I have just achieved one of my ambitions as an early literacy specialist – helping to bring into being several little board books for babies and toddlers in all of our 11 official languages. You may ask why on earth babies and toddlers should get books when they cannot even talk yet, and how can it matter what language to use when the babies obviously cannot even read?
Here is why I think it matters – enormously.
Apart from food and shelter, babies thrive on the social and personal contact of cuddles and communication, and both happen comfortably in the arms of someone special like their mama. When this includes being invited to explore bright eye-catching images, and the special person starts making funny noises with you and rhyming and jiggling and pointing and tickling, it is baby heaven.
At this stage, babies care about pleasure and coziness, not about books. But when it all happens again and again, they realise they are onto something significant and start asking for books.
‘More’ and ‘again’ are often among the first words of babies in literate homes. Slowly a growing awareness that the substance of what is being shared relates to your own life…the hen in the yard goes cluck cluck, and look, here is a hen and how funny, Mama is clucking, maybe I will cluck too.
Before she knows it, Mama is telling stories, and her toddler is ‘being’ the chicken and Mama is (the undignified hen) laying the eggs. Or she is locked up and her three-year-old is a magician casting a spell on her so she has to read another story.
This is not ‘just play’. It is the wondrous and extraordinarily powerful beginning of symbolic behaviour, which underlies, among other things, literacy development.
(These marks are called letters and they ‘say’ hen, and hen ‘stands for’ our clucking hen in the yard and this image around which we are having such a nice time. And now this stick ‘stands for’ my magic wand which I will use to pretend to cast a spell on you).
Young children who enter primary school with minds full of ideas and thoughts relating to and growing out of the complexity of language, themes, quandaries and imagery of good stories are the lucky ones because it is the understanding, knowledge and questions they bring to a text and the personal connections they are able to make, that brings the text to life.
How could all of this magic happen in a foreign language? We all know about the masses of children who can decode well, but who do not know what they are ‘reading’.
From earliest interactions, being read to and reading is about making meaning, and both children and adults set out to do this. What would the point be if we didn’t?
So initial print explorations are best experienced in home languages. Not only are these early informal and playful encounters stored and accessed as emotional tags that mark reading as pleasurable, they also lead to awareness and knowledge about print.
Many a toddler has swelled the hearts of amazed parents by recognising letters and words, without even being taught. This is significant, of course, but it is in authentic relationships with stories, mediated by a special person, that bring about engagement of the heart and the mind.
Which is why I say, bring on the stories, and bring on the books for babies.