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Sat Nov 01 07:31:11 SAST 2014

Baby play is a crucial pillar of literacy

Carole Bloch | 09 October, 2012 00:13

I've achieved one of my ambitions as an early literacy specialist - helping to bring into being several little board books for babies and toddlers in all of our 11 official languages.

You may ask why babies and toddlers should get books, and how can it matter what language to use when babies obviously can't even read? Here's why I think it matters.

Apart from food and shelter, babies thrive on the social and personal contact of cuddles and communication which both happen in the arms of someone special like their mama. When that includes being invited to explore bright, eye-catching images, and the special person starts making funny noises, rhyming, jiggling, pointing and tickling, it is baby heaven.

At this stage, babies care about pleasure and cosiness, not about books. But when it all happens repeatedly, they realise they're onto something, and start asking for books.

"More" and "again" are often among the first words of babies in literate homes.

Slowly, there is a growing awareness that the substance of what is being shared relates to baby's own life. The hen in the yard goes cluck, cluck and, look, here's a hen and how funny, Mama is clucking, maybe I'll cluck too.

Before she knows it, Mama is telling stories and her toddler is "being" the chicken, and Mama is (the undignified hen) laying the eggs. Or she's locked up and her three-year-old is a magician casting a spell on her, so she has to read another story.

This is not just "play". It's the wondrous and powerful beginning of symbolic behaviour, which underlies, among others, literacy development.

Children who enter primary school with minds full of ideas and thoughts relating to and growing out of the complexity of language, themes, quandaries and imagery of good stories are the lucky ones. That is so because it is the understanding, knowledge and questions they bring to a text and the personal connections they are able to make, which bring the text to life.

How could all of that magic happen in a foreign language? We all know about children who can decode, but who don't know what they are "reading". From the earliest interactions, being read to and reading are about making meaning, and children and adults set out to do that.

So, initial print explorations are best experienced in home languages. Not only are those early, informal and playful encounters stored and accessed as emotional tags that mark reading as pleasurable, they also lead to awareness and knowledge about print.

Many a toddler has swelled the hearts of amazed parents by recognising letters and words. That is significant, of course, but it is authentic relationships with stories, mediated by a special person, that bring about engagement of the heart and the mind.

Therefore, bring on the books for babies.

Bloch is the founder of Nal'ibali - Here's the Story - initiative. She is the director of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa, trustee of The Little Hands Trust, a writer for young children and an early literacy specialist who helps make children's early learning days inspiring and memorable.

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