Children love being read to and doing so is one of the greatest things a parent can do to help develop reading skills within their child. These pre-reading skills develop naturally, but can also be taught and encouraged from birth through the early years of childhood development.
Shortly after birth, and within the first few months of life, babies begin experimenting with language. Young babies coo and babble as they try to imitate the sounds and rhythms of adult talk. They try to imitate facial expressions and gestures as their caretakers hold and play with them.
Developing Reading Skills in Babies
Young babies quickly begin to make associations with the sound of specific words and meaning. Their faces may light up with excitement at the mention of the word “puppy” or “park” and they may shriek in delight at the phrase, “Daddy is home!” Even as young as babyhood, children are developing reading skills as their language skills develop. (For more information on the impact of oral language on reading success, see this article: The Impact of Oral Language Development on Reading Success.)
At first, children delight in interactive songs, rhymes and finger plays. Experts strongly encourage parents to play peek-a-boo and patty-cake with their babies. Some doctors even use that same parent-baby interaction to determine if baby if developing as he should be. Before a year of age, it is common for babies to have a strong interest in board books or alphabet blocks, even if these literacy tools are used mostly for teething relief.
Developing Reading Skills in Todlers
Once children grow out of the baby stage and can be identified as a toddlers, they learn that the symbols associated with language and their toys carry meaning. At first, they use physical and visual clues surrounding the print to identify meaning. They recognize McDonald’s not by the letters in the word but by the familiar golden arches. They recognize a stop sign not by the letters s-t-o-p, but by the bright red octagon at an intersection. This is called environmental print and it is a very important pre-reading skill. (For more on environmental print, see these articles: Environmental Print, Encouraging Emergent Literacy, and Pre-Reading Skills: How to Prepare Your Child to Learn to Read).
Developing Reading Skills in Preschoolers
As children grow from toddlers and into the preschool years, they begin to make more specific associations, such as the understanding that letters are symbols that represent meaning or sounds. They learn that letters have meaning and sounds. Multiple letters make up words, and multiple words are found in books, magazines and on lists. Preschool aged children may being to identify letters and process their sounds, connecting their spoken word with meaning. This is known as the alphabetic principle and studies suggest that both formal and informal instruction of the alphabet is beneficial to reading success.
Activities to Develop Reading Skills
Read Aloud to Your Child and Talk About the Stories
While there are many instructional systems that can prepare a child to read, research suggests that the single most important activity that aides in the building of pre-reading skills is being read to. Parents should choose books of high quality that allow both parent-child participation. Asking predictive and analytical questions will increase vocabulary and comprehension. Experts agree that children should talk about the pictures, retell stories, discuss their favorite parts, and request multiple readings of the same stories. It is the talk that surrounds storybook reading that influences pre-reading skills, helping children bridge stories they read with their own lives.
Parents should choose books of high quality that allow both parent-child participation. Asking predictive and analytical questions will increase vocabulary and comprehension. Experts agree that children should talk about the pictures, retell stories, discuss their favorite parts, and request multiple readings of the same stories. It is the talk that surrounds storybook reading that influences pre-reading skills, helping children bridge stories they read with their own lives. This in turn encourages children to move beyond themselves to what they can imagine as well. (For more on the importance of reading aloud to chidlren, see these articles: 13 Ways to Encourage Vocabulary Development By Reading Aloud, Milestones in Literacy Development, Making the Most of Read Aloud to Your Child, and Sunday Morning Reading).
Provide Opportunities to Play With Letters and Print
Another beneficial activity for young children to develop reading skills is the opportunity to use what they have learned. They need to practice what they know about print. This may take many forms. Children can participate in dramatic play where they imitate characters and roles from familiar books. They may pretend read by retelling a familiar story by the use of pictures. They may scribble or draw lines in efforts of writing notes, stories and labels. Allowing unlimited access to personal libraries in the home and regular visits to the school or public library are also encourages. All these activities have been proven to help promote the life long love of reading.
Provide a Print Rich Environment
Most importantly, experts agree that the best way to develop reading skills in the birth to preschool age years, and the best way to promote reading readiness is to expose children to an environment rich with print. This means that books are always available, toy bins are labeled, a picture-word routine or schedule is posted. A rich print environment also means that children are exposed to the various form of print through the modeling of parents and adults. Children should see adults reading and writing, making lists and referring to specific labeled items, such as a specific box of cereal in the pantry. Homes filled with language and a wide variety of print, literacy play, storybook reading, and writing allow children to experience to joy of reading and writing while practicing and mastering the basic concepts of pre-reading skills that are such strong indicators of future reading success.
I’m Sarah, an educator turned stay-at-home-mama of five! I’m the owner and creator of Stay At Home Educator, a website about intentional teaching and purposeful learning in the early childhood years. I’ve taught a range of levels, from preschool to college and a little bit of everything in between. Right now my focus is teaching my children and running a preschool from my home. Credentials include: Bachelors in Art, Masters in Curriculum and Instruction.