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When your kids are still little, doing pre reading activities might be the last thing on your mind. After all, you might still be trying to potty train, getting their fine motor skills up to par, or spending all day singing Baby Shark. (Or is that just my house?)

The truth is, kids are ready for pre reading activities as soon as they’re born. These activities are designed to improve your child’s awareness of language, sound, and the printed word, amid other pre reading skills. Even babies like to listen to their parents talk!

But if you’re interested in more explicit pre reading activities, I’ve got a great selection to get you started. Once you get the hang of how to help your child improve each skill, you’ll start coming up with a million ideas on your own. Because you already got this!

There's so many more pre reading activities you can do besides sing the ABC's. Here's how to build phonological awareness & language skills!

Pre reading activities for building phonological awareness

“My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean”

This common song also has a lesser known game associated with it. The game consists of having all listeners alternate standing or squatting every time they hear a word that starts with the letter B. You can see how this gets silly at the chorus when you sing, “Bring back, bring back, oh bring back my bonnie to me!” 

Rhyming Songs

Kids love familiar songs, but you can tweak them slightly to help with their phonological awareness. Try changing part of a favorite song like so. Instead of singing the typical “Baa Baa Black Sheep” lyrics, try “Baa Baa black sheep, have you any eggs?” and then make up new lyrics that rhyme like “Yes sir, yes sir, as many as your legs.” 

Tongue Twisters

Teaching kids to say tongue twisters like “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” helps them notice alliterations, or words that start with the same letter. While alternating alliterations like “She sells seashells by the seashore” accomplish the same task. 

Hand Clapping Games

Games like “Miss Mary Mack,” where each syllable corresponds to a clap of the hands, are a huge help. They teach kids how words can be broken up into different sounds all strung together. I’ve also seen families cheer on their picky eater at dinner time by chanting and clapping along with the little’s name. Who wouldn’t want to eat broccoli to a chorus of adoring fans cheering “Jay-son! Jay-son!”?

Pre reading activities for building short term memory

pre reading activities

Play the Memory Card Game

There are a lot of memory games out there, but you also can use a simple deck of cards. You know the drill. Flip everything upside down and find all the matches!

Memorization (the fun kind)

Repeating songs, short stories, and poems over and over strengthens a child’s ability to hold onto different pieces of information, like the next line or stanza. Consider having “poetry and pretzels” snack time one morning, or learning a new hiking song every week. 

Sing in Rounds

Speaking of singing, teaching small children to sing in rounds is also an EXCELLENT way to build their working memory. Even simple songs like “row, row, row your boat” become incredibly challenging to a child when done in rounds. Consider using the buddy system!

Board Games

Playing games like checkers, chutes and ladders, and Sorry! are all great ways for kids to practice sustained attention. They’re also great because the mental muscles used to plan actions ahead of time are built on a child’s working memory. 

Related: 10 FUN Preschool Board Games

Pre reading activities for building vocabulary


(Was that too much? Maybe I should have put it in italics too…)

But seriously. The best way to build your child’s vocabulary is to read early and often. Get on a first name basis with the children’s room librarian. Find picture books and board books and books with flaps and books that you can flash light through and books with textures, etc ad nauseum. 

Don’t be afraid of reading the same book twenty times in a row. That’s helping your child pick up on nuances. Don’t worry about their short attention span meaning they really hate reading. 

DO make reading a habit. Read every day at the same time or on the same comfy couch, and make it something they look forward to. Do read books about experiences they’re going through (new baby, new bed, going on an airplane, etc). Do read about things they see in their daily life, like the birds on their nature walk, or what goes on in a fire station. The more books you read, the more words they’ll soak up and add to their vocabulary.  

The Concentration Game (Hand Clapping)

“The game is called (clap clap clap) concentration (clap clap clap).” This game is great for building vocabulary. When you have a rule like “category is: animals,” it forces kids to think quickly about as many different animals names as they can. Even if the child “loses” by repeating or not coming up with an animal, they’ve still won. Listening to their clapping partner name different animals (or whatever the category was, like colors, foods, places, etc) helps them learn new words. 

Go on a Field Trip

One of the best ways to build a child’s vocabulary is to expose them to new things. How could your 4 year old conceive of a thing like a canyon unless they’d seen one themselves? (Or read about it, but we already covered reading to your child.) Natural spaces, children’s museums, road trips, and zoos are all great places to point out new things and provide the proper word for them. 

Related: 40+ Fantastic Field Trips for Kids

Speak in Synonyms 

Instead of always telling your child to brush their teeth, try asking them to scrub their gums and first year molars before bed! Or switch out words like “big” and “little” for more sophisticated counterparts in daily speech. You can also spin things around and ask your child if they can come up with another word for car, walk, toy, pet, or whatever you happen to pass on the road. 

Pre reading activities for building letter awareness

pre reading activities

Scavenger Letter Hunts

Grab some plastic or magnet letters (or even just some written on a piece of paper) and a box with sand, loose cotton, or other siftable material. Then hide all the letters and let your kid find all of them! As a bonus, most kids love the tactile feelings in this activity, and you can add spoons or scoops to turn this into a fine motor skill activity, too!

Point out Environmental Print

Environmental print is anything written out in the world. Your mail, stickers on the air conditioner, signs in stores, along the road, and on billboards are all fair game. You can make a game of environmental print, like playing Eye Spy in the checkout line or on a drive. You can also teach them to play the ‘license plate game’ on roadtrips, or have conversations about the signs you see. Ask questions like, “what would happen if that stop sign weren’t there?”

Letter puzzles

Puzzles like these ones from Melissa & Doug are great for teaching your child to recognize the shape of letters. This puzzle actually goes a step further in helping them connect those letters to a word!

Play “One of These Things…”

If you wrote the following on a sheet of paper “r r r n r,” would your child be able to recognize that one of those is not like the others? How about “l i l l l?” 

Games like these teach children that even slight differences in shape mean a lot when it comes to letters!

Pre reading activities for building fine motor skills

I’ve already covered this topic extensively! Here’s a great post with 85+ activities you can use to build your toddler or preschooler’s fine motor skills

Aside from that though, encourage your child to write, doodle, and draw as often as possible. Get them so used to that pencil in their hand it starts to feel second nature! 

Is my child ready to read? 

Only you can be the judge of that, but if you feel like your child is ready to move out of pre-reading activities and onto actual phonics lessons, we’ve got some great curriculum recommendations!