Literacy: what is it and why is it important?
Literacy is being able to read, write, listen, speak and create texts in ways that allow us to communicate well with others.
Literacy is the foundation for doing well at school, socialising with others, problem-solving, making decisions, developing independence, managing money and working.
Literacy development is vital to overall development for children.
Literacy development in childhood
Before children can learn to read and write, they need to develop the building blocks for literacy – the ability to speak, listen, understand, watch and draw.
And as children get older, they need to learn about the connection between letters on a page and spoken sounds.
For this to happen, children need plenty of experience with:
- pictures and objects – how you can use words to talk about them
- letters and words – how they look and sound, and what they’re called
- sounds – how words can rhyme, begin and end with the same letters, be broken up into parts like syllables, be formed by blending different sounds and so on.
You can help with all these areas of your child’s early literacy development by:
- talking and communicating with your child
- reading books together
- playing with rhyme and other sounds with your child.
And the great news is that you can do this in ways that are fun for both of you.
The literacy experiences that children have before they start school form powerful brain connections. These connections are used for language, thinking and understanding. Without activities like talking, singing, reading, rhyming, scribbling and drawing, the brain doesn’t develop these important connections.
Talking and communicating: why it’s important for literacy development and how to do it
Talking and communicating with your child helps them learn to talk, listen and understand words as they get older.
What you can do
- Talk with your child – the more talk, the better. You can talk about the everyday things you’re doing and seeing together. For example, ‘Let’s get the washing now’, ‘Look at the red bird’ or ‘Yum, what a nice lunch we’re having’.
- Talk about feelings and chat about whether your child is happy or sad. Use words to describe your child’s emotions. This can help your child understand how others feel too.
- Emphasise sounds, words and facial expressions when you talk, especially when your child is very young. You might find that your child will respond by trying to imitate you. Talking and responding like this encourages conversation.
- Emphasise the different parts of words or different letters to help your child understand that words can be broken down into segments. For example, you could say ‘ball’ and emphasise the ‘b’ sound or ‘ba-na-na’ and emphasise each syllable.
- Listen to your child. Follow your child’s lead and talk about things they want to talk about. If your child asks a question, give them the chance to come up with answers before you step in. For example, if your child says, ‘What’s that box there?’, you could say, ‘What do you think it is?’
- Repeat mispronounced words with the correct pronunciation. For example, if your child says ‘pasghetti’, you can say, ‘Yes, we’re having spaghetti for dinner’.
- Share stories with your child. You could share funny or interesting stories from your childhood or tell your child about your family’s past. You could take turns creating a story together.
- Sing with your child. Get song ideas from Baby Karaoke, or share the songs and music of your family’s culture.
Speaking more than one language has many benefits for children. Read our article on raising bilingual and multilingual children for information about supporting your child’s literacy development.
Reading: why it’s important for literacy development and how to do it
It’s good to read with your child as often as you can. It’s best to start reading from birth, but it’s never too late to start. Reading with children from an early age builds a solid foundation for literacy. It also promotes bonding and is good for your relationship with your child.
Reading with children:
- shows them that books can give both pleasure and information
- helps them learn the sounds of letters in spoken language
- helps them understand that stories come from words printed on the page
- helps them learn new words and develop a larger vocabulary
- improves their thinking and problem-solving skills
- can get children thinking and talking about new concepts, events or interests
- helps them learn about their community, society and world.
What you can do
- Choose lift-the flap books, touch-and-feel books or books with rhyming or repeating words for younger children.
- Encourage your child to hold the book the right way up and turn the pages in the right direction.
- Slide your finger underneath words as you read, pointing out each word. This shows your child that we start on the left and move to the right when reading English. You could ask, ‘Where should I start reading on this page?’ or ‘Do you know this letter?’
- Point out pictures and talk about the pictures your child points to.
- Ask your child open-ended questions about the story, like ‘What do you think is going to happen next?’ or ‘What would you do if this was you?’
- Make connections between the book and your child’s life. For example, you might point to a picture and say, ‘There’s a koala. That’s like the koala we saw at the wildlife park’.
- Explain the meaning of new words. For example, if there’s a picture of a lighthouse, you could say, ‘That’s called a lighthouse. A lighthouse shines a light so boats don’t come too close to the rocks’.
- Visit your local library – it’s free to join and borrow books. Libraries have many different types of books. Many libraries also offer free story time sessions for children and their parents or carers.
Let’s Read is an Australian program that promotes reading with babies and children aged 0-5 years. Let’s Read resources include reading tipsheets and book suggestion lists.
Rhyming: why it’s important for literacy development and how to do it
Rhyming is a great way to help your child hear and identify different sounds in words. This helps your child learn that words are made up of smaller speech sounds. And when children start learning to read, rhyming helps them learn the connection between the sound of a word and how it’s written.
What you can do
- Play games that involve rhyming. Rhyming games help children appreciate beginning, middle and ending sounds – for example, ‘cat, pat and mat’. You can play them at any time – in the car, while shopping or at the dinner table.
- Play games that involve the sound and rhythm of words. You could try tongue twisters like ‘She sells seashells by the seashore’.
- Read rhyming books like Ten little fingers and ten little toes by Mem Fox or the Pig the pug series by Aaron Blabey.
You might like to read about more activities to promote literacy. And if you’re worried that your child might be having early literacy difficulties, it’s a good idea to talk with a professional, like your child and family health nurse, your child’s early childhood teacher, or your GP.