Early literacy skills are a pathway to reading

Published on Tuesday, 12 November 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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Repetitive rhymes, silly songs and shared books are not only fun for young children, they also help to develop the early literacy skills necessary for learning to read.

Once upon a time it was believed that reading was as natural as learning to talk, but this was a fairy tale. Learning to read the English language is a complex, learned skill that can be difficult to master and typically requires years of instruction and practice.

The reading journey begins with 'hear first, see later' and the development of literacy starts at birth when the sounds of language are first perceived. Stories told and shared, repeated rhymes and sing-songs are crucial literacy learning activities for babies, toddlers and pre-school children.

When young children first see the alphabet it's just a scribble of marks on a page. They must learn how written letters are a symbolic representation of sounds in language called phonemes. Exposure to picture books and reading allows them to begin breaking the alphabet code.

By the age of around four to five, a child's brain starts connecting the sounds to the symbols we use to read and write. These 'sounds' make the task of decoding words easier such as sounding out letters like s – a – t to make the word 'sat'.

Neurological science tells us that brain development in early childhood is driven by a combination of genes, environment and experience and an incredible 90 per cent of brain development occurs by the age of four. These early connections build the brain architecture, laying the foundation for all future learning; unsurprisingly the role of early childhood educators, parents and carers is vital throughout this stage.

Sharing and talking about books and stories are all examples of early literacy learning. Linking a child's experiences with a story, exploring illustrations and images and playing with language are vital in helping children learn and can promote brain development.

There is clear evidence relating the importance of literacy skills in the early years to later academic outcomes and while reading and writing are not usually taught until a child starts Big School, the first five years of life are a critical time to create and nurture the building blocks of early literacy skills.

Early literacy skills a child should have by the time they enter the classroom are:

  • Phonological awareness:

    Recognising that words are made up of speech sounds, or 'phonemes' – 44 sounds in the English language, some represented by individual letters (such as a or b), and some by combinations of letters (like sh or th)
  • Oral language:

    Refers to words children can understand or use while speaking and listening. Oral vocabulary is closely related to reading vocabulary, which are the words a child can recognise and use in their reading. Research has shown that children with larger vocabularies do better at reading and at school in general
  • Knowledge of the alphabet:

    To recognise and name letters
  • Comprehension and print awareness:

    Being able to understand what is being read and book handling skills such as the idea that sentences are read from left to right.

How educators can build a literacy-rich environment

A literacy-rich environment should be creative, inspiring and fun for children. The classroom should be stocked with illustrated books, posters, paper, writing tools and bright and functional signs and symbols. Ensure there is a well-resourced writing centre, with a word wall or a notice board at child height with engaging posters and perhaps a letter or word of the day. Include a cosy and inviting reading corner outside and inside complete with colourful cushions, a curated book selection and soft toys for comfort.

Design a small library full of interesting story and picture books and encourage children to choose and borrow a book to promote reading at home. Children can bring in a library bag and write their name on a borrowers card.

Early literacy is a cumulative learning journey, built on many play-based experiences and interactions. Children need to be surrounded with regular ongoing opportunities to use literacy many times through their day:

  • One of the most supported and beneficial early literacy activities is shared reading with young children. For the early childhood educator the sharing of a storybook or picture book facilitates engagement with children to support and extend their thinking. An educator can provide language to describe what is happening and scaffold children's learning and understanding by responding to questions, guiding children to look for print, letters and sounds.

    Parents and carers could be encouraged to support classroom learning with literacy activities at home and making resources available such as a library for book borrowing or providing information sheets are an easy place to start.
  • Actively promoting play with silly songs and nursery rhymes engages children with positive experiences of words and meaning, helping them to feel successful as they master tongue twisters.
  • Learning to read the alphabet both in and out of order, and the sounds associated with each letter should be taught creatively in early childhood. The opportunities for playful learning are endless, from the alphabet song to fishing for letters through to a letter hunt – like an Easter egg hunt – and learning letters to spell a child's name.

As with most skills, every child develops at a different level. If there are any significant delays – such as problems with speaking and listening, knowing letters, and sounding out words – the parent or carer may need to consider professional advice based on an educator's assessment.

Fun early literacy activities to try:

  • Bring a book to life: Make a book experiential by engaging creativity, listening ears and actions. Create props so children can follow the action as you read out loud.
  • Sociodramatic play: Prepare a pretend storyline where a child recreates familiar events or situations. Using props and costumes, add emergent reading and writing opportunities. For example, a grocery store could use pencils for use on a written and pictorial shopping list, labels on food and drinks plus special signs on display. Or try a doctor's office with an appointment book, pretend x-rays, a written and pictorial checklist for patients.
  • Nursery Rhyme Charades: Fill a bag with items from well-known nursery rhymes. Children can use them to act out roles in a charades game. Build creative-thinking skills by inviting children to use the items to make up a new rhyme.
  • Take a letter walk with a touch of eye-spy: Work with children to create large letters, place letters outside on objects (such as T on tree) and take a walk outside to discover the alphabet. You can try eye-spy and match letters to the guessed object.
  • A portfolio for each child: Collect works from each child that include examples of language and literacy skills to engage parents and carers with what their child is learning.

Further reading

Literacy in early childhood services: Teaching and Learning
He Kupu
Language and literacies

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