3 Ways to Promote Early Literacy, Even Without Books

Photo by Larry Crayton on Unsplash

Reading to babies is wonderful and important. When we think about ideas for promoting early literacy, a lot of the discussion revolves around books. And, my goodness. Books are wonderful. I do not want to discount them at all. 

But what if a family doesn’t have books? Or doesn’t speak the language in which the books are written? What if they find themselves away from home, without a book in sight? Or, maybe they are just looking for other options. Fortunately, there are many ways to promote language development even without traditional books. Language development itself helps prepare a child for eventual reading (even if reading is years away).

Today, I’ll review three activities that can be done without any formal supplies. There’s not a board book in sight! Singing, narrating activities, and exploring any other printed material are simple ways to showcase language. We’ll discuss each a bit further below. And, I’ll also make a quick note on multilingual families.

One key and beautiful feature? Such activities may also be good for parents. These same activities that promote language are also great for parent-child bonding and emotional connection.

Singing Promotes Language Development

Babies are drawn to sing-songy voices. Often used to entertain or engage, singing also soothes and calms.  A recent study showed that babies were soothed by a lullaby, even if the lullaby was in a language unfamiliar to the baby. The melodies themselves were calming. With the singing, though, words are being used. Babies may tune in or relax for the melody. Then, they still experience language exposure.  Every exposure counts, and it does add up over time. Especially sweet is a caregiver calming a child with their voice.

Hand Gestures While Singing

There are a few ways to emphasize language with singing. For example, we can add physical movement.

I’ll confess that I had not fully appreciated this with my first child until we went to library story time. We sat on a rug and the librarian began to sing to welcome everyone. Suddenly, many pre-verbal babies and toddlers were following along with the songs by incorporating hand motions. It was such a sight! Waving, clapping, and pointing often precede spoken language. It’s a lovely way for babies to participate even before they are capable of speaking clear words. Some of the more obvious examples are Wheels on the Bus or Itsy Bitsy Spider. But, as I learned from my local library, most songs can include simple hand motions, often derived from American Sign Language. (A favorite of ours is Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. We open and close our hands with each twinkle).

Adding the hand motions is a similar premise to teaching sign language to babies at young ages. It’s just another way to show real life has symbols/words/representations. And, isn’t that what reading is?

Singing to Accompany Activities

Another way to foster language development with singing is using songs to cue certain activities. I know of one child caregiver who sings the ABCs with every diaper change. And, many kids respond to a “clean up song,” when a room needs to be tidied. Singing with an activity is great for routine, as well as hopefully bringing some whimsy to frequent tasks. Most children thrive and feel comforted by routines. A song helps solidify that feeling. 

Narrating The Day

We can’t all sing all the time. Sometimes, just chatting about our day can connect us to our kids while also exposing them to more language. There are so many “right” ways to narrate one’s day. It’s a simple action that can be woven into many different schedules. A caregiver simply describes what they are doing. This is especially valuable during direct caregiving, like getting dressed or bathing. “I’m putting this shirt over your head. Does it feel soft? Now I don’t see your face. Wooo, now I do!” It encourages focus and presence on the part of the parent. This lends itself to a child feeling connected to their parent. And, it can also transform something tiresome into something more joyful. 

Talking Through Actions And Emotions

We can also narrate when our child is simply observing. If we are cleaning or getting dressed ourselves, our child (especially babies) can observe. We can talk through each step, and our baby can hear the words used to describe these daily activities. It’s also an opportunity to use words to describe our feelings. It normalizes emotions in general, while also introducing relevant vocabulary. “Brrr, it’s cold. I’m excited to wear fuzzy socks.” Or, “I’m a little disappointed today. I was hoping for . . .” Such phrases can be used with any age, even very young infants who may only respond with a gurgle. 

