As the new school year begins, United Way’s Women United gears up for our literacy work by tutoring, donating books to schools, and volunteering with the Welcome Baby program.

During the past five years, Women United has recognized that every child should be a proficient reader by third grade. This benchmark has been supported by solid research, and yet we have also learned that helping children reach this learning milestone may begin years before kindergarten.

Years before kindergarten? Does this mean toddlers and babies need reading instruction? Well, not exactly, but the research in early education is clear — the process of learning both spoken and written language skills begins in early infancy.

The good news is that according to Zero to Three, “Formal instruction which pushes infants and toddlers to achieve adult models of literacy is not developmentally appropriate. Early literacy theory emphasizes the more natural unfolding of skills through the enjoyment of books, the importance of positive interactions between young children and adults, and the critical role of literacy-rich experiences.”

This means that we don’t have to have a lot of experience in theory or research in order to help our children learn. Most parents of infants and toddlers naturally play peek-a-boo, sing soft songs, and talk occasionally to their children. Talking is fun, of course, but it’s so much more than fun. When done in a variety of ways, talking to your baby fires up their little brains. Their brain synapses build language skills and building blocks for future reading, writing and speaking.

While many parents feel comfortable talking and singing with their infants, this active-verbal and interactive role may not be instinctual for all of us. Mothers may even feel a little silly talking to a baby about the color of the puppy in the room or the feel of the baby’s warm, cuddly pajamas.

For those of us who are hesitant to chatter to our babies, it will be easier if we realize what we are doing. We are creating a literate-rich world for our children. Don‘t worry too much about what to say and when to say it. Just look your babies in the eyes and share thoughts about the day, your upcoming trip to the store, feeding the cat and folding the laundry. Sing little songs, like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and recite small poems, like “Wee Willie Winkie” whenever you think of them.

When your baby or toddler talks to you, smile, listen and make comments in soft and nurturing tones. There is no need to be an actor, and no need to talk in baby talk. Just be yourself and enjoy the communication you both can share!

By implementing simple acts like talking with our infants, we can help make sure they are learning from their earliest days. When we all invest in early literacy, Utah County will help build a community of bright, articulate, and confident children.

For more information about EveryDay Learners or Women United, please call 801-374-2588.

Dr. Kay A. Smith has enjoyed 37 years in education. After retiring from the English department at Utah Valley University, where she was an associate professor, she has devoted her energy to ESL work and literacy initiatives with United Way’s Women United.

For more information and resources, visit http://everydaylearners.org.