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Illinois Early Learning Guidelines

2013 Illinois Early Learning Guidelines
Developmental Domain 3: Language Development, Communication, & Literacy

Learning language and communication is a universal experience for children across cultures. Children develop communication and language skills in the context of their own culture and through meaningful relationships. Children spend the first year of life building the foundation for language, as they absorb what they see and hear through interactions with their caregivers and their environment.

Children’s capacity to learn language in the first three years is remarkable. They have the ability to learn more than one language at a time, and it is easier for children to learn an additional language than it is for adults. Research highlights that there is a critical period for acquiring more than one language; that critical period is the first five years of life.[2] Children who learn different languages in the first five years are often viewed as native speakers because they acquire the languages by the same process as their first language, and are more likely to be fluent and accent-free.[3]

During this time the brain is preprogrammed to learn language. The process of learning language involves nonverbal communication, processing and understanding sounds, and producing sounds.[1] Even with the complexities of language, children’s abilities to communicate and acquire language are remarkable. Children learn language through their interpersonal, social interactions with their care- givers. Throughout the Guidelines, language development, communication, and literacy are referencing children’s development in their home, or primary, language, regardless of whether or not this language is that of the majority.

Language is part of communication. At first, children do not have language but they have the ability to communicate. Children use nonverbal and verbal communication to express their needs. They cry, grunt, and use body language. As they get a bit older, children use strategies such as sign language and gestures to communicate their needs before they are able to verbally express them. These communication strategies also support children who have language delays or hearing impairments. Children depend on attentive caregivers to understand and respond to these communication attempts in order to have their needs met.

Caregivers who respond thoughtfully and promptly provide a positive model for shared communication that all children can build upon. These early reciprocal interactions provide the model for back-and-forth patterns that are important for social communication. In infancy, children may respond to a caregiver’s voice by making eye contact, smiling, or cooing. Verbal children will engage in this same pattern, except they now use some words to communicate. These experiences provide the foundation for understanding the rules of turn-taking in conversations that children will use when communicating with others.

Children build their vocabulary and understanding through interactive experiences. They are not able to verbally express everything they are thinking, but they can understand more than they can say. They demonstrate their understanding by pointing, gesturing, or following simple directions. Older children understand more complex requests, such as two-step directions, with less prompting. Their ability to verbally communicate also improves. In the first year, children are practicing their expressive language through babbling, which takes on the sound of their home language. Around 12 months of age, first words emerge. Children’s first words are embedded in their cultural context and are usually names of meaningful objects and people. Eventually these singleword utterances transition to two-word combinations, and at 36 months, children are able to form short, simple sentences.

An important part of language and communication development is early literacy. Early literacy is the foundation for reading and writing. Children learn about early literacy through everyday experiences with literacy tools such as books, paper, and crayons. Reading, singing, and drawing are all meaningful activities that caregivers can engage in with young children to help support early literacy development. While children are not expected to read or write by 36 months, these positive, interactive experiences will serve as building blocks to develop literacy skills in the future.


  1. Lindfors, J.W. (1991). Language acquisition: Developmental sequence. In Children’s language and learning (2nd ed., pp. 111–157). Reprinted from: Erikson Institute WebCT.
  2. Lessow-Hurley, Judith (1999). Foundations of Dual language Instruction, 3rd edition. Reading, MA: Longman.
  3. Lessow-Hurley, Judith (1999). Foundations of Dual language Instruction, 3rd edition. Reading, MA: Longman.


IEL Resources

  • List of standards
    IEL has created a convenient HTML list of the standards included in the Illinois Early Learning Guidelines.
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  • IEL FAQ: What Do Parents Need to Know About the Illinois Early Learning Guidelines for Children Birth to Age 3? About

Guidelines Posters and Brochures

  • Guidelines poster
    IEL has a large poster that lists all of the standards in the Guidelines.
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  • Guidelines brochure
    This handy pamphlet, which also lists all the standards, can be handed out to parents and others interested in learning more about the Guidelines.
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  • Order online
    Use our online form and IEL will mail up to 10 posters and 20 brochures free of charge to any address within the state of Illinois.

Additional Resources

Print Version

IEL is providing access to a PDF of the full 170-page printed version of the Guidelines:

Guidelines Webinar

This webinar provides a short overview of the Illinois Early Learning Guidelines for Children Birth to Age Three. It also provides a tour of the resources available on the Illinois Early Learning Project website that can support the use of the guidelines in practice and at home.


Find resources related to the Illinois Early Learning Birth to 3 Guidelines:


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The content of the IEL Web site does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Illinois Early Learning Project, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, or the Illinois State Board of Education; nor does the mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the Illinois Early Learning Project, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, or the Illinois State Board of Education.