Talking Through Challenges

A 2017 study showed that 15-month-olds who observed an adult attempt a challenging task and persist through multiple attempts were more likely to persist with challenging tasks of their own. After reading this study, I’ve been especially conscious of verbalizing any minor dilemmas. I then try talking through the solutions, however mundane. “Hmmm, this toothpaste isn’t coming out easily. Let’s see, if I squeeze and roll from the bottom of the tube, I’ll get it.” Or, “I wonder how to hang this picture so that it’s straight. I can measure. Or, I can use this tool . . .”

I often think of these moments as “language baths,” just letting the words wash over our babies as we go about our days. A single conversation does not have the same impact as the rhythm of words and processes over time.  If babies absorb some problem-solving one day, that’s great. If they start to hear the same words associated with the same activities, the meanings start to make sense. These are also opportunities to respond to any verbalizing from the baby. We can let them “finish” their sounds, just as if they were talking and we wanted to hear them finish a sentence. We can respond with a facial expression, a similar sound, or with more “conversation.” This helps them learn the normal flow of spoken language.

Quieter Moments

However, all this does not mean we need to be talking constantly.

It’s a parenting decision about how and whether to narrate when a baby is playing on their own. Sometimes it’s nice to just let them focus and play. We almost never want to interrupt, especially if they are very engaged with an activity, like a toy or looking at their hands. And, if a baby or child is staring off into space (most do at some point), many agree it’s best to just let them stare. Usually, there’s no need to interrupt with spoken word. (Please note, if a child starts to stare off when being spoken to, or when they themselves are speaking, this is different; it merits a prompt medical evaluation). Other times, especially if a baby looks up to a parent during play, parents can narrate. “Oh, you grabbed the ball. I bet it feels smooth. You’re looking at the ball that is red.”

Looking Beyond Books: Using Other Printed Material to Promote Language Development

Photo by Chirag Saini on Unsplash

Finally, even if child’s book isn’t available, we can take advantage of printed material elsewhere. Road signs, waiting room magazines, and packaging are all conversation starters. We can point out shapes and colors. For older kids, we can point out letters. Even a simple discussion about an image is worthwhile, as it may bring up words we don’t otherwise use. I’m reminded of a lengthy conversation with my toddler while looking at a magazine advertisement for a pain medicine. The ad was an image of a human figure with a radiating red mark drawn over their lower back. We discussed “owies,” and how the artist used red to show that a person’s back hurt. We wondered what color we would choose, who could help this person, and on and on. This was absolutely not a planned activity, but we “worked” with available material.

Bilingual and Multilingual Families

Before we conclude, I want to make a quick note on multilingual families. Children can grow up learning more than one language. It is a huge benefit and studies show they won’t get “confused” to the point where it would have been better to stick with just one language. What if all the available material is in a language a parent doesn’t speak? All of the above activities can still work. Singing, narrating the day, and pointing out images in the environment can be done in any language.

And, what if a parent does want to “read” a book they cannot actually read themselves? Turning the pages and talking about what they see is still very beneficial. They can even make up a story that goes along with the illustrations. Their child still sees how books work, sees pages turn, and hears language that is represented on those pages. Perhaps best of all, their child has a few cozy moments with their parent. 

Summary: There’s Not Just One Approach

Early language development is complex and multifaceted. No single activity will ensure a child will be able to understand and communicate all they need. It takes a few approaches. And yes, one of these is reading books. As we’ve seen here, other loving ways to promote language include singing, narrating, and chatting about any available printed material. All these activities are paired with the attention of an adult. This attention and love will encourage the child to continue to learn and grow.

Maya M. Mahmood, D.O., FAAP is a board-certified pediatrician and mom. She is passionate about parents having evidence-based information to help their families be healthier.

Disclaimer: This post is for information only. No medical advice. See full disclosure here.


Bainbridge, C.M., Bertolo, M., Youngers, J. et al. Infants relax in response to unfamiliar foreign lullabies. Nat Hum Behav (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-00963-z

Leonard, J. A., Lee, Y., & Schulz, L. E. (2017). Infants make more attempts to achieve a goal when they see adults persist. Science (New York, N.Y.)357(6357), 1290–1294. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aan2317

https://reachoutandread.org/ in-person education 2009-2011 and 2017-2019.

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