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Early Literacy

Early literacy is what children know about communication, language—verbal and non-verbal—reading and writing before they can actually read and write. Last Updated: Jul 17, 2024 9:17 AM

Background Knowledge — Learn New Information

When children learn about their world, they can use what they know about a subject to understand what they are reading. To help children learn about their world, read

  • Informational storybooks (stories containing real facts about different subjects).
  • Non-fiction picture books.

Put literacy into motion to help children develop background knowledge:

READ books about subjects that interest children. Take them to new and interesting places like museums, farms and parks and share books about these experiences.

TALK to children about the animals they see, the places they visit or the new things they are learning. Ask open-ended questions about their experiences, such as “Where do you think all those geese are flying?” “When do you think the raccoon will sleep if he is up all night?” “What do you think will happen next in this story?”

SING familiar songs, like “Old MacDonald had a Farm,” and let children choose the animals and the sounds they make.

WRITE about their activities or books you read. Using illustrations or photos, let children create stories about their adventures or things they are learning.

PLAY with puppets, props or toys to help children remember what they are reading or seeing around them.

Letter Knowledge — See and Know ABCs

When children can recognize letters by their shapes and know their sounds, it helps them figure out how to sound out written words. To help children recognize letters in print, read

  • Books about shapes.
  • Alphabet books.
  • Books with large print.


  • Letters are shapes. Reading shape books is a great starting point for young children.
  • When reading ABC books, start with letters that have special meaning for children, like the letters in their names.
  • Large print in children's picture books help children understand that words (letters) have meaning, and you are reading the words, not the pictures.

Put literacy into motion to help children develop letter knowledge:

READ alphabet books, but only look at some of the letters. You don’t have to read the entire book.

TALK about the letters in children’s names. Point out letters in environment print, like stop signs, restaurant signs or signs in grocery stores.

SING songs that emphasize letter names, like the alphabet song or “Bingo.”

WRITE children’s names. Let them see the letters that are in their names. This will have special meaning for children and often are the first letters they remember and recognize.

PLAY letter games with children. Write individual letters on cards, turn them face-down and have children search for matches. Encourage children to say the letter of each card they turn over.

Phonological Awareness — Hear and Know Sounds in Words

When children recognize rhymes, syllables and beginning sounds in words, they can figure out how to break words into parts when trying to sound them out.

To help children hear and know sounds in words, read

  • Stories with rhyming words.
  • Songs written in a book's format.
  • Poetry or nursery rhymes.
  • Books with alliteration (where the first letter in words begin with the same letter).
  • Books featuring different sounds (animals, instruments, etc.).

Put literacy into motion to help children develop phonological awareness:

READ poems and Mother Goose rhymes. The rhythm of the rhymes mimics English patterns of speech and promotes expression and fluency in reading.

TALK about rhymes and beginning sounds. Take a word from a story and make up words that rhyme with it or other words that start with the same sound.  

SING songs with animal sounds, like “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” or “Six Little Ducks.”

WRITE a book with children that contain pictures and words of objects that rhyme or have the same beginning sound.

PLAY a variety of games:

  • Play “I Spy” where children find objects in a room that rhyme with words.
  • Clap the syllables in their names or choose words from a story.
  • Create tongue twisters that begin with the same sound. (“Sam went to the store to select soup, sausage and steak.”)

Print Awareness — Use Books

When children recognize that print has meaning and know how to handle and use a book, they understand how to use it.

To help children develop an awareness of print, read books with

  • large print (makes it easier to point to words)
  • writing that is part of the story
  • writing in the illustrations

Put literacy into motion to help children develop print awareness:

READ books with large text and point to the words as your read them. After you read the stories several times, ask children to point to the words as they help you read the story.

TALK about the parts of a book—the author, illustrator, book cover, pages.

SING songs that go along with a story, nursery rhyme or poem, like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”

WRITE with children. Let children draw pictures and dictate a story about their picture as you write it down for them or let them “write” about it.

PLAY around with the orientation of a book—start with it upside down. Tell children you are turning it around to be able to read it.

Vocabulary — Learn New Words and Concepts

When children know the names of objects and understand concepts, they develop strong vocabularies and this helps them understand the meaning of the words they are learning to read.

To help children learn new words and concepts, read

  • Concept books (books about numbers, colors, shapes, etc.)
  • Non-fiction picture books
  • Stories without words, or wordless stories
  • Informational storybooks (stories containing real facts about different subjects)

Put literacy into motion to help children learn words and concepts:

READ lots of books. You can introduce three times more vocabulary than when you speak to children. Before reading a story aloud, review it and identify unfamiliar words children may not know and think of ways you can explain, or define, them.

TALK to children every day. Have conversations about things you do together and talk about the books you are reading. Use this time to introduce or discuss new words and concepts. Encourage children to use new words.

SING songs that use call and response or that you can teach in rounds, so children have an opportunity to listen and then respond as you go back and forth or sing together.

WRITE notes or lists about things you have to do and give children a pad and pencil so they can create their own list.

PLAY games that will encourage children to talk, like speaking on a phone or ordering food in a restaurant.

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