Why Is Early Literacy So Important for Infants and Preschoolers?

Early literacy lays the foundation for a lifetime of learning and endless possibilities for your child.

Early literacy helps critical pathways form throughout the brain.

Many adults and older children believe an infant’s brain is a blank slate until the child starts gesturing or speaking. But reading regularly with young children stimulates optimal patterns of brain development. It creates vital pathways in the brain, thus building language, literacy, and social-emotional skills that can bring lifelong benefits.

Moreover, the connections within the temporal, frontal, and occipital lobes allow us to learn how to read. In turn, reading helps develop robust and constructive brain activation patterns. So learning to read early in a child’s life is essential to their growth and future success. Therefore, reading a wide range of books with children initiates physical activity in their brains, activating the sections that process words and form meaning.

If a child is engaged in reading and interacts with an adult, parent, older child, or other caregiver, it can create a close bond. But what if the household lacks the appropriate reading material?

The answer is simple: Visit a nearby library. From small to huge, virtually every public or school library boasts a robust children’s collection. What’s more, parents can take the books home to read at bedtime or any other time.

Brain Development

Neuron-building begins in the womb. The brain must grow at about 250,000 nerve cells per minute (on average) throughout the pregnancy to develop the over 100 billion neurons of a healthy newborn baby. Once infants reach eighteen months, they have already begun building neurons in their brains.

Most neurons have three parts, as follows:

The Cell Body

The cell body contains the nucleus, which includes our genetic information. It also involves cytoplasm, the fluid that houses the majority of cellular material inside the neuron.


Axons are long, narrow connecting lines that spread from the cell body to send electrical impulses to other neurons. These impulses mean that axons are responsible for transmitting information throughout the body. Axons also expand into smaller branches that connect with other neurons’ axons.


Dendrites also extend from a neuron’s cell body but are responsible for receiving messages from other neurons. They resemble tree branches, collecting information to bring back to the neuron. Each dendrite’s end is a contact point, allowing one neuron to connect with another. These are called synapses, and dendrites have many.


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Reading and Brain Development

Do you know that 90 percent of brain development occurs between birth and age five? According to the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, as the brain develops, its neural pathways form in sequence: first, sensory pathways, then language, and finally, higher cognition levels.

An Early Literacy Planning Tool based on Every Child Ready to Read2® has six different (yet overlapping) components:

  • Oral Language
  • Phonological Awareness
  • Print Awareness/Print Concepts
  • Letter Knowledge
  • Vocabulary
  • Background Knowledge

Neither the VPT (VIEWS2 Planning Tool) nor the Early Literacy Planning Tool is meant to be exhaustive and comprehensive. These tools offer a way for librarians and storytime providers to understand early literacy components and how to incorporate them into storytime planning and delivery to help children in the community with their literacy development. Storytimes should be fun, interactive, and intentional to impact the community the most.

Until the preschool years end and children start their formal schooling, there are three distinct age categories:

  • Birth to 18 months
  • 18 to 36 months
  • 36 to 60 months

After this time, the young child’s brain no longer operates in a chaotic pattern but builds a much more cohesive structure.


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How a Child’s Brain Is Affected Early in Life

Why would the brain create more synapses than necessary — only to discard the extras? The answer comes from the interplay of genetic and environmental factors in brain development.

During the first three years, a child’s brain can have up to twice as many synapses as it will encompass in adulthood. Genetic factors powerfully affect a child’s early development. For instance, genes direct newly formed neurons to their correct locations in the brain, playing an essential role in their interactions. However, although they arrange the brain’s fundamental wiring, genes do not entirely design it.

Instead, genes let the brain fine-tune itself based on the input it receives through the external environment. A child’s senses report their environment and experiences to the brain, stimulating neural activity. For example, speech sounds activate language-related parts of the brain. If the amount of input increases (e.g., more speech heard), synapses between neurons in that area will be activated more often.

Repeated use strengthens a synapse, but those seldom used stay weak and are more likely to be eliminated through the “pruning” process. Synapse strength contributes to the connectivity and efficiency of the networks that support learning, memory, and other cognitive abilities.

So, a child’s experiences determine what information enters and influences how their brain processes it. Genes might provide a blueprint for the brain, but a child’s experiences and environment do the building.

We‘re wise to examine the evidence provided by neuroscience for several reasons. For instance, it may help us learn exactly how experiences affect children. This knowledge can aid efforts to help those at risk and undo the effects of early adversity wherever possible. 


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Librarians’ Role in Early Literacy

Parents reading one-on-one to children is a highly prized activity for both. But eventually, the children will extend their curiosity to larger, more broadly interactive settings.

That’s why storytime is an essential activity for children. It can ignite their imagination, bolster their language and literacy skills, and cultivate their emotional intelligence. Librarians, especially those who work with kids, have a distinct understanding of young children and brain development.

Preschool socialization can be challenging, so it takes a well-seasoned librarian or aide to know what’s developing inside their minds and ask the right questions to understand even a minuscule amount of what might be happening. 

These even-tempered adults welcome impatient children, allowing them to leave their seats periodically and move around. They also have a keen instinct for knowing when it’s time for the kids to return and settle down.



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