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How does my child acquire language?

As parents, we instinctively talk to our unborn child as we await the miracle of birth.  Our unborn baby hears the rhythm and cadence of our voices as she enters the first classroom of “language acquisition”.  Early on she reacts to prosody – the rhythm and intonation of our speech – and through time begins to babble.  We sing gentle lullabies and read nursery rhymes; this sets the stage to a world of education and the first lesson in learning to read.

Learning to read is a complex process that begins in infancy and continues through adulthood as our children work towards mastering literacy.  Children first hear phonemes (smallest unit of sound that is used to create meaningful words) from their parents.  Hearing and learning phonemes is a natural process that is both genetic and environmental.  An essential step in learning phonemes and moving towards familiarity with morphemes (combination of sounds that have meaning) and words is reading frequently to a child. 

Children build their vocabulary on a daily basis.  They learn from listening to parents, older siblings, the television.  I remember getting super excited when Chase turned four he began to use the words buffers, tracks, coal cars, and other train terms through watching Thomas the Train films and listening to me read to him.  Emma now knows 17 letters by sight from listening to the alphabet song, watching Chase and I go over the letters on an alphabet chart, and starfall.com

Children begin to put grammar to use as they start off with simple two word phrases.  Through playing games, puzzles, conversations, and reading a child’s language structure will blossom.  Their understanding of semantics and syntax will grow and soon the two word phrases will grow to sentences (Colker, 2010).

Children learn to speak through their environment.  As a child is introduced to reading they are able to incorporate background knowledge and their previous experiences with language will help them understand the words they are reading.   

After a child begins to speak they use similar processes to learn to read.  First they are able to see the golden arches and know that they are approaching McDonald’s, or see the Walmart star and begin asking to walk through the toy isle.  This is the beginning stage of reading.

Sousa (2005) explains, “The child’s brain has now acquired the fundamentals of spoken language.  Neural networks are developing rapidly in Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, and every day brings new vocabulary and understanding to the expanding lexicon” (p. 29).  As a child enters school with this wealth of knowledge gained through their short lifetime the we may utilize these tools to build a foundation of literacy.

Part III of this series will focus on how spoken language is linked to learning to read.


Colker, L. J.. (n.d.). First steps towards literacy: When talk isn’t idle.  Retrieved February 13, 2010 from http://www.rif.org/educators/articles/whentalk.mspx

Sousa, D. A. (2005). How the brain learns to read. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.