You want to get your preschooler off to a great start with reading – but how do you even teach the alphabet anyway?
Okay, let’s hit pause on that for a second – because before you even worry about letters, there are 4 other essential pre-reading skills to build with your little one.
And if that sounds like a lot of work, you can relax because most parents do a lot of this stuff naturally through daily life with their preschoolers.
In this post, you’ll learn what the pre-reading skills are that your child needs to develop, how to help them get there – and how to know when they’ve got it.
Prefer video? Here’s my run-down of these five pre reading skills from the YouTube channel.
Pre-reading Skill #1 – motivation to read & love of reading
If you want your child to be an enthusiastic reader, help them to see reading as a fun and worthwhile activity. We all want to do what we enjoy doing so let’s help them to love books.
How? Well, your kids want to be just like you – so read yourself when they’re around (I know, another thing to do, sorry) and let them see you as a reader. Tell them about your book and what it’s about – and how much you’re enjoying it – and ask them about the books they like too.
Read stories at bedtime but don’t make that the only time you read with them. A story’s great for winding down at the end of the day but it’s also a great conversation starter any time – or a way to get your kid to calm down if they’re upset – or just grab five minutes of quality time together. (And an option when they want the TV on and you’re trying to hold off on the mindless staring for a little longer.)
Reading more stories is never a bad thing – and can help develop the other pre-reading skills that are coming up in a second.
Visit the library together to browse for books and look at the different types of books available and do swaps with friends to widen the choice of reading material (and maybe even get out of the cycle of reading the same book every night for weeks.)
What to look for – how to know your child’s enthusiastic about books
Ask you for stories during the day?
Pick up books and pretend to read them?
Recite books they know well?
Look forward to bedtime stories?
Talk about favourite stories?
Have favourite books they want to hear over and over?
How to encourage your child to enjoy books and reading
Read to your child daily
Have books (fiction and non fiction) readily available to them so they can choose to look at a book any time
Talk about stories you’ve read together
Read actual paper books yourself when you can
Suggest reading as an activity and offer to read to them
Look at non-fiction books together and talk about them
Visit the library
Pre-reading Skill #2 – develop good talking and listening
It’s pretty obvious that before a child can learn to read they need language skills. They need to be able to talk and make themselves understood and they need to be able to listen and take in the information that they’re hearing. How can we hope they’ll understand the meaning of printed words in a book if they can’t express themselves or understand what’s being said to them?
We can’t – and that’s a reason to be suspicious of programs that promise to teach toddlers to read. Toddlers aren’t ready to read. They need to focus on learning to talk – and so do preschoolers – because it’s a long way from saying your first ‘dada’ to understanding and being able to follow a series of instructions or explaining who hurt you at nursery and how it happened.
Making the time to chat every day – not as a special appointment unless you really want to – but in passing as life happens, is the best way you can develop your child’s talking and listening. Even better, it’ll also help to build a wider vocabulary of words they understand and can use.
So when your child starts telling you one of their super long stories while running around the room, they’re really developing their language skills and you’re not having to do anything except listen.
What to look for
Can your child:
Tell stories back to you in their own words?
Create their own stories and tell them?
Answer questions about familiar stories or non-fiction books?
Talk in simple ways about where a story happens (setting) or who the book’s about (characters)?
How to encourage talking and listening skills
Ask your child questions about their day and encourage them if you get answers like, ‘I don’t know,’ or yes / no.
Tell them about your own day to encourage them and give them ideas.
Chat about what you’re doing and the things you can see – even if it’s just washing up or driving to school.
Help them to tell made-up stories and join in with them when you can.
Ask open ended questions while you read or watch together to encourage your child to think and express their ideas.
‘What if?’ type questions work well – like these examples. What if the wolf didn’t like eating pigs? What if Elsa had told Anna about her powers?
Encourage them to retell familiar stories in – this works well in the car or while out for a walk.
Pre-reading skill #3 Awareness of print & what it’s for
Children also need to understand what print is and that it has a purpose. It might be knowing that a road sign is telling you the way to another town, or a sign above the aisles of a supermarket is helping you find the milk and vegetables. Knowing that those little symbols on the pages of their books are words – and that we use them to tell the story – is another part of being aware of print. But that’s a process you’re already a long way into…
…Do you remember when you first read stories to your little one? How they grabbed the book out of your hands and tried to shove it into their mouth? Or how you started reading the words to them and they wandered off – because at that stage they weren’t able to understand what books were or what they were for.
Children’s appreciation of books develops from when they’re babies
That little baby / toddler wasn’t ready to listen to the words you were saying because they didn’t understand them – books meant nothing to them then. Just another thing to mouth and then dump on the carpet.
But slowly they started to stick around a little longer. They began to see meaning in the pictures on the pages. After a few months, you noticed that they could handle more than one sentence per page without getting restless. Maybe they began to recognise things in the pictures and point them out to you – they has started to find meaning on the pages.
Now, if you’re thinking about getting them ready to read themselves, you can probably read them a pretty long book without them moving (too much).
So where they are now, they should be able to pick up a book and hold it correctly – because they should see right away if the pictures are upside down. They will also likely know to move through the book from front to back – and possibly left to right. Try following the words with your finger as you read to encourage that – and show them that the words you’re saying are coming from the words on the page.
