Did you know that children are learning to read and write long before they get to school? Children have a motivation to learn about literacy from a very early age and there are actually many steps to reading and writing before teaching the names of the letters. As a speech pathologist working with children and their families, I come across many parents who rate their child’s success before school as being able to name colours, numbers and letters. There is so much more to literacy, language and cognitive development than these three skills alone! Let’s take a look at some of the preliteracy skills you can help your child to develop.
Reading and writing are developed concurrently, not reading before writing. Early ‘scribblings’ are important! A study showed scribbles from four-year-olds from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and USA showed clear differences long before the children could conventionally write. It is therefore important to encourage opportunities for your child to ‘practice’ their developing literacy skills – provide pencils, paper, envelopes and ‘stamps’ and encourage ‘writing’ (and also ‘reading’) in pretend play. You could pretend to write a party invitation, shopping list or ‘take an order’ and see if theirs has the same general form that ours would, even if you have to write a sample for them to see first. You can also encourage pretend reading of maps, menus, newsletters and anything else you might use with print. This is called emergent literacy. Through watching adults and pretending to read and write, children start to learn that literacy is used to ‘get things done’. That is, it is functional and not just an abstract skill learnt at school. It is also not just about sitting and reading books..
Invest in language development. Did you know that the frequency of shared reading experiences, number of books in the home and frequency of library visits relate to the child’s vocabulary development by school? And a child needs to have good understanding of language to be able to understand what they are reading once they start to learn. Giving them the best start, with a large vocabulary prior to reading is a fantastic gift to your child. Don’t just start with the letters!
Rhyming and syllables come first. The strongest indicator of a child successfully reading and writing at school is having well-developed ‘phonological awareness’, or being aware of sounds and that words are made up of sounds. This does not mean knowing the names of letters! The following skills ranging from easier to harder should ideally be introduced before your child starts school:
- clapping/drumming/stamping/hopping/jumping parts of words (syllables)
- detecting if words rhyme (bat, cat – do they sound a bit the same? vs cat, fish)
- producing rhyming words (eg. mr maghetti likes to eat…, mrs sockadile had a ….)
- identifying first sounds in words (eg. I spy something beginning with ‘sssss’ – play with the sound not the letter so a child who can’t read can still play)
Introduce literacy terms. For the young ones, as soon as you have their attention, point to words as you say them, for example the title of a book (normally repeated over at least the first two pages) or point to a repetitive phrase (eg. oh no!, boom crash). This can start to show the child what a word is (ie a set of letters that mean something). You can also point out signs, logos and other familiar words such as their name, PlaySchool, ABC or Spot from a very young age which all help your child to understand what ‘words’ are so that it is not such a foreign concept when they start school. Sight words are involved in reading, just as much as phonics… Around two to three years of age, you can start to use the word ‘word’, for example ‘look at the big long word‘ (they don’t need to be able to read it to see it is long), ‘let’s count how many words are in this sentence’. And what about ‘letter’? For example, ‘there’s S, it’s in your name. S is a letter, it says ‘sssss”, ‘this is a long word, I wonder how many letters are in it?’.
Next time you think of teaching your child to read and write letters before they go to school, think about all of the above. These are the main skills that will help your child to be successful in literacy!