You want your child to be as ready as they can be when they enter kindergarten. Pre-reading skills can be nurtured long before your child reaches school age and even before they learn the letters of the alphabet. The following article outlines some of the basic methods for nurturing these opportunities for your young child.
- It’s never too early to create a foundation for literacy. Recognizing and attempting to use language for everyday communication are important steps that precede reading. As you speak to your child and they speak to you, you are building the groundwork for what literacy is all about. The play that they engage in helps to develop many pre-reading and pre-writing skills. Your child starts to pick up messages about reading and writing from a very young age. Every time they tote around a book and look at the pictures or ‘pretend’ to read, every scribble they make on a page (or wall!) is preparing them for the practice of reading and writing. There are many opportunities to send positive messages and build a foundation for literacy from the time they are toddlers.
- Speaking, listening, singing, poems, and rhymes all set your child up for reading. Before your child uses language to read and write, they will use it for communication through listening and speaking. Talk to your child a lot. Ask them questions and encourage theirs. Tell them about what you did today— this is a form of story telling. Name things in the world around you to build their vocabulary. This includes everything from naming the foods that they eat to the animals you see in the zoo. Use real grammar (as opposed to baby talk) so they hear how sentences are put together.
- Build phonemic awareness— awareness of the sounds and patterns of language. Sing to your child and with your child. Play a variety of music for them.
- Play with language. Play rhyming games and make up poems. Encourage your child to notice language in any enjoyable way that comes naturally. Learning to recognize or imitate everyday sounds builds this awareness of language. Noticing the difference between a rooster crowing and a dog barking or between a doorbell and a car horn builds these concepts of sounds in a fun way.
CDs of children’s music are great at emphasizing these concepts. Be silly and have fun with this practice.
- Read to your child every day and let them participate in the reading. Have a special time and place set aside each day to read quality children’s books of different levels to your child. When reading together ask them questions, let them share their excitement, talk about the pictures, have them name things they recognize, encourage them to make up pretend stories, allow them to choose the book and turn the pages, let them say predictable parts of the story, they can repeat sounds and words or make the sounds of animal characters. Any way that they can take an active role will help to nurture their engagement in reading practices.
- They are developing concepts of print important to understanding what books are all about. Examples of this are how we read from left to right and from top to bottom of the page. They are also developing an understanding of how words and pictures carry meaning. Point to the words as you read to demonstrate this. These are their first experiences comprehending a text and so are very important.
- Also let them just sit back and enjoy the story telling. Make it the most comforting, magical time of the day. Bedtime is obviously a great time. As your child drifts off to the sound of a good story, they are having wonderful experiences of books and reading. These memories will stay with them for a lifetime. Let different family members, including older siblings share in this very special time. If your child has a hard time maintaining attention or becomes squirmy, don’t push it and make it unpleasant for them. Try sharing books for shorter periods of time, even if only for a few minutes. If it feels forced to them, they will not enjoy it and will develop negative associations of reading. But more than likely, your child will greatly enjoy the individual attention.
- Carry books with you and take advantage of idle time (such as waiting in the doctor’s office) to share a book. Find out when your local library has story hour and bring your child so they see reading as a fun activity that takes place out in the world and with other people. And, while you’re there, check out a big stack of books! --Buy cloth and board books designed for toddlers. The pages are thick and easier for them to turn. These books use textures, sounds, and other interactive features to engage pre-readers. Let these books ‘belong’ to your child. Let them carry them around, look at the pictures, and show them to everyone. They are starting to develop a sense of ownership of reading. These may seem more like toys than books, but it’s a great way for them to start.
- Build concepts like recognizing colors, numbers, shapes, matching, and creating patterns. Colors are a code just as words are a code. Numbers and counting concepts show kids how one thing can represent another, as in written text. Knowing the difference between a circle, square, and triangle comes before the recognition of the distinct shapes of letters that must be distinguished in order to read. Reading requires recognizing patterns. Matching objects or pictures is a way for them to demonstrate that they recognize the similarities (in shape or color) and that they can apply it. For these reasons, practicing these concepts through play builds a great foundation for reading.
- Play is the emphasis. Look for toys designed for your toddler to pre-school age children that create opportunities for developing understanding of these concepts. Did you know that your child was learning to read when they made a pattern of red, blue, red, blue with their foam blocks? This play is developmentally appropriate for these young children.
- A two year old does not need to recognize the letters of the alphabet to be building a foundation for reading and writing practice. To familiarize your child with the alphabet, you will have toys that show the letters of the alphabet, sing the alphabet song to them, and practice the letters in their name, but the idea is that learning to recognize letters and their corresponding sounds is not the only way that they are beginning to read.
