Early Literacy Skills

How Can I Prepare My Baby or Toddler For Reading?

Literacy skills developed before school are strong indicators for future reading ability.  Learn how you can help your child develop these skills.

Virtually everyone connected with education seems to agree that it’s important for young children to develop early literacy skills.  For example, a publication based on a report from the U.S. National Early Literacy Panel stated:

“The years from birth through age 5 are a critical time for children’s development and learning. … Children who develop more literacy skills in the pre­school years perform better in the primary grades.” 1

Click here for a summary of this article, or browse the contents of the main article below…

Contents:

Summary

Important aspects of early literacy include good comprehension of spoken English, print and phonological awareness, letter knowledge, pre-writing skills and general knowledge.  To help your child develop these things you don’t need any special early literacy programmes.  Just do the following things:

  • Read to your child frequently and engage them in regular, uninterrupted conversations about everyday things. Expose them to a wide variety of books and experiences and talk about the things you read and see.
  • Do nursery rhymes and sing to your child to teach them about rhyme and show them how to clap out syllables in words.
  • Teach your child to recognise all the letters of the alphabet and the sounds associated with them (but don’t teach them the names of the letters before they can read).
  • Let your child practise writing letters.
  • Do everything you can to encourage a love of books.
Early-literacy-father reading-to--child
Reading to your child can improve their vocabulary, comprehension and print awareness - and they love it!

What Are Early Literacy Skills?

Early literacy skills are abilities that young children can develop which will help them learn to read more easily in the future. 

There’s no universally accepted list of early literacy skills, and some of the skills can be described in different ways.  However, most educators would agree that some, or all of the following things can be helpful in preparing children to read:

  • Good comprehension of spoken language, which requires a reasonable vocabulary and familiarity with the basics of grammar.
  • Print awareness – an understanding that writing represents spoken words and that we read lines of text from left to right. The ability to turn the pages of books, starting from the front cover and progressing to the back cover.
  • Phonological awareness – the ability to recognise different elements of sounds in spoken language. For example, being able to:
    • determine how many words there are in a short sentence or phrase,
    • recognise words that rhyme,
    • count or clap out the number of syllables in a word.
    • recognise individual sounds in spoken words (phonemic awareness). For example, notice which words in a sentence start with the same sound or end in the same sound.
    • Letter knowledge – an awareness that letters have different shapes and that they make up written words. Know that letters represent spoken sounds.
    • Pre-writing skills – fine motor skills developed enough to be able to grip a pencil and draw reasonably straight and curved lines. Perhaps able to write own name or make a recognisable copy of a letter or two.
    • Good level of general knowledge. Children need a minimum level of background knowledge to be able to understand what they are reading.

Note that if a child hasn’t developed all of the above skills, this doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t ready to learn to read.  However, children who are quite advanced in most of the areas are likely to make faster progress than children who are weak in most areas. 

Motivation to read is another important factor that influences a child’s ultimate reading ability, so it’s vital to encourage a love of books in children as well as teaching them basic literacy skills.  

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How Can I Teach My Child Early Literacy Skills?

Fortunately, you don’t need any specialised knowledge to teach early literacy skills and you don’t need to spend money on any special early literacy programmes.

Most early literacy games and activities for preschoolers and toddlers are based on normal parent/child interactions.  However, it can help if you are more mindful of the skills your child needs to develop when you spend time with them.  We describe how you can develop some the important skills below…

Comprehension of Spoken English

If children have a poor understanding of spoken English they will find it difficult to comprehend written English.  Talking to your child often is the key to developing good verbal communication skills.  And of course, reading to them is important too (see the section on print awareness below).

Early-literacy-mum-talking-to-child
Having regular, intimate conversations with your child is one of the most important things you can do to boost their comprehension of spoken and written language.

When children are very young, parents should point out objects and say their names and also describe actions like clapping, sitting, smiling and walking etc.  The National Literacy Trust, an independent UK charity, has produced some very helpful resources for improving children’s talking and listening skills, which you can find on their ‘Words for Life’ site.

They also recommend using strollers/pushchairs where the child is facing the parent because these provide more parent/child interaction. 

