language with infants and toddlers

When we think of the capabilities of infants, what comes to mind? Probably pooping, sleeping, eating, and spitting up. When we think of the capabilities of toddlers, what comes to mind? In addition to the list mentioned for infants, one would add walking, speaking (a little), and beginning to play with purpose.

What we don’t think of either of these groups doing, naturally, is reading. So how does literacy apply to children this young? The definition of literacy is the ability to read and write. Infants and toddlers can’t do anything close to these tasks. So what can we do with them to start that foundation of learning and loving to read and write? And let me be clear that reading and writing is about words and language, so I’m not suggesting a Your Baby Can Read program here; I’m talking about introducing your infant/toddler to the English language, spoken and printed, which will lead to words and sentences, spoken and printed.


  • Talk to your baby. There are a few ways to do this. For example, talking each step out while changing a diaper (“I’m taking off your diaper because it’s time to change you! Now I’m putting on diaper cream so you don’t get a rash!”). I like to do that some but not all of the time; I like to keep a more ‘natural’ (or as close to) dialogue with the baby while still being informative. (“You’re eating carrots for lunch and they’re orange. They’re also delicious. Scrumptious. Tasty. They grow in the ground!”) This point seems really obvious, but you will be silent and lost in your own thoughts and not even know it, so it’s good to be conscious when you do that, and instead share your thoughts with the baby! (“I’ve been thinking about growing out my bangs. Yes/no? I’m taking the spit up as a no.”) Speaking, even on nonsensical topics, exposes the baby to their native language and new vocabulary (which means, talk as you would talk to an adult. No baby talk.).
  • Sing to your baby, with or without music. Your baby is not a critic and will not judge you. This is not The Voice. If you don’t know a lot of children’s songs, look them up online or buy a CD of them. Don’t just sing lullabies right before bedtime. Sing all day! Sing to comfort, sing to express joy, sing to accompany your baby’s activities. Also, your baby does not have to sit and listen to you sing, either. Sing to them while they’re trying tummy time, on their play mat, or standing up playing by a shelf. With infants trying to learn to sit up, I like to (since we don’t have Bumbos at work) sit them in my lap in front of mirror and sing. That way they’re getting practice and they can still me as I sing. Once infants are about ten months, this is a good time to introduce hand motions with songs. Singing works the same as talking with language and vocabulary.
  • Babble back to your baby … as in, as much as you can, repeat the sounds you hear your baby making. This is not mocking your baby. This is reinforcing that the sounds they are making are valued and they should continue to make those sounds. When you respond to the baby in their “language” they will make the sounds back at you as well. They get more excited. Remember, the babble is not nonsense. It is your baby’s way of trying out their teeth/lips/tongue in a formation in an attempt to repeat the sounds they heard around them. Babble is the first step in a baby learning to speak.
  • Look at picture cards or flash cards together. This is DIFFERENT from reading a book together. A book has words in it, these will not. I suggest flash cards because one side is usually simply a picture. This is the kind you want. You can work with these in one of two ways. You can either put them in a basket on a low bookshelf and let your infant find them on their own, choosing a card and only then saying something like, ‘Is that a zebra?’ Point to the image only when you are saying the noun — in this case, ‘zebra’. Or you can sit down with the infant and show them cards of your choosing and go through saying, ‘This is a zebra! He has stripes that are black and white. They live in Africa. Zebra.’ This shows your child a realistic image and connects it to a word, beginning an early word association.
  • Alphabet blocks are a great way to do literacy. I would suggest plastic blocks for young infants, because they will put them in their mouth and wood blocks make me nervous with that. With blocks I just hold up letters and identify them; I also identify whatever letter block the infant holds up. I also make a word or name association – ‘D is for dog! D is for Dad!’. You can also do this with magnets, but magnets can be harder with younger infants.
  • And of course, read to your baby. A lot of people think that board books are the best books for infants because they’re so sturdy. But actually, after a few times of getting into baby’s mouth, the pages get a little gummy. My best suggestion for infants up to ten months is cloth books and bath books (I find bath books easily at Target’s Dollar Bin). At ten months, baby can better learn that books don’t go in their mouth and then board books are easier to turn pages with their little fingers. Okay, so once you have your books, establish with yourself that while reading the book is important, so is exploring the book. Let baby throw it, put it on their head, flip through the pages, and yes, put it in their mouths. (Bonus of cloth books — throw them in the wash after!) And DON’T just read to baby at nap or bedtime. Reading is any time activity, so have the books out with the toys. When they’re chilling on the Boppie, give them a book. When they’re practicing sitting up, give them a book. When you’re traveling in the car, give them a book. If you start teaching now that books are meant to be read at any time and are FUN, you’re starting the foundation for loving to read.
  • Once your child is about nine months, break out some baby sign language! I usually teach the kids ‘more’, ‘please’, and ‘thank you’. Not overwhelming for either of us and they’re learning manners. But, make sure you are saying the word as you sign, so again, they are making the connection and they will eventually say and sign the words (I have sent kids to toddlers who had better manners in terms of these three words than the kids who were already there).


