Literacy skills are the foundation of all learning and serve as a pillar for cognitive, social-emotional, and physical development. Children first acquire basic literacy skills at home and then build on them when they start early childhood education.
Literacy skills enable smooth communication between children and the people around them. Preschoolers who can read and write are typically good problem solvers, are independent-minded, and have a strong command of language.
Both families and teachers play a significant role in promoting literacy and language development for preschoolers. Songs and rhymes, creating with playdough, and reading aloud are some fun and engaging literacy activities for preschoolers. We cover more details about literacy activities for preschoolers in this guide!
What are early literacy skills for preschoolers?
Simply put, early literacy skills for preschoolers are the skills preschoolers need to read, comprehend, write, listen, and speak. There are three main components that make up early literacy skills:
- Oral language development includes listening comprehension, verbal expression, and vocabulary development skills.
- Understanding the alphabetic code includes phonological awareness and knowledge of the alphabet.
- Print knowledge and use includes awareness and an understanding of print concepts such as in what direction to read a book, and book orientation.
Preschoolers need to focus on strengthening certain skills such as vocabulary, letter knowledge and phonological awareness to become successful readers, listeners, speakers, and writers. Below, we elaborate on these skills.
Having an understanding of vocabulary means preschoolers can understand words used to communicate successfully. Between the ages of 3 and 5, children rapidly begin to recognize new words.
Children must acquire different types of vocabulary for listening, speaking, reading, and writing by the time they start school.
- Listening vocabulary means words we need to know to understand what we hear.
- Speaking vocabulary means words we use when speaking.
- Writing vocabulary means words we use when writing.
- Reading vocabulary means words we need to know to comprehend what we read.
2. Print motivation
Print motivation refers to the interest in and enjoyment of books. Preschoolers with print motivation love being read to, playing with books, and attempting to read aloud. Families and teachers can support print motivation by making interesting and exciting children's books available to their preschoolers.
3. Print awareness
Print awareness refers to understanding the unique organization of print. It involves knowing how to position a book when reading and learning the recommended reading direction. For example, English should be read from left to right and from top to bottom.
4. Narrative skills
Narrative skills are the ability to understand and tell stories and to describe objects and events. These skills are critical for developing reading and comprehension skills. When a preschooler describes what happened on a family trip to visit grandma, the child is using narrative skills.
5. Letter knowledge
Letter knowledge is recognition of the different letters of the alphabet. It involves things like knowing and identifying lowercase and uppercase letters of the alphabet. It also involves knowing that letters of the alphabet can look different but represent the same meaning, and that letters are related to sounds.
6. Phonological awareness
Phonological awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate sounds within words. It involves knowing that constituent sounds make up words. Word constituents can be identified by syllables, phonemes, onsets, and rhymes. Phonological awareness establishes the foundation for decoding and reading text.
What are the milestones for early literacy skills in preschool?
Most children are reading by age 7. However, literacy skills development starts during infancy and develops further during preschool.
Preschool early literacy skills milestones are the framework for assessing whether a child is developing accordingly. Below, we look at the milestones for early literacy skills in preschool.
3 to 4 years old
- Turns book pages one at a time, from left to right
- Sits uninterrupted for longer stories
- Recites complete phrases
- Displays basic letter recognition
- Shows rhyme detection
- Reads to doll toys when playing
- Retells familiar stories
- Can sing alphabet songs
- Recognizes the first letter in their name
- Knows that writing is different from drawing
4 to 5 years old
- Copies letters and numbers
- Sits uninterrupted for even longer stories
- Identifies numbers and letters
- Can narrate familiar stories
- Can create rhymes
- Knows letter names and different sounds
- Is print aware—knows that print is read from left to right and top to bottom
Why are early literacy skills important to develop in early childhood?
Adequate early literacy preparation at the preschool level supports children on a path for lifelong success.
Overall, early literacy is the foundation for all learning. Not only do these skills set children up to be successful readers and writers, but they also help improve language and communication skills, boost self-confidence and independence, and promote fine motor skills development. Below, we go into more depth on some of the benefits of developing early literacy skills at a young age.
Establishes a strong foundation for all learning
High-quality literacy education at preschool sets a precedent for successful academic and extracurricular pursuits. 90% of brain growth happens by age 5. If all children have access to quality early education programs that promote early literacy skills during this critical development stage, they are more likely to go on to graduate from high school and are prepared for later success in school and in life.
Aids language development
Language development starts with sounds and gestures, and then words and sentences. Children need to acquire vocabulary to support language skills development. Things like exposing children to books and reading to them, help them acquire new vocabulary daily, adding to their vocabulary repertoire for language skills development. Besides vocabulary acquisition, early literacy skills also improve children’s grammar, writing, and spelling skills.
Boosts self-confidence and promotes independence
As children begin to master how to read and write, their self-confidence increases as they trust their ability to learn new things. These skills also foster independence as children are able to read and comprehend written instructions and can figure out new words on their own.