Your baby will develop better communication skills if they are facing you in their pushchair. Research has shown that if the baby is facing you, you are twice as likely to talk as when your baby is facing away from you.

Young children don’t need to learn all of the terminology associated with grammar, but they can learn the basic rules of grammar subconsciously by listening to adults during conversations.  For example, they soon realise that if you say ‘cats’ rather than ‘cat’ you are talking about more than one.  And they know the difference between “we’re going to the playground” and “we’ve been to the playground”.

When children are a bit older, you can develop their comprehension of spoken language by engaging them in conversations and asking more open-ended questions.  This can be when they are playing, at the dinner table or when you are out and about.  Try to avoid distraction from background noises where possible. 

See our article ‘Reading Comprehension Basics’ for more information about helping your child to develop good comprehension of spoken English.

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Print Awareness

The best way to develop print awareness is to start reading to your child from a very early age.  Reading has a variety of benefits; research shows that reading books with a child from early infancy can boost vocabulary and reading skills four years later when they start school.2 

It’s important to spend some time reading with your child every day if possible.  Children who grow up to be good readers have been read to, on average, for 30 minutes every day3, so this would be a sensible target to aim for. 

You can start from when they are only a few months old and able to sit up on your lap.  Use simple cloth books or picture books and talk about the pictures.  Let them hold the books and turn (or even chew) the pages. 

When you get books with words in them, point to the words as well as the pictures and say the words clearly.  This will help them to see the connection between written and spoken words.

The most important thing is to make reading fun; sharing books should be an intimate experience that both you and your child look forward to.  Try to make sure there is no TV on or other distractions from siblings.

Variety is important.  Read fictional and factual books, lift the flap books, books with textured pictures and books that make noises.  But if your child wants to do the same book a dozen times in a row, let them.  Look for some extra little details to talk about each time. 

Here are some other tips:

  • have lots of books in the house, you don’t have to buy them all – use your library,
  • run your finger under the text in books so your child gets the idea that print represents spoken words and we read from left to right,
  • set an example by letting your child see you read for your own pleasure,
  • take books with you when you are going places where you might have to wait around such as the doctors, dentist or barbers,
  • go to story-times in your local library,
  • let your child explore bookshops.

See our article ‘Reading Comprehension Basics‘ for more information about getting the most out of reading to your child.

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Phonological awareness

Almost all children with normal hearing develop some phonological awareness naturally; if they didn’t they wouldn’t be able to understand spoken language or talk properly. 

Everyday conversations and ordinary reading time are sufficient to develop some phonological skills, but there are other things you can do to help.

For example, children will get a more intuitive feel for words that rhyme if you sing and do nursery rhymes with them.  You should do this from when they are tiny babies. 

Scientists also believe that the exaggerated way we intuitively talk to young babies is important in helping them become aware of the rhythm of the language.   So engage your child in regular, close up, undistracted ‘baby talk’ as often as possible.

You can teach your child about syllables by clapping out the syllables for them in some words.  Then see if they can clap out the syllables for themselves.  If they struggle, get them to hold their hand under their chin as they say the words.  They should notice that their chin moves down when they say each syllable. 

The short syllable lesson video below gets the message across really well…

Developing Phonemic Awareness…

Some children find it difficult to distinguish between the individual sounds (phonemes) in words.  This matters, because identifying the individual sounds represented by letters is an important part of reading.  Consequently, some educators give children specific phonemic awareness training before they introduce them to letter symbols and phonics teaching.

However, Susan Godsland, author of the dyslexics.org.uk site, claims that speech sound awareness training is not essential for learning to read and spell. 4  She cites research that’s demonstrated phonemic awareness can be developed very well using synthetic phonics without any prior PA training. 

Other academics agree that it isn’t necessary to teach phonemic awareness as an isolated skill.  For example, a study published in the Journal of Early Child Development and Care in 2016 stated:

 “Our results appear to indicate that learning letters does not require previous PA ability but affects PA.” 5

So, if your child has difficulty identifying the individual sounds in words, the best way to remedy this might be to teach them letter knowledge and synthetic phonics…

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Letter knowledge

Children will never become good readers unless they learn to recognise the shapes of all of the individual letters and the sounds represented by each letter.  However, it’s not important, or even helpful, for them to know the letter names before they learn to read.  See our article, “Should I Teach My Toddler Letter Names?”, for a more detailed discussion of this issue.