But there’s more to print than books – words are everywhere.
“YouTube!” yelled my four year old the other day – and so I knew that he’s starting to notice the words all around him – the environmental print. He can’t read yet, but he saw the symbol and knew it meant something – I’d just switched on YouTube.
It’s another way that children begin to see the purpose of print and words in their own lives. From the house number on your front door to the street name at the end of the road or the Aldi sign when you go shopping. Your child’ll begin to notice these things and realise they mean something – and they’re worth paying attention to.
What to look for – how to know your child understands what print’s for
Do they say ‘YouTube’ or ‘Netflix’ when the symbol comes up on the TV?
Or yell the name of the supermarket or McDonalds as soon as the sign comes into view?
Do they automatically hold books the right way up?
When they move through a book, do they go from front to back?
Do they know to keep their hands off the print so you can read the words to them?
Do they realise that the picture is helping to tell the story?
How to encourage your child to see that words are important and useful:
Follow the words with your finger to show them how the symbols on the page help you tell the story
Ask them to keep their hands off the pages because you need to see the words to read
Hand them a book upside down to see if they correct it
Start reading a story from the end and wait for them to react
Point out common signs and symbols and ask if they know what they are
Have them help you find the way to new places by looking for signs
Okay, so now let’s talk about phonological awareness – finding the big pieces of words.
Pre-reading Skill #4 – phonological awareness
Before your child’ll be ready to learn phonics, they need to develop phonological awareness. This means hearing that words can be broken up into smaller sounds – like syllables, onsets and rimes (the beginning and end sounds of a word.)
You’ll start to notice that they can play with the beginning and end sounds of words – and this is especially obvious if your child enjoys rhyming games. They might start to make up nicknames or nonsense words that you can see are based on real words that they know well. Anna Banana, for example.
Or if you read them a familiar rhyming story, they might finish a sentence with the wrong word – but one that rhymes with the right word.
This ability to segment words – even in simple play activities – is preparing them to be able to blend letters together to read.
What to look for when you’re developing phonological awareness as a pre-reading skill
Does your child come up with rhymes for familiar words spontaneously?
Can he or she supply a missing rhyme in a nursery rhyme or story?
Do they make up nonsense rhymes?
Can they change the beginning of a word – pet-get-met?
Can they clap the syllables of a word?
How to encourage phonological awareness development?
Learn nursery rhymes together
Switch around the beginning and end sounds of words – fork and spoon / spork and foon, table and chair / chable and tair. (This is all oral word play – don’t write anything down, just switch sounds around and make funny words together. Giggling is a bonus.)
Read rhyming stories together and pause before some of the rhyming words to let your child finish the sentence
Sing songs and clap along with the rhythm
Make up silly rhymes together and encourage them to have fun with words and experiment
Ask them questions to challenge them “Do you know any other words that rhyme with ‘cat’?” or “What else starts with ‘s’?”
And finally, let’s talk about the pre-reading skill everyone knows about – knowledge of letters and the alphabet.
Pre-reading Skill #5 – knowledge of letters
This is the point where they learn to break words down further – into individual sounds (phonemes) instead of syllables. To read anything at all, children need to learn the letters and their associated sounds. This is the beginning of phonics and usually comes at the beginning of formal education.
If your child’s not old enough for school yet but they’re showing an interest in learning letters (by asking you what certain letters are, for example) – and you’re covering the other 4 skills we already mentioned above – then you can start to introduce the alphabet to them.
You can absolutely extend your child’s interest in letters and sounds before school starts through play. Leaving letter resources around for your child to play with and answering their questions are a great start.
If you’d like to encourage them more, try leaving their name in various places around the house for them to find. You could even leave the letters in different places for them to find and put together.
Or why not try and ice-dig activity where you freeze a handful of colourful letters in a tub of water and have your child dig them out and tell you each one? (It doesn’t matter if they don’t know them all because they might pick up new ones during the activity – and it’s also about having fun together.) Ice digs are great because they’re easy to set up, kids love them and apart from getting a big wet, it’s not even very messy.
What to look for when developing knowledge of letters and sounds
Does your child recognise their own name? Could they tell you the first letter?
Can they tell you other words that start with the same sound?
Can they find the letters of their name in books or around them?
Do they ask questions about words and point out text around them?
Do they make up nonsense words using magnetic letters or similar and ask you what their creation says?
How to encourage it
Have alphabet resources at home for your child to play with (but be aware of choking hazards for small children)
Magnetic letters are great, but you might also enjoy alphabet threading sets, pebbles with the letters pained on and foam letters for the bath
Talk about their name and the letters in it and compare to other names e.g. siblings’
If you see that they’re interested and enjoying learning letters, introduce new words like mum and dad and include those letters in your activities.
Flash cards are useful but make it a game to keep them hooked in (snap is fun, so is pelmanism)
Final thoughts about developing pre-reading skills
A lot of pre reading skill development happens naturally as part of your everyday activities. By knowing what these essential reading skills for preschoolers are, you can build on them every day without making any extra effort – unless you want to.
Related: Free printable alphabet flashcards