Improves communication skills
Literacy skills facilitate smooth communication between children and their peers, teachers, and families. Learning literary skills exposes children to new everyday vocabulary for language skills development, making it easier to express themselves.
Promotes fine motor skills development
Fine motor skills involve using the small muscles that control the hand, fingers, and thumb and support activities like feeding, buttoning, and zipping. Writing is one of the best ways to promote fine motor skills development, since it uses the small muscles of the hand.
How to approach teaching literacy skills to preschoolers
Teaching preschoolers literacy skills should be fun and engaging. Below are some easy strategies to consider. You can also incorporate these strategies in your preschool literacy lesson plans.
Grab children’s attention
Reading aloud and telling stories are proven strategies for teaching literacy skills. But these strategies work only when children are attentive. So, you want to first capture their interest before you start to read or tell a story.
One way to gain children’s attention is by using a simple phrase or rhyming sentence that signals to children it’s time to listen and start a new activity. A phrase such as “Hocus pocus, everybody focus”, is one way to bring children’s focus back to the task at hand.
Introduce new vocabulary during story time
Story and reading times are excellent opportunities for teaching new vocabulary. The best practice is to highlight new words and define them before starting the story session. Importantly, you should consider words critical to understanding the story. You can also incorporate body language, like facial expressions, to make it more engaging.
Adapt the “see-show-say” strategy
The “see-show-say” strategy promotes receptive language skill development. You can use this idea when reading aloud in the classroom or at home. Here’s how the strategy works:
- See: The teacher points to objects, pictures, letters, and numbers in a book or other study materials. This helps children to familiarize themselves with these specific objects.
- Show: The teacher asks the children to identify different objects, pictures, letters, and numbers.
- Ask: The teacher asks relevant questions at the end of a read-aloud session or story time.
Highlight preschoolers' favorite books
Reading preschoolers' favorite books supports print motivation and is a great way to engage them during story time. In addition, you can encourage your class to talk about their favorite books by posting photos of their favorite characters on classroom walls.
Establish a read-aloud routine
Creating a reading routine with your children will offer a sense of predictability and stability each day. For example, in the classroom you can establish reading one book during story time each morning and before the end of the day. At home, families can add reading to their bedtime routine. Being consistent will help make reading part of your everyday routine to promote literacy skills.
What are some engaging activities for building early literacy skills in preschoolers?
While it’s true literacy skills don’t develop overnight, there are many engaging activities you can use to promote these skills. Below are some home- and classroom-based fun activities to consider.
1. Alphabet pillow jumping
This alphabet pillow jump activity is great for keeping children active at home and teaching them literacy skills simultaneously. You'll need paper plates, packing tape, a pen, and pillows. Write a letter on each paper plate and stick a plate on each pillow.
Spread the pillows throughout the room and have the children jump on them. As they jump on each pillow, ask them to say the letter and its sound.
2. Magic letter painting
You’ll need some note cards, white wax crayons, watercolor paints, and paintbrushes. Have the children write different letters on the note cards using white crayons and then use the paintbrush to paint over the cards. Watch their facial expressions as the magic letter appears on each card.
3. Songs and rhymes
Singing and reciting rhymes is an excellent way to learn new vocabulary and develop linguistic abilities. You should have a variety of preschool songs and rhymes for your sessions, keeping them in rotation. Children love repetition, which keeps them engaged and interested in the songs and rhymes.
Creating with playdough is a great sensory play activity that supports fine motor development. Playdough strengthens children's hand muscles as they use them to mold, roll, and pat clay. Building strong hand muscles is key, since children use them to hold pencils when writing.
Scribbling can be done at home or school and is an excellent way to promote pre-writing skills. You need to have crayons or pencils and pieces of paper for this exercise. Teach the children how to hold a crayon or pencil and show them how to scribble.
6. Drawing shapes
Drawing skills establish the foundation for writing letters and numbers. Activities that focus on drawing different shapes help with children’s pencil grip and coordination.Simple shapes they can practice with include circles, squares, triangles, and rectangles.
Developing literacy skills FAQs
1. What are the characteristics of an effective literacy program?
While many literacy programs exist, choosing an effective program for preschoolers shouldn't be a hurdle. An effective literacy program should focus on phonemic awareness, phonological awareness, letter recognition, vocabulary, comprehension, verbal expression, and print awareness.
2. What is pre-reading for preschoolers?
Pre-reading involves activities teachers and families can use to prepare preschoolers for literacy reading skills. Reading aloud, recreating a picture book, creating stories from pictures, and labeling everyday items are excellent pre-reading activities for preschoolers.
3. What are examples of literacy activities?
Letter recognition activities, drawing shapes, scribbling, singing songs, and reading books are great examples of children's literacy activities. You can do any of the activities with children at home or school.
4. What is literacy in early childhood?
Literacy in early childhood means laying the foundation for all learning. It involves introducing children to basic reading and writing skills concepts before they learn more advanced skills later on.
A child’s cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development all depend on literacy skills development. Teachers and families can promote literacy skills by incorporating reading and literacy activities into their everyday routines and encouraging a love of reading early on.