  • It is sooo important to talk to your toddlers, because maybe at this point they have a couple words and a great way to expand on that is to keep the conversation going. Unlike with infants, it is not necessary to give long, lengthy explanations for what you’re doing. Why? Because you want to give your toddler short words and phrases that they can start to learn. For example, when washing their hands, I say, ‘Water … Soap … Rinse … Dry!’ And I am telling you, the kids began to make that association between what I was saying and the actions they were taking (they were also learning the steps to hand washing!). Some eventually either babbled these phrases or actually said at least one of the words (usually dry). Talk to your toddlers while they are playing, during diaper changing, at meal times, etc. Ask them questions, wait a few minutes, supply answers. I know this is awkward, BELIEVE ME, but it’s important for kids to hear inflections in voice. A milestone for toddlers in talking is, even if babbling, showing an inflection in voice to indicate asking a question.
  • Sing, and get the toddlers involved! Keep up the hand motions even if it seems like they’re not interested in doing them. I’ve had toddlers who weren’t interested in hand motions until twenty months. Have some songs with hand motions, and some songs where you break out musical instruments (and honestly, rattles = maracas), and some songs where you just pat your knees or clap your hands. Encourage toddlers to free dance, but do not force your toddler to dance! They will join in when they feel comfortable and are ready. A great way to do literacy with singing is take a large piece of paper (dry erase board, chalkboard, etc.) and write the lyrics to the song on it. Post it on the wall and point to the words as you sing the song.
  • Acknowledge what your toddler is saying … even if they’re saying ‘Hi!’ for the millionth time. Positively responding to their speech encourages more. Simple but very important rule!
  • Play with a pretend telephone. ‘Dial’ a number to call someone or pretend the phone is ringing and answer it. I cannot emphasize this part enough … talk as though there is someone actually there. Model a ‘proper’ conversation — ‘Hello? How are you? I’m good! How is your day going? Really?’ Now you may think that toddlers don’t understand what you’re doing. Yes, yes they do. Transfer the call to them. ‘She’s sitting right next to me! Would you like to talk to her? The phone is for you!’ If your toddler sits there in silence, encourage her to say ‘hi, how are you?’, etc. If she doesn’t, that’s fine. A lot of my toddlers just liked walking around holding the phone next to their ear. Some did eventually get to ”ello Mom, ‘ow are you?’. This is still encouraging language and words.
  • Keep up with the picture cards and flash cards, but now, ask them what they’re looking at. What is this? If it’s an animal or something that makes noise, what sound does it make? Do you have this at home? Do you play with it? Try to find pictures (either cards or via online) that have a scene, and create a story. ‘What is this white stuff? Is it snow? Yes! They’re sledding in the snow and having a lot of fun. What are they wearing? Coats! Because it’s cold in the winter. Brrr.’
  • This is a great time to do magnets on the fridge. Again, buy at least two sets so you can do multiple words. Create simple words and spell them out. Create the names of people you know, like siblings and cousins’ names. Also focus on naming individual letters as well.
  • And of course, let’s read! Board books are good for toddlers to look at independently. If you read enough throughout the day, I promise you, your toddler will enjoy sitting down and looking through books independently. Have books that peak your child’s current interest (trucks, cats, colors, etc.). Some toddlers will eventually babble a story to themselves or look through a book to vocally label a specific picture. Both are good — milestones for toddlers at this age is to be able to turn the pages of a book and identify pictures of familiar objects. This is a completely fine age to have books with ‘real’ pages — just save them for when you have time to sit down and look through it as well. And always try to introduce toddlers to books of all kinds (fiction and nonfiction) as well as books with lots of words. My toddlers loved ‘I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More’ as well as ‘Brown Bear Brown Bear’ and they are wordy books. Try it once, try it twice, put it away for a couple weeks and try it again. Never force your toddler to sit through reading a book they have no interest in. Ask questions, encourage toddlers to finish sentences of books they know so well!
  • Toddlers who are able to independently sit through the reading of a book can attend story time at a local library or bookstore. Even if they’re almost able to do this, I would encourage you to take them. They can see other children modeling proper listening behavior and it’s (pretty) early practice for sitting and listening in a group setting.


Language is sooo important for these young ages. The key is to keep it consistent throughout the day as well as natural. Reading should always be promoted as a fun, enjoyable activity. My last tip is to model reading. When your toddler is looking at books, sit down and read a book of your own. Have books in the house. Show your child that reading is a lifelong activity.


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