Brookes Logo

The Preview: Early Childhood

How to build a rich early literacy environment in home-based settings

book cover

Download these free tips on how to conduct a CHELLO observation

In the United States, some 6.5 million children spend time in home-based care, and of those, about 1.5 million under the age of 6 receive their care exclusively in home-based settings. The environment in those settings plays a key role in helping children build the skills they need to form positive relationships and arrive at school motivated and ready to learn.

In home-based settings that support learning, caregivers

  • get to know the children and engage in activities based on their individual interests, abilities, needs, and approaches to learning
  • respond warmly to children's questions in ways that support their learning
  • provide a physical environment that allows children to independently explore their interests and interact with cognitively stimulating resources

Studies have revealed specific practices and environmental supports that contribute to children's all-important early language and literacy growth.

CHELLO measures what has been shown to work

The Child/Home Early Language and Literacy Observation (CHELLO) tool has been designed to measure key factors in children's physical and social environment known to nourish early literacy development, including:

The physical environment

Research indicates that the use of space in settings influences learning. Children use space and its boundaries to regulate and guide their own activities and responses.

Studies find that smaller, well-defined niches and nooks seem to encourage greater language and collaboration with peers and adults. Children are likely to use these more intimate settings to interact in longer and richer conversation with others.

Studies have found that some materials seem to encourage more sustained activity than others and invoke children's attention at different ages.

Materials that involve children in constructive activity tend to generate more language than pull toys. Some materials, like block building, elicit greater social interaction and cooperation, and others, such as puzzles, encourage solitary and parallel play.

The placement of objects influences children's engagement in play.

For example, placing props associated with mailing letters (envelopes, pencils, stamps, stationery) together in a play setting leads to longer play episodes than when props are scattered throughout the room. Props that are authentic, familiar, and useful to common literacy contexts (telephones in the kitchen area or mailboxes in the office area) encourage more complex language interactions and routines.

The proximity of quality books at children’s eye view supports their involvement in literacy-like enactments.

The frequency of book use rises significantly in classroom libraries or book corners that have

  1. a clear location with well-defined borders
  2. comfortable seating and cozy spots for privacy
  3. organized, accessible materials
  4. opportunities for related activities that extend the book activity

Settings with pillows, stuffed animals, and play objects, along with a rich supply of attractive books, also encourage children to visit and use classroom libraries.

The social environment

Language and literacy development is a profoundly social process, embedded in social relations between children and their caregivers. Children thrive socially and cognitively in settings rich with creative play activities and staffed by teachers who provide children with emotional security.

Activities such as individual book reading, pretend play, drawing, and listening to stories read aloud nurture and influence children’s understanding of written language.

Especially at the initial stages of learning, children need to receive assistance from adults or more capable peers to enhance and extend what they can already do.

Interactive book reading activities have been widely studied and identified as an important source of knowledge about vocabulary, letters, and the characteristics of written language.

The quality of verbal interactions influences children’s learning.

Caregivers’ instructional interactions (asking questions, distancing, contingent responsivity, elaboration) affects children’s vocabulary and ability to use language in solving problems.

The caregiver plays a central role in evoking children’s interest and engagement in literacy learning. When children feel insecure in situations, they may use digressive tactics to avoid activity.

For securely attached children, book reading is ultimately an enjoyable task, tied to learning improvement; for insecure children, it is negative, with caregivers often using verbal and nonverbal cues to discipline behavior.

Backed by research

The CHELLO tool comprises three instruments backed by these research findings. They are:

• a Literacy Environment Checklist that examines elements in the environment including the

book area
book use
writing materials

• a Group Family Observation that looks at

organization of the environment
materials in the environment
daily schedule
adult affect
adult–child language interaction
management strategies
vocabulary building
responsive strategies
use of print
storybook/storytelling activities
writing activities (drawing, writing, scribbling)
monitoring children's progress
family support and interaction

• a Provider Interview

Caregivers can then use the results of the observation and the suggestions included to enhance elements of their home-based environment to better support children's early language learning.

Uses of CHELLO

Monitoring and Improvement

Home-cased caregivers can use CHELLO to monitor and improve their practices, trusting that the tool is research-based and field tested.

Home Visiting

Supervisors in home visiting programs, such as Early Head Start or Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY), may wish to use CHELLO to measure progress over time. CHELLO can provide a vital accountability mechanism for supervisors to use in planning and guiding improvements.

Professional Development

Since CHELLO emphasizes alterable characteristics of home-based care such as the organization and content of materials, it can be used as a tool for professional development to improve the quality of the environment.


As a research tool, CHELLO is sensitive to interventions specifically designed to improve home-based care. Used as a baseline, it can serve as a preassessment measure, providing benchmarks against which change can be documented. Following an intervention, it can evaluate progress and help determine whether an intervention has been effective.

Adapted from the User's Guide to the Child/Home Early Language and Literacy Observation Tool.

Ensuring a rich early learning environment...

book coverChild/Home Early Language and Literacy Observation (CHELLO)

book coverShared Storybook Reading: Building Young Children's Language and Emergent Literacy Skills

home | catalog