Communication, language, and literacy are recognized as essential for all individuals to function in all societies. The acquisition of language and literacy skills is a complex process during which, over the course of only a few years, children learn the meaning and structure of words, how to use words to convey meaning, and how to understand and use printed materials.
Language plays a central role in the child’s ability to build relationships by sharing meaning with others. Skills for speaking and writing and listening and reading are key components. In acquiring language, children gain the ability to articulate ideas and feelings, share them with others, and respond to the ideas and actions of other people.
When language is acquired, an incredibly complex and powerful system is at the child’s fingertips. The ability to communicate effectively - through oral language, the written word, and alternate means (especially for children with speech, language, and hearing disabilities) - is essential for a broad range of activities that characterize daily living. To participate in a broad range of daily activities, children need the ability to communicate effectively through oral language, the written word, creative expression, and a variety of other means. Language is also a mediator of social competence. Children use language as a tool to express their thoughts, feelings, and ideas to others; and to receive, understand, and interpret communications from other people. Children acquire language skills in the context of a culture. No matter which language is being learned (e.g. English, American Sign Language, Spanish); the vital role of children’s opportunities to practice the language cannot be neglected. Language is fundamentally embedded in children’s everyday relationships and experiences. Parents, primary caregivers, and teachers play a critical role in facilitating young children’s language and literacy development by providing exposure to language and print-rich environments, interactions, and opportunities.
The Idaho Early Learning eGuidelines define communication, language development, and literacy skills as separate components in order to highlight the essential aspects of each. However, the three components are inextricably interrelated. The development of oral language forms the foundation for early literacy development, just as the ability to communicate early in life impacts the development of vocabulary and speech.
Communication is both making meaning of what is being communicated by others and communicating ideas to others. Children communicate before mastering symbolic language. Their “communicative competence” is dependent upon a complex set of skills including, but not limited to, awareness of the social conventions of language usage; and the ability to listen, to understand, and to follow verbal conversation. Development of communication skills requires an understanding of the social context within which communication occurs, knowledge of the goals of the interaction, and the elements of emotion in communication. Children learn a variety of styles of communication and ways of expressing emotions, which are determined by the specific social setting; whether it is in the home, at preschool, on the playground, a cultural event, or at a store.
Language Development: Language is the acquisition of linguistic forms and procedures, social rules, and customs for expressing and interpreting thoughts, feelings, and ideas. This knowledge of language has three key aspects: content (vocabulary and meaning), form, (grammatical structure or syntax), and use (function). As children learn the sound system, the meaning of words, and the rules of form and grammar, they begin to use language constructively in social situations.
Literacy, as defined in the Idaho Early learning eGuidelines, involves the ability to use language, symbols, and images in a variety of forms to read, write, listen, speak, represent, observe, and think critically about ideas. Emergent literacy (acquired during the early years of life) refers to skills and behaviors that are precursors to conventional forms of reading and writing. These include visual expression, oral language, emergent reading, print awareness, and writing processes.
Children learn words and forms of language to express their thoughts, feelings, and ideas. They also learn language to meet personal and social objectives as determined by the community and culture within which they live and grow.
Several million young children in the United States speak a language other than English in their homes. Children benefit cognitively from learning two or more languages. The ability to communicate in more than one language supports children’s cognitive flexibility and an awareness of their own thinking about words as symbols.
Children learn second languages in two ways; either by acquiring two or more languages at the same time, or by learning a second language after mastering the “home language” (i.e., first language learned and primary language used at home). Children who follow the former path to dual language learning (i.e., simultaneous learning of more than one language) are said to be “bilingual,” as a first language. Children who learn two languages from birth operate with two separate language systems and it is typical that they may mix words from the two languages in the same sentence for a short time. For children who follow the latter path to dual language learning (i.e., sequential learning of more than one language), their competence in the home language can be supported while they are learning a second language. Rather than focusing on one language over another, the child can acquire both with support for achieving growth and fluency in both languages. Some children go through a “silent period” when learning a second or third language. Parents, educators, and caregivers can continue to talk to children and give them time to speak in the second language when they are ready. If their home language is actively supported and valued, children will learn English or another language faster. Given the growing number of young children in Idaho whose home language is not English, the eGuidelines provide indicators and strategies to support the development of children’s home language while helping children acquire beginning proficiency in English.
Children’s communication, language, and literacy may be impacted by visual, hearing, neurological, or motor disabilities. While it may take some children months to acquire aspects of language, it may take other children considerably longer. Delays in language development may indicate that a child has a hearing loss or developmental delay or disorder. Early diagnosis and intervention for language delays are critically important.