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Baby Literacy – Nothing Beats Quality Face Time

Jean Fahey

We’ve known for a long time that babies are listening for the voices of the important people around them. Talking, singing and reading bonds babies and parents in a profound way. This bond, in turn, strengthens the neural pathways in the brain that are later used for learning to read.

But babies are not just listening for speech sounds. They are also looking for speech sounds.

Sometime around 6 months, babies begin to shift from watching their parents’ eyes to watching their parents’ mouths move while they talk. They are looking to connect speech sounds with the shape of the speaker’s mouth. All senses tuned, they are highly motivated to communicate.

Once they have heard the same speech sounds over and over again (by about 12 months), they resume eye gazing with their parents and others. Eye gazing helps them pick up additional non-verbal communications present in the eyes of the speaker. However, if an important adult introduces an unfamiliar speech sound (i.e., from another language), the new sound will beckon baby’s eyes back to the speaking mouth where she will resume her study of how sounds look on the lips. This astonishing ability is one reason it is so easy for babies to become bilingual.

The study can be found in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lewkowicz, D.J. & Hansen-Tift, A.M., (2012) Infants deploy selective attention to the mouth of the talking face when learning speech, Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences.

Lewkowicz’s research also underscores the notion that if quality face time is so important for speech development and communication, then parents may want to tread carefully in exposing their infants and toddlers to too many videos during toddlerhood.

Instead, baby researchers tell us to look children in the eyes and tell a story. Or, pick up a cereal box, a recipe, or a book and read to children face-to-face.

Quality face time with infants and toddlers is one of the underlying themes of a hot-off-the-press South Shore Hospital sponsored book, Make Time for Reading: a story guide for parents of babies and young children.

What makes Make Time for Reading unique is that it looks like a children’s picture book but it is designed for parents. The book takes only minutes to read, yet it is packed with useful information against a backdrop of the story of one little girl’s journey toward reading.

So remember, when you do read and talk to your baby, be face to face with them to make it as easy as possible for them to learn to communicate … by imitating you!

As a community benefit, hard cover copies of “Make Time for Reading” are offered free of charge to mothers and newborns, and at South Shore Hospital Reading Partnership parent and teacher education seminars. It will be also available for purchase on Amazon in the fall of 2013.

(originally published at

Early Bilingualism Can Enhance Early Learning

Jean Fahey

The face of our nation’s youngest children is changing. Recent (2010) census data shows dramatic changes in the racial and ethnic makeup of our nation’s youngest children. The numbers of Hispanic and Asian children in particular are on the rise. Furthermore, one in four children under the age of 8 grows up in a US family with at least one foreign-born parent, or about 8.7 million children. This is more than double the number of children in 1990. 1

The Paradox of early bilingualism. There is a common misguided belief among parents that reading to children in their home or native language may compromise their ability to learn to read in English. And oftentimes, if the parents don’t speak English, they may not read to their children at all due to lack of books in their home language.

Programs like “Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors” in Albuquerque, New Mexico are doing what it takes to bring light to the truth and encourage parents to read to their children in Spanish. Programs like this exist across the country working with immigrant families to teach them about the benefits of speaking and reading to their children in their native language.

Research shows that when children begin to switch from language-1 to language-2, the brain develops greater cognitive flexibility and thinking speed as well as better attention and self regulation. When given optimal home and school environments, these skills can generalize into other areas of school and learning. 2,3 And this is true for any language.


What are these optimal home and school environments for infants and toddlers?

  • Both environments restrict screen time (TV, videos, e-media). Dr. John Hutton, a pediatrician who wrote the award winning Baby Unplugged book series and the blog,, recommends  no screen  before  age 3 and banning screens from bedrooms and meals is a really good idea when it comes to babies and toddlers.
  • Both environments embrace the unique opportunities of a child’s first 3 years through loving, playing and learning creatively, face to face, skin to skin with many, many books close by.
  • And finally, when parents assess when their own screen time use is keeping them from responding to their young child’s comment, inquiry, or interest, their children could reap very big benefits indeed.

How Early Bilingualism will benefit the brain. Even the tiniest of infants are listening for the voices of their mothers. They can even discriminate between the sounds of the home or native language and a second language. This strongly suggests that the first years of a child’s life is a ripe opportunity for exposure to the “home”  languages, as long as the language is “back and forth” and spoken by the important people in the child’s life. 4


What Can Parents Do To Prepare Their Bilingual Child For Learning to Read:

  • Read to your baby or toddler in your home language every day: Visit the library with your child at least once a week and borrow a pile of books in your home language. When the library runs out, visit another. Borrow books online if you have exhausted the supply of books in your community.
  • Ask for audio books in your home language. Audio books are wonderful ways to build vocabulary in your child’s first language and expose them to the delights of listening to a story with “sound effects” (e.g. music, the clip clop of the horses’ hooves, the narrator’s mood and voice, etc). Audio books (especially for those long drives in the car) join parent and child together as they pay attention to the same thing at the same time. This is called “joint attention”. It turns out that joint attention causes some of the most profound early development in your child’s magnificent baby brain.
  • Borrow wordless books from your library and make up the story as you go. There are several advantages to wordless books.  They force parents to “create the story” rather than just read text. This exposes children to more words and complex sentences as parents “make things up”! My daughter’s two very favorite wordless books were: Good Dog Carl by Alexandra Day and A Child’s Book of Art by Lucy Micklethwait. We read the books a dozen times making up a dozen different stories!
  • Learn a second language with your baby! Classes that emphasize face to face, conversational turns (e.g. taking turns chatting, gesturing, etc.), joint attention (paying attention to the same thing at the same time) will expose your baby to the sounds, rhythms, and tones of a second language. And when these language elements are reinforced by you, over time, inside of loving and nurturing interactions, the neural connections for the second language will strengthen.

(originally published at


  1. Foundation for Child Development. (
  2. Yoshida, H., (November 2008). The Cognitive Consequences of Early Bilingualism, Zero To Three, (
  3. Poulin-Dubois, D., Blaye, A., Coutya, J., Bialystock, E., (2010). The Effects of Bilingualism on Toddlers Executive Functioning, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, DOI:10.1016/]
  4. Byers-Heinlein, K., Burns, T.C., & Werker, J.F. (2010). The roots of bilingualism in newborns. Psychological Science, 21 (3), 343-348.

Jean’s top 3 literacy tips for new parents

Jean Fahey

Every parent of a middle school child looks back and reflects  “Where did the time go? They grow so fast!!”   So make the most of the early years and:

  1. Read or tell a story every single solitary day- even if you only have 5 minutes.
  2. Visit the library, and take out at least 10 books a week … and talk about them.
  3. In the year before kindergarten, ramp up the audio books and listen together – this will deepen your child’s comprehension and listening skills- skills the kindergarten teacher will thank you for!

Make Time for Reading was inspired by parents-to-be and parents of babies and young children. I learned that while parents appreciate information and guidelines, what moves them to action are powerful stories.

My book’s underlying message is that quality face to face time with our children is the key to the kingdom.  That’s because even the tiniest of babies are studying our eyes and lips to better understand their language.  Eye contact while touching, talking and reading will help them distinguish word-sounds that later will help them learn to read. But even more importantly, face to face time is the access to bonding with our children in the most marvelous and memorable way.

The young brain is marvelously malleable, and love, nurturing, reading, playing and conversations can make a enormous and long lasting difference in our child’s growth and development.

When it comes to literacy, I think the biggest challenge facing parents of young children is simply making the time for talking and reading  … and putting down our smart phones to really be with our children – especially during the early years of critical language and social emotional growth.

(originally published at