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early learning skills

How to boost kids’ language and early learning skills | Ask the Pediatrician

Many kids enter kindergarten unprepared. The time to start is infancy — and it's not difficult

Although the holidays are behind us, there’s one more gift you should be sure to give your children — language skills. Preliteracy is a foundation for school success.

Before we dive in here, I’ll share a quick reminder that getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and flu is the best way to stay healthy over the winter months. The new “bivalent” COVID vaccine, which targets both strains of the virus, is now available for children 6 months and older.

Let’s talk about preliteracy and why it is so important. Preliteracy refers to the early learning skills that children develop from exposure to words and books. These skills include following narratives and learning vocabulary, word sounds and letters. Studies show that, unfortunately, 1 out of 3 children in the United States is not ready when they enter kindergarten. So, what steps can we take at home to ensure our kids are thriving and ready for school?

Building school readiness from the very start

One of the best ways to help children develop preliteracy skills is to read to them from an early age. The first few years of a child’s life are filled with incredible change and growth. Not only do infants triple in size in the first 12 months, but the brain is rapidly developing new skills. Studies show that talking and reading to babies daily supports their brain and oral language development. This can progress from word sounds, to words, to the ability to name letters, shapes and numbers. The most significant factor in school readiness and reading success is oral language skills. The average 5-year-old has learned approximately 5,000 words.

What about screen-based activities? Do they help develop early learning skills?

Interestingly, word acquisition is not passive. Instead, it occurs through verbal interactions. Children who are spoken and read to have more developed language skills than those who aren’t. One study looked at the brains of preschoolers to determine the impact of reading at home. Children between the ages of 3 and 5 underwent functional MRIs while listening to age-appropriate stories. The results showed that children from homes where they engaged in conversation and reading had greater brain activity in the areas related to language and reading.

Why does school readiness matter?

We know that the benefits of reading extend beyond kindergarten readiness. Studies have shown that reading proficiency by third grade is an indicator of whether a child will graduate from high school.

How does reading support a healthy family bond? 

Reading together is also an incredible way to bond and foster strong parent-child relationships. This simple act helps your child feel safe and calm and form positive associations with books. It is also relaxing for parents.

Reading together (also known as shared reading) is a lovely time to look through books together and have conversations about the story. You can use a book to help your child learn colors, shapes, letters, feelings, facts and more. You may be surprised by what your child notices as part of the story or illustration. The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents and caregivers to read to children from infancy.

Tips to promote early learning in kids

  • Limit screen time
  • Read to your child daily
  • Keep it fun and age-appropriate
  • Follow your child’s interests
  • Use dinner time or car time to encourage conversation
  • Talk to your child about what you’re doing: making dinner, cleaning up, running errands.  This turns everyday activities into informal opportunities to build language skills.


More from Dr. Block and Kaiser Permanente in Seattle’s Child:

About the Author

Susanna Block

Dr. Susanna Block, MD, MPH, is a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente in Seattle and lives with her family in Queen Anne.