Early-literacy-letter-knowledge-alphabet

Teaching a child to recognise the letters of the alphabet and the sounds associated with them is fairly straightforward.  However, there are some important details you need to be aware of and we’ve outlined these in our article ‘How to Teach Your Child Phonics’. 

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Pre-Writing Skills

Although we increasingly use electronic devices to type words nowadays, learning to write is still important for young children for a number of reasons…

Writing letters helps children to learn the shapes of them better than just looking at them – it’s a form of multisensory learning6,7.  And when children learn to write whole words this actually helps them to read and spell better too8.  When we write, the physical movement of our hands helps to reinforce our memory of the word.  Typing with a keyboard doesn’t seem to have the same effect.

Writing requires good fine motor skills.  It involves the coordination of small muscles to make precise, synchronised movements of the hands and fingers.  It also needs detailed visual focus and knowledge of letter shapes.

Very young children usually find writing difficult because they don’t have the dexterity of adults.  However, children can improve their writing skills with the right kind of practice, and they can start this when they are still quite young.  For detailed guidance, see our article ‘How to Teach Handwriting’.

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General Knowledge

Studies have shown that it’s important for us to have some background knowledge about the subject and context of what we are reading when we’re trying to make sense of it. 

Children will encounter a wide range of subject material during their school years, so it’s important to provide your child with a variety of books and experiences that will improve their general knowledge and teach them about the world.  So read both fiction and non-fiction books. 

Educational experiences might include visits to places where they can see and discuss the natural world, such as the countryside or safari parks.  You might also want to look at some child-friendly museums or places of historical interest.  

Even very simple things like looking around shops and supermarkets can be learning experiences for young children, especially since so much shopping is done online these days.  Discuss where the various products come from and maybe follow up with a visit to a farm. 

It doesn’t all have to be about books and educational visits, even discussing your child’s feelings and actions at different times can help them to understand why characters in books might behave in a particular way.  And there are some very good educational TV programmes, websites and children’s news programmes out there. 

Developing a good level of general knowledge is something that takes time – years rather than weeks or months, so don’t attempt to cram in a lot of facts about any particular subject.  Just try to vary what your child reads and what experiences they are exposed to.  Over time, they will learn a surprising amount and have an easier time in school as a result.

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Further Information…

If you would like more information about teaching your child to read, click on this link: ‘How  Can I Teach My Child to Read?’

If you would like to know more about teaching your child phonics, see our article “How to Teach Your Child Phonics”.

If you would like to improve your child’s writing skills see our article ‘How to Teach Handwriting’.

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References

  1. Early Literacy: Leading the Way to Success, A Resource for Policymakers.
  2. Cates, C. Early Reading Matters: Long-term Impacts of Shared Bookreading with Infants and Toddlers on Language and Literacy Outcomes. AAP News, May 2017: http://www.aappublications.org/news/2017/05/04/PASLiteracy050417
  3. Early Literacy Development, Reading Rockets: http://www.readingrockets.org/reading-topics/early-literacy-development
  4. The methods used to teach reading: http://www.dyslexics.org.uk/main_method_3.htm
  5. Suortti, O. and Lipponen, L. Phonological awareness and emerging reading skills of two- to five-year-old children. Journal of Early Child Development and Care. Volume 186, 2016 – Issue 11 ( 2016): http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03004430.2015.1126832?src=recsys&journalCode=gecd20&
  6. Longcamp, M. et al. (2005), The influence of writing practice on letter recognition in preschool children: A comparison between handwriting and typing, Acta Psychologica, Vol. 119, Issue 1, May 2005, Pages 67-79: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15823243
  7. The University of Stavanger. “Better learning through handwriting.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 January 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110119095458.htm>.
  8. McGuiness, D. (2002) A Prototype for Teaching the English Alphabet Code, Reading Reform Foundation Newsletter No. 49 page 21: http://www.rrf.org.uk/pdf/nl/49.pdf