Early Literacy–So Much More Than Reading Words

It seems that this spring has provided us with more than enough cold and cozy weather to encourage cuddling deep into a blanket and reading a book.  Parents often enjoy the opportunity to read to their young children, and our kids love the closeness and contentment that reading aloud can bring.

Parents also get excited when thinking about their child’s ability to pick up her own book and transport herself into a completely different world full of adventure. With preschool registration in full swing, and kindergarten meetings happening all throughout the district, parents often turn their thoughts to how to help their children learn to read.  The Hopkins Early Childhood staff thought it would be helpful to discuss what is involved in Early Literacy–the early skills that children build on in order to learn to read.

We often think of learning the letters and sounds as being the only component of literacy. However, for the young child on her way to preschool or kindergarten, early literacy instruction involves a variety of skills that parents may not have yet thought about, but can encourage during their daily interactions in fun and playful ways. Early Literacy provides a foundation for learning to read–it does not yet jump to the actual act of reading individual words. Parents can support their child’s literacy growth by incorporating these concepts, without feeling a pressure to create early readers. The foundation you are providing will help your child learn to read when she is in school and ready to take on that academic task.


1. Phonological Awareness: This means that a child has an awareness of sounds.  Look at how many sounds are involved in the word phonological! In order to read that word one has to have an awareness of all the little sounds within it. With our own young children we are helping them to become aware of the sounds of the alphabet. We are also helping them understand when sounds are the same–rhyming words.  Nursery rhymes or songs that involve finger plays like “Itsy Bitsy Spider” or “Criss Cross Applesauce” help our children to hear the sounds in words, and make connections from one word to the next. There are no rules when singing rhyming songs–it is just as easy to make up a song or a poem as it is to read it out of a book or memorize one.  A parent can help their child build the skill of phonological awareness by making time during the day to sing songs, play games that involve rhyming or take note with their child when they see a letter in print to clearly state what the sound of that letter is. If you need ideas for new songs to sing, visit the Hennepin County Library Website, where they provide video presentations of songs you can sing with your child:

Hennepin Library Website for songs and fingerplays

2. Print Awareness: Print is everywhere in our lives.  However, for young children print that can not be read is not clearly print.  It is a large amount of squiggles and lines.  When out and about with your child, take the time to point out where there is print.  Symbols can often be a great starting place for this skill because it helps the young child to understand that what they are seeing stands for something else.  This is the idea behind print. We certainly do not want our children to be “branded” early on, but we can use the brands that have familiar symbols to help our children make this connection. In the grocery store or while driving in the car point out the symbols that you see, and talk about what that symbol stands for.  When reading, (whether it is a book or a menu or a grocery list) use your finger to trace under the words as you read out loud, so as to help your child connect the print to what you are saying. Early literacy does not ask that the child is able to read the word, simply that they are making the connection that print has meaning.

3. Print Motivation: We all hope that our children will have the joy of excitedly turning page after page of a book, truly immersing herself in a story that she loves.  This is print motivation–enjoying books and being interested in them. Enjoyment of an activity generally happens when we engage in a low-stress situation which fills us with good feelings.  This is why sitting and reading with our child can and should be a simple act of sharing and caring.  Although we are interested and invested in helping our children to learn to read, sometimes the most helpful way to get them to that goal is by letting go of all the skill building and simply showing our children how much we enjoy being with them to read.
Mem Fox, a beloved picture book author, has a web site with read-aloud information–including examples of read aloud experiences to inspire the telling of even the most repeated and repeated and repeated story books!  She has a short list of helpful hints when reading aloud to children.  Follow the link below for her tips:

Mem Fox’s Read-Aloud Tips

3. Vocabulary: A child will have an easier time reading a word if she recognizes the word and understands what that word means.  For this reason, vocabulary building is an important early literacy activity.  Building a child’s vocabulary is as easy as having a conversation–in fact that is how a parent can best do it!  Our children learn best when they are connected and engaged with the person who cares for them.  When your child talks, listen to what she is saying and then expand on that.  For example:
child: “I played with Bethany today.”
parent: “I saw you playing with her.  You jumped and skipped and galloped.  What else did you do with Bethany?”
child: “We had a snack.”
parent: “You had a delicious snack.”

A conversation with your child provides excellent opportunities for introducing words, explaining things she has questions about, and builds the habit of open communication–something we all hope will continue into the early teen years!

5. Letter Knowledge:  Here is the most familiar skill for parents.  Note that although it is the one we are most likely to be working on, it is simply one of 6 skills that build the foundation of early literacy.  We want our children to know each letter and the sound that it makes.  In order to do this, a child must first be able to tell the differences between the letters.  Each letter is made up of shapes. For example, the letter A is triangular, the letter R involves a triangle and a circle, the letters O, Q, G, C and D all have a fairly circular shape.  This is why it is beneficial to help your child find similarities and differences between the shapes. Talk about the shapes around you and compare and contrast them.  Talk about the rounded lines and the straight lines, the points and curves.  You are helping your child train her eye for the differences between the letters of the alphabet. In addition, have alphabet books available for your child, sing the alphabet song, write the first letter of your child’s name and talk about it’s sound and how it is shaped.

6. Narrative Skills: This is my favorite. Narrative skills involve the ability to tell or hear the story–to see a story as a series of events and to understand how it is important to the reader. This is where learning to read the words takes shape and form and substance. T. Berry Brazelton M.D. (a medical doctor specializing in child development) was quoted as saying “We can teach children anything at any age, but at what cost?” If we as parents get lost in the purely academic function of the letters and their sounds, we could sacrifice the pure love of reading–the joy of the story. A parent can encourage narrative skill building by agreeing to read a favorite story over and over and over and over and over again. When a child hears a favorite story repeated, she learns to anticipate the action, understand the storyline, build on her memory of the story she loves.
Storytelling can be a valuable way to encourage narrative skills.  Our children are always interested in stories of what they did when they were “little”. They are also generally interested in stories about what parents did when they were little. Children often like to listen to a review of the day they just had.  Many children hang on every word of a story that a grandpa or parent will make up on the spot.  Favorite characters can come alive in a child’s imagination when an engaging storyteller agrees to provide a tale. Telling a story to a child allows the child to enjoy the ups and downs of a character’s antics completely in her own mind–building creativity, imagination and a sense of the gloriousness of story.

We are providing a foundation for our children when we teach them early literacy skills.  We can help them on the path to reading success by engaging in fun activities which focus on their interests and developmental abilities.  It won’t be too long before we are watching our children deeply engrossed in the latest novel, not even looking up from the book when we call them to dinner. So enjoy the time we have with children on our laps, begging us for one more story, one more chance to read that well used, torn up, battered, beloved children’s book.

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