Nurturing Learning in Two-Year-Olds: Language and Literacy

Verbal communication between or with twos needs a lot of support to succeed, especially when there is a conflict of wills. But twos feel excited and powerful when they’ve succeeded in using words to connect with a friend or caregiver in a meaningful way.

Two-year-olds (twos) are known for their desire to be in charge. At every turn they are expressing their opinions (sometimes loudly!), making choices, and practicing independence. But independence is still new territory and can feel overwhelming to twos at times. They are only beginning to learn language to express their thoughts, feelings, and intentions. Verbal communication between twos needs a lot of support to succeed, especially when there is a conflict of wills (a frequent occurrence in a group of twos). But children at this age are also enjoying language. They love songs, rhymes, and books with fun language. They feel excited and powerful when they’ve succeeded in using words to connect with a friend or caregiver in a meaningful way.

Using Their Words

What children are doing:

Although two-year-olds differ widely in the rate at which they reach language milestones, in general twos can be heard speaking in increasingly longer and more complex sentences, using a wider variety of words. Of course, their ability to articulate certain language sounds still has a long way to go, so interpreting twos’ speech can be challenging. In toddlers’ earlier attempts at speaking, adults were the best conversation partners because they could do most of the “heavy lifting” – interpreting what was being said and keeping the conversation going. But as they become more competent and confident, two-year-olds can be found talking more and more to each other. There are still lots of breaks in their communication, though, especially when frustration kicks in. 

What caregivers can provide:

  • Repetitive books, rhymes, songs – anything that encourages twos to use and play with language.
  • Books, posters, and/or cards that illustrate different emotional facial expressions. Use these to help give twos new words to understand and talk about their feelings.
  • Puppets, dolls, and toys that represent people to encourage twos to incorporate language into their solitary play.

What caregivers can say and do:

  • When twos say only one or two words to communicate, respond by extending and expanding what they’ve said to encourage more complex speech. (Child: “Juice.” Adult: “You want more juice? Here’s more juice in your glass.”)
  • Give twos words to use during social situations, but only when they clearly aren’t able to understand one another and frustration is building. Give just enough help to enable them to continue communicating, if they choose.
  • Caregivers can talk while playing alongside twos. They can describe actions or what they are noticing about the materials they are playing with, while being mindful of using rich language: full sentences and words that are a step or two beyond two-year-olds’ vocabulary.

Learning to Love Books

What children are doing:

Provided that books have been a regular part of their lives so far, twos become even more engaged with the books in their environment. Twos are more likely to make decisions about when, where, and how shared book reading takes place and to comment on the pictures while reading. On their own, twoyear- olds show a preference for particular books and intentionally choose books to look at and “read” themselves.

What caregivers can provide:

  • A selection of favorite books that is available and accessible to the children for a significant portion of the day.
  • A few relatively quiet places where one or two children can take a book to look at without a lot of interruption.
  • Books that illustrate familiar children’s songs, such as “Five Little Monkeys” and “The Wheels on the Bus.”

What caregivers can say and do:

  • Give twos choice in selecting and interacting with books.
  • Notice children’s current interests (the first snow of the season, the building construction across the street) and find age-appropriate books on those topics to temporarily add to the environment.
  • Invite twos to comment on the illustrations in books. If it’s a very familiar book with a predictable text (such as Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See by Bill Martin, Jr.), encourage children to fill in the blank or predict what will be on the next page.

Periodically ask parents about their child’s favorite book at home. Borrow the book or find a copy to read to the children. The child for whom it is a favorite may be quite possessive about the book. Since everyone will have a chance to share a favorite book, don’t force sharing if the child doesn’t want to. Instead, let each child have the spotlight and encourage him/her to talk about the book to the other children.

Imitating

What children are doing:

Imitation is one of the most effective ways to learn new skills and twos are becoming masterful imitators of the adults around them! The language and literacy that is a regular part of adults’ everyday behavior will soon show up in twos’ behavior, too. Caregivers should not be surprised to see twos: imitating the way adults speak to them as they talk to their dolls or stuffed animals; imitating reading as they play with books or other print materials; and imitating writing as they experiment with making marks on paper. Besides being cute, it’s an important part of practicing and learning language and literacy.

What caregivers can provide:

  • A variety of writing tools and surfaces. Include those that are portable (pads of paper and crayons) and larger stationary surfaces (wall-mounted whiteboard/chalkboard, easels). If children have free access to these materials, they will not only use them in creating artwork but will also at times use them to pretend-write, especially if they have frequently seen adults use them in that way.

What caregivers can say and do:

  • Allow children to take books to other parts of the room to incorporate them into their play.
  • Play along – if a child is pretending to be an adult, take on the role of a child. It will delight them and make them feel like a powerful, competent user of spoken and written language.
  • Use writing tools and surfaces that children are then allowed to use in their play. Be intentional about modeling and talking about reading and writing.

Understanding Illustrated Stories

What children are doing:

As twos gain experience with understanding the connection between pictures and real life, they move on to understanding the concept of a sequence of events illustrated by pictures. Cognitively they are beginning to grasp concepts like cause and effect and events in time. Experience with simple storybooks and other depictions of a sequence of events support their learning.

What caregivers can provide:

  • Children’s books that depict the sequence of familiar events or experiences, sometimes called “theme books.” Everyday home routines are good subjects: bath time, getting dressed, or getting ready for bed. Familiar experiences in the neighborhood or community are also interesting to twos: going to the store or playing in the park or yard, for example.
  • A display of pictures that depict a sequence of relevant events in the child care environment. Picture schedules can help children understand the sequence of activities of the day from when they arrive to when they go home. Pictures can also help illustrate the steps in procedures for routines, such as washing hands or brushing teeth.
  • Homemade books of photos of a special event that the children experienced in child care. Include photos of all phases, from the very beginning (getting their coats on) to the very end. Put the photos in sequence and then let the children remember and retell the experience over and over.

What caregivers can say and do:

  • Ask twos questions during book reading that tap into their understanding of sequence (“What happens next?”) and that make the connection between the story and their own experience (“The boy is playing with the ball in his yard. What do you play with in your yard?”).
  • Talk with twos about the sequence of events in the day (referring to a picture schedule, if there is one) or as the group is doing an activity or routine together. Use time-order words like “first,” “next,” and “last.”

Keep in mind

Because twos are often so determined and independent, caregivers can inadvertently let directive, controlling language dominate their interactions with the children. And the more a caregiver uses directive language, the more dominant a controlling attitude becomes, even when it’s not needed. Caregivers and teachers of twos have to work hard to keep that from happening. That means:

Including more positive, conversational talk during the day builds children’s language skills and enhances the adult-child relationships, which has the added bonus of increasing children’s willingness to follow the adult’s lead when it is needed!

1) giving twos choices and at least a measure of control as often as possible to satisfy their need for independence; and

2) taking advantage of every opportunity to talk with children as they play and go through the normal routines of the day.

For example, a mealtime is not just an event to manage, it’s an opportunity for conversation. Outdoor play on the playground isn’t just a time to keep safety risks minimized, it’s a time to talk with children about their play, and even join in (as long as the children are still in charge).

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Nurturing Learning in Two-Year-Olds: Language and Literacy

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