Literacy matters for children from the moment they are born. You might have heard the saying that babies brains are like sponges and this is true!1 Learning to speak, and then becoming literate by reading, writing, and numeracy, can have serious impacts for people’s entire lives, and this development starts early. Among the scientific community it is commonly believed that there is a critical language period in children, roughly from early infancy to puberty, meaning that children can only acquire language effectively in this stage of life.2
Newer research supports these original claims as a neurology researcher and professor from UCLA took images of children’s’ brains and found that the brain systems that support learning new languages stop growing around puberty,3 suggesting that children under the age of 11-15 are uniquely suited to learning new languages.
There are also interesting claims being made about what this can mean for learning a second language; does proficiency in a second language only occur when you learn the language early enough? Some research would suggest, probably. One study examined bilingual individuals who spoke Spanish and Swedish.4 The study found that only a small minority of individuals who had learned Swedish after age 12 actually spoke like a native speaker while a majority of children who learned it under this age sounded native to the language.4
Getting your child interested in reading and writing languages early could help them for life! With school almost out and summer break just around the corner, here are some really interesting findings from research about why children’s literacy is so important.
#1 Good Literacy Depends on a Foundation of Early Childhood Engagement
Unlike birds, who innately know their birdsong without hearing it, humans must be taught language.5 Research found that language must be acquired around 6 months.5 One study discovered that children begin producing speech-like sounds, called babbling, around 7 months, but deaf children face difficulties in making sounds.5 However, deaf children that were exposed to another language, like sign language, around 6 months and onwards, also began to ‘babble’ with their hands.5 Studies like these show not only that language development is important for everyone, but it’s vital for children even under one year old!
Childhood literacy lays the foundation for long-term impacts because the first few years of a child’s life actually affect the development of their brain. A 2010 study found that children who receive more attention often have higher IQs later in life.6
Researchers have also found that the type of stimulation that children get can have an impact on their literacy skills.6 For example, one study tested two groups of 9 month old babies. One group watched videos of Mandarin Chinese sounds and the other group had these sounds spoken to them by other people.6 The researchers realized that the group that was spoken to could recognize different sounds but the first group didn’t retain any of the information.6 The quality of literacy skills is also, then, important for what children comprehend, even at 9 months.
#2 Poor Literacy Ruins Health & Career Goals
Low literacy skills are linked to poor quality of life in terms of health outcomes. One study found that low literacy was correlated with poor health and inappropriate or overuse of Canadian medical services, especially hospital rooms.7 For adults, poor literacy skills can mean that people are more likely to misunderstand written medical directions, less likely to have a health service provider, and might encounter more difficulty accessing adequate medical care.7
Low literacy also has impacts for adults’ career goals. Canadian literacy rates are lower than you would think, with 48% of Canadians possessing literacy skills that fall below high school level and a majority of Canadians falling in the lowest two skill levels in numeracy.8
Literacy skills are not static, if they are not continually built on throughout adolescence and adulthood, the consequences can be serious. However, literacy begins at the very beginning of life and because childhood development and literacy are so intertwined, emphasis must be placed on building adequate children’s literacy skills.
#3 Children’s Literacy has been Greatly Impacted by School Closures
It’s very easy to understand that closures and lockdowns that have resulted from an effort to try to slow down the COVID-19 epidemic have dramatically and negatively impacted students’ learning. Meme’s are abound about how exactly professionals graduating into a career will adequately perform their jobs and how students that were in middle school when the pandemic started and are now halfway through high school.
This interruption to formal education was enormous, with more than 1.5 billion students worldwide (by April 15th, 2020) having experienced school closures.9 One study found that children that missed out on formal kindergarten education would gain 67% less literacy ability compared to their peers who did receive formal education.9
Literacy, however, is not confined to the classroom. There are numerous summer programs, events and activities to keep children stimulated over the summer break. Reading to children who missed out on formal kindergarten education at home, for example, could mitigate the literacy loss above by 31%.9 Everyday actions can be tremendously powerful in maintaining and growing literacy skills for children that may have their lives shaped by them.
Even though we know so much about why children’s literacy is important, we are learning more everyday. ‘What are the exact critical development periods?’ ‘Can we simulate the critical learning period again in adulthood?’ These are just some of the questions that researchers continue to explore in attempts to give us the best way to acquire and retain our literacy skills.10
Keeping kids happy and active is important for their literacy and development and Honeybee’s studies can help you do just that. Check out some of the kids' studies below to participate in some fun research and support children’s literacy skills as they finish the school year!
Connects the community with research. Honeybee is a web and mobile app to participate in research, discover yourself, and earn cash and rewards.
1. Early Brain Development – TMW. Accessed June 16, 2021. https://tmwcenter.uchicago.edu/the-power-of-words/the-science/
2. Johnson JS, Newport EL. Critical period effects in second language learning: The influence of maturational state on the acquisition of English as a second language. Cognit Psychol. 1989;21(1):60-99. doi:10.1016/0010-0285(89)90003-0
3. Paul Thompson’s Research Publications. Accessed June 16, 2021. https://users.loni.usc.edu/~thompson/MEDIA/press_release.html
4. Abrahamsson N, Hyltenstam K. Age of Onset and Nativelikeness in a Second Language: Listener Perception Versus Linguistic Scrutiny. Lang Learn. 2009;59(2):249-306. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9922.2009.00507.x
5. Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al. The Development of Language: A Critical Period in Humans. Neurosci 2nd Ed. Published online 2001. Accessed June 16, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK11007/
6. The first year of life | NGL Life. Accessed June 16, 2021. https://www.ngllife.com/first-year-life-0
7. Jamieson DG. Literacy in Canada. Paediatr Child Health. 2006;11(9):573-574.
8. Literacy Rate in Canada l Literacy Across the Country | abclifeliteracy.ca. ABC Life Literacy Canada. Accessed June 16, 2021. https://abclifeliteracy.ca/literacy-at-a-glance/
9. Bao X, Qu H, Zhang R, Hogan T. Literacy Loss in Kindergarten Children during COVID-19 School Closures.; 2020. doi:10.31235/osf.io/nbv79
10. Gariépy J-L, Bailey DB, Holochwost SJ. Critical Periods☆. In: Benson JB, ed. Encyclopedia of Infant and Early Childhood Development (Second Edition). Elsevier; 2020:347-357. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-809324-5.23626-2