2.2 : The Big Ideas


When we think about stories, we often turn our attention directly to literacy.  Yes, children's stories are linked to their literacy: their future reading and writing.  Literacy is larger than that, though - and stories are larger than that, too.

To begin, let’s back up and think about a broader definition of literacy.

Literacy is the ability to communicate and understand using a certain language.  That language might be reading or writing, but we can also think about our other literacies: how can we communicate and understand?  Think about the materials you are comfortable in, the spaces that work best for you.  Do you like to express yourself verbally?  Through a more visual form of expression?  Do you like to share your stories in pictures, in words, or perhaps even through cooking?  

We all have literacies - areas in which we can understand and communicate.  For example, I enjoy photography and playing the violin; I would not call myself an expert in either, but they are two things that I believe are my strengths.  I feel comfortable expressing myself - and exploring the world - through those two languages.  Children, as digital natives, are more comfortable with technology than someone who has spent the majority of their life without those same tools:  that young child has a level of digital literacy.

What are your literacies?

Literacy develops through interaction with ideas, through immersion, and with some amount of focus.  Reading and writing have an important precursor: communication.  And storytelling is a natural part of human culture that we are immersed in from birth.

Storytelling begins well before children can craft and articulate their own story.  Stories are absolutely everywhere, from the people we interact with, to the media, and our own imaginations.  As children  - even very young children - take in information about the world, they make new connections to that information, and connect bits of information to other bits of information.  A child’s experiences with the world are the foundation for the stories they will tell, and as they “discover” new ideas, these discoveries prepare them for more explorations.

Verbal Language

Experience and biology work in tandem as the child’s brain develops.  The information that comes in is based on the things that the infant, toddler, or preschooler sees and experiences: those cultural experiences help shape the brain.  This is where language learning starts: where children learn their mother tongue, the tone of language, and observe that these sounds, made by the people around them, are a major way in which people communicate information with each other.

Watch the video below.  Dr. Patricia Kuhl shares how babies are are using sophisticated reasoning to understand their specific linguistic surroundings.

Through trial and error, practice, babbling, and observation, children learn to communicate using language.  Children are motivated to communicate verbally, learning that their cries attract the attention of caregivers.  As they master the fine motor skills needed to have control over the muscles in the mouth, they are able to hone in on sounds and words; that area of motor development catches up with all those things they have been observing and interacting with.  So, words become phrases, phrases become sentences, and children are able to communicate verbally.  As simple as it sounds, this learning is the essence the compounded experiences that children have over the first years of life - and what children experience varies widely.  The cultural differences in how we interact with children, as well as socio-economic and biological factors, all play a role in shaping children’s language production ability - and the closely related topic of storytelling.

From Verbal Language to Storytelling

Before children can write stories, they tell stories.  Just like we did with literacy, we need to step back and broaden our definition of storytelling.  

Children are embedded in a culture of storytelling from the beginning of life.  They hear adults recalling events that happened to them, things that they heard in the news, things that happened to other people.  When we talk to each other, we are often talking in story.  Children observe this, of course.  A young child who recalls a story, may not be able to label that retelling as “a story” - the label doesn’t exist for something that comes so naturally.  Storytelling is a playful experience for young children: they use their bodies, objects, and environment to put themselves in situations they are interested in exploring.  We’ll look at that more in the next part of this unit.

These experiences in putting themselves in story are how children begin to experience narrative, plot, sequencing, emotion and action in stories.  A child may make simple statements and sounds as they move a fire truck across the carpet.  Our words and actions as caregivers reinforce these actions for children: perhaps you, the educator, make a siren sound, or pretend to spray a hose, as you check in with that two-year-old.  Young children may act out rituals that they are accustomed to, including meals, baths, and car rides, mixing elements from their real life along with fantasy.  With these verbal skills, they can dig a bit deeper, trying new ideas on for size.

And, of course, the child does not need to produce sentences, or even single words, to be able to create a story.  A story is a thought about the world, communicated.  It is quite easy to tell the story of dislike for peas with a facial expression!


Just as children learn that all those human noises are a way to communicate and have an intrinsic desire to be in the club, they observe that print carries meaning.  Adults seem to know that those little squiggles say something, and they can rack that code, from menus to street signs to books.  Young children who have a book read to them multiple times may “read” the book to themselves, turning the page at the correct time with cues from the illustrations, using the inflection they hear their caregiver use as they speak the words.

Children can make scribbles and letter-like marks on paper without formal instruction or letter tracing, exploring the idea of written language.  Perhaps, like me, children have written you notes and read you things that they have written.


Children’s exploration of print is another way for them to explore literacy on their own terms.  When given the space, materials, and time, they try these ideas on for size through play.  They experience the world of print from very early in life, and, like those mouth muscles and verbal communication, their fine motor control over mark-making instruments allows them the freedom to explore writing.


The words that children hear are the words that they know.  In the 1990’s, there was a lot of buzz about the “word gap”, and a particular focus was put on the number of words that children hear.  But, again, stepping back and looking through a different lens tells us a different story.  The word gap can also be seen as an “interaction gap”.  In households and settings where children are spoken to directly and involved in conversation, they learn about rich vocabulary in context, boosting their word knowledge.  If adults interact around children but do not include them in conversation often, the child’s learning is not as active.  This is social and cultural.  What we can take from this, though, is that learning words should be considered contextual: when children can apply information to their own lives, words and phrases carry more meaning that the child can truly connect to.

Oral vocabulary is linked to a child’s written vocabulary, which is one major reason why the “word gap” created so much buzz.  The number of words in a child’s vocabulary is linked to their literacy as they develop into readers and writers.  Louise Phillips elaborates:

“Snow and Tabors (1993) have found that a well established oral language vocabulary is essential for the development of young children’s written vocabulary. Children can sound out a written word more efficiently if they know what it is meant to sound like (phonology); and if they know the meaning (semantics) of words, they can predict where they might occur in a text (pp. 9-10). Cooper, Collins and Saxby (1992) claim that regular storytelling experience increases young children’s vocabulary, as they encounter a broad range of new words through story (pp.10-11), thereby supporting the development of their written vocabulary.”


In a Nutshell

  • Children’s brains are wired for language learning, and is very closely tied to the experiences they have with language and communication.  
  • Interactive experiences with rich, contextual language supports children’s vocabulary development.
  • Adults can support children’s literacy development from early on by conversing with children, using rich vocabulary, and giving children the space, time, and materials to explore print and mark-making.