- Fill your home with print. Reading comes in many forms. Have a variety of things to read in every room of your house. This includes books of all levels, magazines, newspapers, recipes, instructions for projects and games, colorful brochures and pamphlets (such as for travel), and maps. While your young child might not be ‘reading’ these materials (or even necessarily show interest in all of them) they are seeing examples of how diverse and intriguing print materials can be. They will develop curiosity and interest over time. Of course, your young child does not yet know how to care for materials, so you may not want to keep expensive materials within reach, but instead share them together or just look for less expensive materials. Garage sales are a good place to build a variety of books for home.
- Fill your home with opportunities for drawing and writing. Nurture an early appreciation for drawing and writing. Keep a variety paper of all shapes, sizes, and colors as well as markers, pens, pencils, colored pencils, paints, and crayons on hand. Encourage your child to doodle, draw, and color. Seeing the possibilities of expression in written form and making it fun for them will help them to develop an appreciation for the value of writing in all its forms.
- Your child will continue to develop their fine motor skills that will help them grip crayons and pencils. Recognize their current stage of development by providing jumbo sized pencils and crayons. Manipulative activities (activities done with the hands) such as molding play-dough and non-toxic children’s clay, sorting and stacking, putting together puzzles, tracing, and crafts that require use of fingers and hands build hand muscles and strengthen fine motor skills. This development is closely related to vision and the coordination between hands and eyes. Folding paper and using children’s scissors and glue sticks with guidance are all good ways for your three or four year old to use their hands and to nurture their creativity. Working zippers, buttons, snaps, and Velcro on clothing and toys are also good practical ways to develop fine motor skills. Your child’s young hands will not yet be able to grip a pencil with school-age mastery or form perfect letters with straight lines, so give them time. Encourage all their efforts. (See the article “Physical Development Milestones/ Fine Motor Skills” at the bottom of this page for more on what you can expect from your two, three, and four year old.)
- Recognizing pictures and patterns is an important pre-reading skill. How does your child know which box of cereal is their favorite? Which bag has cookies and which has crackers? It is because they recognize the colors, pictures, icons, cartoons, and photos on the packaging. This is pre-reading. Let your child help you in the grocery store and kitchen. Set up opportunities for them by giving them choices and asking for their help. If they are starting to learn their letters and sounds, they might recognize the beginning ‘C’ on the package and know the sound it makes. You can then ask them, does this say ‘cookies’ or ‘crackers.’ They will know the answer, not because they have read the whole word but because they recognize the packaging. This kind of predicting and using the context are the same skills they will learn to apply in school and which, by the way, we use when we read.
- Encourage your child to recognize environmental print. The classic example of environmental print is when your child yells out “McDonald’s!” when they see a set of golden arches out the car window. As with recognizing the bag of cookies, they did not actually read the word ‘McDonald’s.’ If you wrote the word on a piece of paper (taking it out of its context) your two year old wouldn’t recognize the word. Still encourage what your child notices as if they are reading, because they are. Ask them to point out what they recognize out the car window including street signs. Again, this is closely related to colors, shapes, and icons.
- Set the example; show your child how you use reading and writing. As parents, you know that the best way to get your child to do something is to model it. If you read and write yourself your child will get a positive message. Point out what you are doing. Write notes for family members and ask them if they want to add anything to the note (a message that you would then write). Show them that you are making a grocery list and ask them for suggestions. Let them catch you reading your own book or magazine instead of watching TV. Maybe they will go pick up their own book. They are picking up on all the examples you set.
- Take advantage of opportunities to share reading and writing. If you spend Sunday morning sitting with the newspaper at the kitchen table, check to see if it has a children’s section with kid-friendly articles, games, and puzzles. Pass it to your child. Just the practice of holding the newspaper and looking at the pictures starts them on the road to reading habits. Make this a special time. You can also pull them to your lap and read the kid’s cartoons or articles to them. If you are paying bills or writing letters, let your child help you by folding the paper or putting the stamps on the envelopes. Let them know that they are a big help. Including your child in activities involving reading and writing, even in a small way, sends them a message that literacy is valuable.
- Grow with them as they grow and develop their skills. Recognize the skills that your child is building and continue to challenge them. Present them with increasingly advanced opportunities as they show readiness. Provide materials that reflect their growing interest and abilities. By the time your child reaches kindergarten, he or she will have a distinct advantage over children who have not had practice with these activities. This helps to ensure that your child will take full advantage of every new learning opportunity presented to them.
The reading efforts of your child will someday build into more focused, academic pursuits. For now, your two, three, or four year old is getting ready to read as they begin to explore the world around them. Becoming aware of these processes can help you to take full advantage of teachable opportunities with your child. Most importantly: have fun. Send a light, positive message about learning, play, reading, and writing. Your child’s natural inquisitiveness will get them hooked and they will thrive.
Susan Niz, M.Ed.