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development | parenting

Baby Talk – S1 E3

Let’s talk about talking! Speaking with your baby is key to fostering early literacy and language development.  But for many parents, it might feel awkward or unnatural to talk to your baby.

On this episode, host Jessica Stewart-Gonzalez is joined by Kat Willard, Senior Director of Family Support and Literacy at First Things First, who shares creative ways to have intentional conversations with your little one.

From singing songs to telling stories, learn how you can spark meaningful communication with your child. Let’s get talking!

Podcast Resources:
Smart Talk
First Things First
Read On Arizona
Reach Out & Read
The 3Ts
Podcast Credits:

host Host: Jessica Stewart-Gonzalez is the Program Director for the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program at the Arizona Department of Health Services.

host Guest: Kat Willard is the Senior Director of Family Support and Literacy at First Things First in Phoenix, Arizona.


[00:00:00] Jessica Stewart-Gonzalez: [00:00:00] Welcome to The Parenting Brief. I’m Jessica Stewart-Gonzalez, an Arizona working mom and Program Director for the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program at the Arizona Department of Health Services. On this podcast, we’re here to deliver helpful parenting tips and advice from the experts. From eating and sleeping to learning and growing,

we have the answers to your parenting questions. So, whether you’re an [00:00:30] experienced parenting pro or expecting a little one soon, this show is for you.

Thank you for joining us for this episode of The Parenting Brief. On our previous episode, we looked at safe sleep habits and overcoming the challenges of newborn sleep. You can brush up on the ABCs of safe sleep by listening to that show at any time. [00:01:00] Today, we’re talking about talking. Talking to your baby, that is. For some parents, reading, singing, telling stories, and just talking to your little one can feel really natural, and for others, it can feel awkward or uncomfortable, like you’re just talking to yourself. But what we do know is that a baby’s brain is 80% developed by the time they are three years old and 90% developed by the time they are five. One of the best ways to help that brain develop is by talking to your little one, [00:01:30] even before they are born

and every day after that.

I am so happy to introduce our guest for this episode. Kat Willard is the Senior Director of Family Support and Literacy at First Things First. Welcome, Kat, thank you so much for being here with me today.

Kat Willard: [00:01:50] Thank you for having me.

Jessica Stewart-Gonzalez: [00:01:52] So we just have a few questions to really get into the importance of that early literacy and language in the [00:02:00] home for our little ones.

So just so that we’re all really on the same page, can you go ahead and define and really explain what we mean when we are talking about early literacy and language development? Why is it so important?

Kat Willard: [00:02:14] So language and literacy are major domains of early childhood development. And these are connected areas, but they refer to different things.

Language development refers to children’s emerging abilities to [00:02:30] understand and communicate with others through language. This is through a continuum of different stages according to age and ability. So, for example, an infant might start with crying to indicate that they want milk. Then as they grow around the time, they are one, they might start saying the single word, “milk.”

And later in their second year of life, they will move to a more complex sentence. “More milk, [00:03:00] mama.” So essentially language is a system of symbols that is used to communicate, and the ability to communicate is innate within the human brain. So children need to develop receptive language skills, the ability to listen and understand language and expressive language skills, the ability to use language to communicate. Literacy development is different and that involves the emerging ability to read and write. Early literacy [00:03:30] specifically can be defined as what children know about reading and writing before they can actually read or write. This can be seen in the way a child knows a book has words or pictures that convey meaning or in the way a child recognizes those letters and the environment.

My toddler twins often make comments to me when I’m wearing clothing with letters. And they’re so excited about it. They’re like, “You have ABCs on your shirt, mommy!”

I’m like, “Yeah, I do. Isn’t [00:04:00] that cool?” So, children develop both language and literacy skills through positive interactions and experiences with others through talking, reading, singing, playing.

Jessica Stewart-Gonzalez: [00:04:11] So we’re not needing to wait until they can actually talk back to us, well, talking back is a whole different issue as they grow up, but that they can communicate that back and forth. How early can parents really see that back and forth and that communication as they talk to their little one?

Kat Willard: [00:04:28] So as silly as [00:04:30] it may seem, back and forth communication starts immediately from birth.

So, infants communicate through eye contact, body gestures and through crying and through babbling as well. So, these are ways that children communicate with their caregivers. And so, a conversation, a back and forth conversation with an infant might look like a child cries and the caregiver says, “Oh, I see you’re [00:05:00] hungry, you’re crying. It’s time to go get your bottle. Let’s go get your bottle.” And the infant might kick their legs or move their hands back. And the caregiver might respond, “Ah, I see you really want your bottle. We’re getting it. We’re getting it. You’re doing a good job waiting.” So just in that simple example is a way that infants are having conversations back and forth conversations with their caregivers and children’s brains innately

[00:05:30] understand this. From birth, they have the ability to understand conversations and it’s up to the caregiver to grow that and build that brain architecture.

