, I think that takes a lot of the pressure off as parents, too. Like, really, if you… all you need, again, is pretty much what’s in your house already. That’s it! It’s not about the electronic toys. It’s about the paper materials, the recycling containers, it’s about all of those things which can be used to develop early literacy, to develop motor skills, and all of those different things like we talked about.

Ok so, what about some favorite resources for parents who are interested in learning more about some good places to find good tips and resources, Kayla?

Kayla: Yeah. If you’re looking on my site, I’ve got a lot of information there. I just put up something a few weeks ago about “50 ways to discover literacy with your little one,” so if you’re looking for a lot of examples, that’s a good place to look.

Ayelet: Good. We’ll put the link to that in the show notes, as well, for this episode.

Kayla: That would be great. And then, I think, if you go to www.zerotothree.org, they have a lot of stuff on early literacy, too, if you’re looking for more information on how to encourage it and what those skills look like, as well.

Ayelet: Yeah! I also have a few other podcast episodes that address early literacy skills, so I’ll link to those, as well.

Thank you so much, Kayla! And thanks to all our Community LAB members who are listening live, here. We will continue the discussion and open up for a Q&A session for you guys in just a minute. For everyone else listening from home or on the go, thanks so much for joining us, and we will see you next time!

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