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Before I was a parent, I had no idea what pre reading skills were. I assumed (like I bet many of you did) that kindergarten was when everything related to literacy started.
Now, of course, I know better. I’ve learned that if you want to raise a reader, there are plenty of things you need to do before trying to teach that “buh-ah-tuh” are the sounds in “bat.”
Some parents seem to intuitively know how to build these skills in their child. They sing and speak and read with their children all day long, and as a result they have instinctive readers. Other parents, perhaps those who struggled with reading themselves, have a more difficult time knowing what we should do to help our children.
Thankfully, there’s a series of skills we can all practice teaching our children, and some different ages at which to learn them.
What are the most important pre reading skills?
Before kids can even think about learning to read, there are a few cognitive building blocks that need to be in place first.
Phonological awareness is understanding the different sounds that make up language. A child can’t learn that B makes the “buh” sound unless they know the “buh” sound exists.
Part of phonological awareness is knowing that words rhyme, have multiple syllables, and follow certain patterns. Knowing tense suffixes like “-ed,” “-ing,” and “-ly” are also included here.
Vocabulary Skills for Pre Reading
It’s much easier for new readers to decode words when they have a mental bank of words. In addition, a large vocabulary is associated with much better reading comprehension when it comes to reading whole sentences and eventually paragraphs.
This is one of the least intuitive skills. However, everyone knows kids need to know the names of the 26 English letters before they can start learning to read.
In order for children to successfully read sentences, paragraphs, or little stories, they’ll need to have a decent working memory. Otherwise, they’ll get to the end of the sentence and forget what they’d decoded at the beginning, meaning they have to start the sentence all over. This struggle is frequently seen in children who have ADHD or Autism, both of whom struggle with working memory.
Fine Motor Abilities
Children need to be able to hold a pencil correctly and use the right amount of pressure before they can learn to write. They’ll also need to control the pencil (or pen, crayon, marker, whatever) to make small letter shapes.
When should I start working on pre reading skills with my child?
As soon as your child is born, they start learning pre reading skills. Babbling, grabbing your fingers, and quieting when you sing are all examples of an infant’s budding cognitive and fine motor development. All of that counts!
From birth to your baby’s first birthday, focus on talking and singing to your baby and reading chunky board books. For books, pick ones with large pictures (and highly contrasting colors in the first few months). You can also have books with fun textures, flaps, or mirrors. Most of all, make reading fun for your child! You want to develop positive associations in their mind around reading, so snuggle up and don’t force it if they get fussy.
From their first to second birthday, continue to read lots of books. The books can correspond with new experiences in their life, like potty training or traveling, or simply be things they’re already familiar with. In addition, you can narrate what you’re doing (“Mommy’s making dinner right now. See? I’m stirring with a spoon.”) to help them learn words for common actions and items. You can also elaborate on single words they say. (“Dog, that’s right. It’s a big, brown dog on a walk.”) Scribbling is also a great activity for kids to practice at this age.
From their second to third birthday, keep building reading into your daily habits and routines, especially around naptime and bedtime. Yes, you might get stuck reading Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever five times a day, every day, until they have it memorized and finally want to read a new book. It’s ok! It’s helping them build their vocabulary. You can also add weekly library trips into your rotation. (This is my daughter’s favorite part of the week!) In addition, encourage them to think more deeply and express themselves more clearly by asking questions and starting conversations from their answers. Finally, take time to improve their fine motor skills.
Three-Year-Olds Pre Reading Skills
Keep doing everything you have been doing, just scale it to keep with their booming cognition. Read, talk, sing, and write with them often. You can also get magnetic letters, letter puzzles, or foam letters for bathtime. This helps introduce them explicitly to the different letters (and, in your conversations, to their sounds). Also, continue to let them paint, scribble, and draw on anything you can find!
Here’s where things really start getting fun. Four year olds can start sitting still long enough for more complex stories. This means they can understand more about plot and characterization. You can also start helping them become aware of “environmental print,” such as signs in stores, on the road, and on billboards. Feel free to label things around your house, or your child’s possessions with their name, too! This helps them understand that literacy is important for daily adult life. When conversing, use more varied vocabulary (‘gorgeous’ or ‘beautiful’ instead of simply pretty, or ‘gigantic’ for simply ‘big,’ etc). Keep providing plenty of drawing and scribbling opportunities, too!
After the age of four, most kids are transitioning into phonics and literacy lessons at school or at home. At that point, the pre reading skill building stage comes to an end, and actually learning to read starts.
If you’re looking for a curriculum to support you in teaching your child to read, we have a few suggestions! Compare ten top learn-to-read programs on this post.
More preschool resources:
85+ Fine Motor Activities for Toddlers- Guaranteed to Keep Them Busy!
Books about Nature for Kids: 50+ Recommendations for all Ages!
Homeschooling Preschool: 5 Tips to Get You Started
Hillary is a former teacher who went rogue and became a freelance writer. When not offering support and advice to homeschooling families, she tends to her own garden, family, and cat. You can connect with her on her website, homegrownhillary.com.