Jessica Stewart-Gonzalez: [00:05:40] So there’s usually, I hear most often when talking to parents about early literacy in their home, that two things really tend to come out of that as to what they feel that their challenges are.

And one of those challenges is time. They feel like they don’t just have that opportunity to sit down and read a [00:06:00] book, or, you know, they’re too tired at the end of the day and they just want to put baby to bed, and they don’t have the time to really engage their little one in reading. And then we also hear about some parents who just feel a little ridiculous with that.

Even in the example you gave of that kind of back and forth of, you know, oh, I can see that you’re ready for your bottle. And, you know, they just kind of feel silly. What tools do you have or some advice that you would [00:06:30] give to parents who just are a little stuck or need some extra motivation to really start increasing those opportunities throughout the day.

Kat Willard: [00:06:38] Sure. Well, as a mother of two-year-old twins, I can completely relate to feeling like you don’t have enough time or just being so exhausted by the end of the day that you don’t really have it in you to do these things. But what’s really exciting about this is that it’s simple and you don’t need to get [00:07:00] discouraged.

Every caregiver has the power to shape their child’s learning just by talking, playing, sharing a story, the caregiver is making an impact. So, my best advice is to find a time that works, even if it’s just five minutes. This could look like reading a book before bed every night. So, every night, just devoting five minutes to reading a book or three minutes. Many families choose to add [00:07:30] reading a book or talking about their day to their nighttime routine. And in the early language and literacy world we like to give the tip practice the three Bs. The three Bs are bath or brush, book, bed. So, bath, book, bed, or brush, book, bed. And doing this every single night builds a routine with their child that the child and the caregiver both look forward to by stopping to slow down and talk [00:08:00] about the day or sharing a story with your child before bed. It will drastically help brain development, increase bonding, and make a lifelong lasting impact.

Other things you can do if you really just don’t have time at the end of the day, those five minutes or three minutes, is to have conversations when you’re driving somewhere in the car. When you’re driving to school or to the grocery store have conversations in the car. Sing a song together. When you go to the grocery store with [00:08:30] your child you can talk about the vegetables, the shapes, the sounds, the different types of cereal on the shelf.

There are so many interesting things in a grocery store. So, you can really use time that you already have to do things with like going to the grocery store or having a meal with your child, eating lunch, to have conversations.

Jessica Stewart-Gonzalez: [00:08:55] That’s great. Those are some really helpful tips, especially because there’s so much that we are doing throughout the [00:09:00] day.

Just that idea of even narrating what’s taking place is a really helpful tool. So Read On Arizona has a method that’s called Smart Talk to help parents have quality and intentional conversations with their children. Can you explain a little bit about what the smart talk is and how parents can do this?

Kat Willard: [00:09:18] Yeah. So Smart Talk is having quality back and forth conversations with your child. And quality conversations, back and forth conversations [00:09:30] are smart. And so, what does this mean? Ultimately, it means that when a child says something to you like, “Ball,” you listen to them and you respond, “Oh, you see a big, blue ball.” And you can ask questions.

“Do you want to go bounce the ball?” You can use a caring and loving tone with your voice. And you can introduce new words. Again, in my example, when a child [00:10:00] says,”Ball!” And the caregiver response, “Yeah, that’s a big, blue ball.” You’re adding new words to your child’s vocabulary that might not have been there before.

And so Smart Talk is really about taking advantage of everyday moments like mealtime, bath time, getting dressed. “Today we’re wearing a striped shirt.” Diaper changes. “Oh, my goodness, this wipe is cold, I know!” Or play time, like the [00:10:30] example with the ball. These are all great opportunities for having Smart Talk.

Jessica Stewart-Gonzalez: [00:10:35] Where can parents find additional resources on early childhood language and literacy?

Kat Willard: [00:10:40] So the Thirty Million Words Center at the University of Chicago is an amazing place, and they have an amazing website called And on parents can find lots of information about how to have conversations, back and forth [00:11:00] conversations, with their child by practicing three easy steps: tuning in, taking turns, and talking more.

And the Reach Out and Read website has amazing resources for parents as well, as well as the Read On Arizona website. And ultimately one of the most magical places of all for the early language and literacy field and for anybody wanting to give their [00:11:30] child positive experiences is your local library.

Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of The Parenting Brief. If you’re looking for more information on early childhood literacy and language development, check out the show notes for some helpful resources. While you’re there, make sure to subscribe to The Parenting Brief for free on your favorite podcast app.

And because we can all use some parenting advice, you can [00:12:00] also share the show with the moms or expecting moms in your life. Until next time, this is Jessica. You got this, Mom.

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