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Early language and literacy development

Sirri, Louah and Flewitt, Rosie ORCID logoORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1986-0644 (2022) Early language and literacy development. In: Psychology of Education: Theory, Research and Evidence-Based Practice. SAGE. ISBN 9781529762976

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Many different species in the world communicate effectively, but human language is unique in that it enables us to use sounds, signs and symbols to generate an infinite number of meanings and to refer to things that are neither spatially nor temporally present. Using spoken and written language to communicate is a deeply social activity that requires reciprocity and mutual understanding. From birth, most young children are naturally sociable and seek the attention of others, using gestures, movements, sounds and their gaze to communicate and develop relationships with adults and peers. Very young babies soon begin to turn towards familiar sounds, respond to voices and changes in intonation and begin to vocalise sounds. Around 12–18 months, most children begin to recognise and use words they have heard frequently, such as ‘mum’, ‘dad’, ‘no’. Children’s early speech in turn lays the foundation for their literacy learning, and eventually underpins children’s reading and writing. Young children develop at different rates but their knowledge and skills about language and literacy can be enhanced through opportunities to have fun and to play with words, for example through games of peek-a-boo, nursery rhymes with actions and by being included in everyday language and literacy practices at home and in their wider social circles. How babies and young children learn language(s) has fascinated scientists from different academic disciplines for many decades, resulting in different theories about early language and literacy development. Despite these differences, there is broad agreement that the first years of life reflect an intensive learning period during which time the brain is maturing. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘critical period’ when early language learning is optimal. In this chapter we give an overview of key theories dominating the fields of psychology and education, we briefly explain some key terminology used to describe key linguistic structures, and we introduce you to national and international research studies that have helped to change understandings of early language and literacy. We also consider how everyday language and literacy practices are changing in the contemporary era of digital communication.

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