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Talk (and listen)

Nov 30, 2020

Children start to learn language by hearing people talk, and talking to your child is one of the easiest things you can do in order to prepare them for literacy. This starts as soon as your child is born.  

And if you’re wondering how just talking with your child helps develop their pre-literacy skills:

  •  Listening to you speak helps children recognize the sounds and parts of speech.
  • Adding new words and information to conversations with children develops their vocabulary and general knowledge, which makes reading easier later
  • Talking with them about shapes, observing what is visually alike and different, or pointing out letters helps prepare them to recognize letters and symbols.
  • Talking with them about signs and logo helps them understand that groups of letters and have meaning (i.e. form words) and that that symbols have meaning (i.e. that a picture of turtle on a street sign means “turtle crossing”)
  • Asking them what kind of books they want to read and talking about books you have read together helps orient children towards books and helps motivate them to want to read

The beauty of talking for pre-literacy development is that you can do it anywhere! At any time! And you probably already are. The goal here, of course, is conversation, which is an exchange and has natural ebbs and flows. You do not need to talk at your child incessantly and without any breaks – this would be exhausting for both of you.

Tips and Recommendations

0-12 months

When you speak to a baby, that baby is learning the specific sounds of your language. You can have a “conversation” with your baby as soon as s/he starts to vocalize. If you listen closely you will hear your baby respond with noises when you speak and your baby will babble using the same sounds they have heard from birth.


  • Have “conversations” with your baby when they want to engage with you – respond to their babbling and pointing with questions, answers, and descriptions
  • Point out objects to your child and name them (Look, a banana! Here is your coat).
  • Pointing to and labelling objects will help your baby make the connection between words and objects.
  • Use your child’s name before you use a new word – they are much likelier to remember the word!
  • Repeat yourself

12-24 months

As children get develop, they begin to follow directions, repeat words they hear and respond to questions with their own words, phrases and -- finally -- whole sentences. Listening to your child speak is a critical part of the daily practice of talking with your child. Having children talk, tell and retell stories and express what they know all helps them to later understand what they read.

  • Talk about what you are going to do (“Let’s go to the park. You can go on the swings! Maybe you can even try the slide this time. What do you think?”)
  • Talk about what you are doing (“Wow! Here we are at the park! What do you see? Can you see the swing? You can? What colour is it? Here you are swinging on the swing.”)
  • Talk about what you did (“That was fun at the park, wasn’t it? You went on the blue swing. How high did you go? Did you down the slide? No! Really? You went down the slide all by yourself?”).
  • Point out signs and letters (stop signs, logos, the first letter of your child’s name)
  • Remember to ask questions and listen for answers, even if the answers are garbled.
  • Point out signs, numbers and letters (“Do you see the stop sign? What does that mean?”)

2 years and beyond

Children who are 2 years and older can follow along with more complex stories. They will be interested in telling you their own stories, or recounting stories they have already heard. They will have opinions and ideas and, if you play along, you can have full conversations with these toddlers. In fact, their wildness and creativity makes these – in my opinion –  the best conversations.

  • Ask their opinion (“Do you think I should wear the orange shirt or the blue shirt?”)
  • Ask them hypothetical questions (“If you could only ever eat one fruit, which one would you choose? Why?”)
  • Ask them to tell you a story, based on the pictures in a book
  • Tell them about when they were babies (children love this one)
  • Throw in an outlandish untruth and see what they say  (“Yesterday, when we were at the park you went on the blue swing and down the red slide and then an alien spaceship landed and aliens brought us a snack of snorgleblortzes!”)
  • You can ask them to imagine taking a fantastical trip: You’re going on a rocket trip. What would you bring with you on a trip to space? How long would you want to go?

And, of course, you can talk to your child as you read with them:

    • Ask questions as you read:
      • Where is the wolf on this page?
      • What colour is that flower?
      • What do you think will happen next?
    • Talk to them about how the book relates to their experiences of the world
      • Have you ever seen a flower like that?
      • Have you ever seen a train?
      • Do you remember when we / you …
    • The more you engage with your child about books, the better sense you will have about which books they like.

Whatever you do, don’t overthink this. Listen as well as talk. And, of course, don’t forget to: