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Early Literacy – Helping Little Ones Become Strong Readers

When we think of early literacy we think of what children need to know about reading and writing before they actually begin to read and write. These important skills, such as having a strong vocabulary, being able to rhyme words, understanding print and books, and having strong language and comprehension skills, are key to a child’s future success as a reader.  

“Research” tells us that the best way to develop these skills is through talking, playing, singing, reading, and writing. We can engage children in fun and meaningful activities every day that help prepare them to become successful readers and writers, and help them in later years as they transition from learning to read to reading to learn 

Let’s look at each of these important early literacy skill areas…. 

Vocabulary – This is all about knowing words and what they mean

Why is vocabulary important?  

Having a strong vocabulary supports all areas of a child’s communication and comprehension skills – listening, understanding, speaking, reading, and writing. Research tells us that vocabulary growth is directly related to a child’s achievement in school. The stronger a child’s vocabulary, the better prepared they are for reading and success in school.  

What are fun ways to build your child’s vocabulary? 

  • Suggested talking, reading, singing, writing, and playing activities: 

Talking Talk, Talk, Talk!  

  • Make conversation a priority engage your child in the back and forth volley of conversation starting at a very young age.  

  • Connect their world to language –talk about every day experiences as they occur. Use words to talk about what is happening as your child is dressing, eating, cooking, and playing throughout the day.  

Reading – Read, Read, Read! 

  • Read aloud all kinds of books and print materials, such as magazines, mail, signs, catalogs, and food labels with your child so they hear new words and vocabulary at all levels throughout the day. 

  • Pair fiction and non-fiction books together so that your child hears the same words used in different ways. For example, read a book about trains and then the Little Red Caboose, or a book about insects and then The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  

  • Repeated readings of books help children be exposed to and learn new words. All children have their favorite books that they love to hear over and over again! 

Singing – Sing, Sing, Sing! 

  • Introduce new words to your child as you do every day activities and sing “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush…This is the Way We… “. For example, this is the way we boil our pasta, boil our pasta, boil our pasta. This is the way we boil our pasta all day long! 

  • Substitute with words with everyday activities such as strain our pasta, mince our onions, sort our laundry, tie our shoes, brush our teeth,.., introducing new words along the way.  

  • Use songs to transition your child from one activity to another. Create or sing favorite songs as you move from breakfast to play time, play time to lunch, lunch time to rest or nap time.  

Playing – Play, Play, Play! 

  • Play word games such as solving riddles with your child to have them giggling and thinking at the same time.  

  • Play What Am I? with your child to help them imagine and problem solve. Example: I am red and round and you can eat me. What am I?  

Phonological Awareness - this is all about being aware of the sounds of language 

Why is phonological awareness important?  

Phonological awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate the sounds of our languageResearch tells us that phonological awareness is the primary predictor of early reading and spelling skills in kindergarten through second grade. When children have this awareness of words and sounds, they can hear rhymes in words, rhyme words themselves, and engage in word play such as changing the beginning or endings of words and sentences. Research tells us that when a child knows eight or more rhymes, they are usually among the strongest readers 

What are fun ways to build your child’s phonological awareness? 

  • Suggested talking, reading, singing, writing, and playing activities: 

Talking  Rhyme, Rhyme, Rhyme! 

  • Share favorite traditional Nursery Rhymes with your child often and emphasize the rhymes in a fun and engaging way, such as: 

  • Jack and Jill 

  • Humpty Dumpty  

  • Little Miss Muffet  

  • Hickory Dickory Dock  

Reading – Read, Read, Read! 

  • Select and read books that are filled with repetition and rhyme, such as Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? By Bill Martin Jr. or The Three Little Pigs (“Little pig, little pig, let me in.”) 

  • As you read rhyming books with your child, pause and let them fill in the rhyming words,, such as  

  • “Little pig, little pig, let me in.” said the wolf. “Not by the hair of my chinny, chin, ____” said the pig.  

Singing – Sing, Sing, Sing! 

  • Sing fun songs that play with words and have a rhyming pattern  

  • Word Play Songs 

  • Name Song - Mike, Mike, Bo Bike…Banana Fana Fo Fike,…. 

  • Bingo (B-I-N-G-O!) 

  • Five Little Ducks 

  • Old MacDonald Had a Farm 

  • Rhyming Songs 

  • The Itsy Bitsy Spider 

  • Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star 

  • This Old Man 

  • Baa Baa Black Sheep  

  • Hush, Little Baby 

  • Mary Had a Little Lamb 

  • The Ants Go Marching 

  • Playing (Activities) 

  • Play I Spy with rhyming words ( I spy something that rhymes with hair [chair], fable [table], fog [dog],…) 

  • Sing and act out with your favorite rhymes, such as Ring Around the Rosie, The Wheels on the Bus, Teddy Bear Teddy Bear, and I’m a Little Teapot. 

  • Use your hands or musical instruments to clap out or note the words in sentences and syllables in words, such as “I – am – playing – with – you” “My – name – is – Sa-brin – a.” 

Print Awareness – this is about understanding the nature and uses of print  

Why is print awareness important?  

Print awareness is the understanding that printrepresents spoken language and that it is organized in a particular way — for example, knowing that print is read from left to right and top to bottom. It is knowing that words consist of letters and that spaces appear between words. Research tells us that print awareness is one of the essential pre-reading skills and that without it, children are not able to successfully develop other key literacy skills such as reading, writing, and spellingChildren who are read to on a regular basis are most likely to naturally acquire these important print awareness skills. 

What are fun ways to build your child’s print awareness? 

  • Suggested talking, reading, singing, writing, and playing activities: 

Talking – Talk, Talk, Talk! 

  • Talk about and describe the print that is in your child’s world.  

  • Mention parts of a book or magazine as you read. 

  • Hey, look at this book’s cover. I wonder what this book is about. The title says _____. 

  • This is the first/last page of this book. 

  • I wonder who wrote this book. 

  • I wonder what’s on the back of book. 

  • There are words all around us. Point out print in your child’s environment. Highlight these throughout the day. 

  • That sign says STOP. 

  • Look at these soup cans – this can says chicken noodle soup and this one says chicken rice soup. Which should we choose? 

  • Here’s our street. See, the sign says __________ . 

Reading – Read, Read, Read and Write, Write, Write! 

  • Read to your child often from a variety of different print materials, such as books, magazines, flyers, signs, food labels, and mail. 

  • As you read, point to words on the cover and on the pages so that your child can see how the printed words represent the spoken words, and the direction of the reading (top to bottom and left to right). 

  • Write for a variety of purposes and have your child help, such as writing grocery lists, directions, thank you notes, and get well and birthday cards.  

  • Write for pleasure and have your child watch and help you as you create and write stories and poems.  

Singing – Sing, Sing, Sing! 

  • Sing songs that help support learning the alphabet and a connection between sounds and letters, such as the ABCs Alphabet Song and Bingo (B-I-N-G-O!). 

  • Point to the words in songs as you sing from a Nursery Rhyme book to make a connection between the sounds and the printed words. 

Playing – Play, Play, Play! 

  • Be silly as you read with your child. Hold a book upside down at the start or hand it to them backwards, so that they can giggle and correct you as they learn about how books and print work.  

  • Incorporate print into your play – make signs for their lemonade stand, create a menu and an Open/Closed sign for their pretend restaurant or diner, make a welcome sign for their bedroom door.  

Listening Comprehension – this is all about understanding the meaning of spoken words 

Why is listening comprehension important?  

Listening comprehension is being able to understand and make sense of spoken language. Listening comprehension draws on the same language process as reading comprehension, but without the demand of actually have to read the words. Research tells us that listening comprehension is an essential pre-reading skills and that it influences a child’s ultimate reading comprehension. Children generally listen to stories and books several levels above what they read and that this helps build their vocabulary, communication, and reading comprehension skills. 

What are fun ways to build your child’s listening comprehension? 

  • Suggested talking, reading, singing, writing, and playing activities: 

Talking – Talk, Talk, Talk! 

  • The more children hear adults tell stories, the stronger they become at making up and telling their own stories. Have fun making up Once Upon a Time stories with your child and let them add on their own ideas as you go.  

  • Predicting what comes next does not only have to happen in books. Engage your child in fun “I wonder what is going to happen next?” prediction as you go about your daily activities. For example, I wonder what will happen to the trash once the trash collector takes it from our house?” or “I wonder where that dog will run first when he gets to the park?” 

Reading – Read, Read, Read! 

  • Reading stories helps children listen and learn about story structure (beginning, middle, and end) and sequencing. Help them think about what might happen next or how the story might end as you share a new story.  

  • Ask your child open ended questions as you read books, such as “What might happened if” or “I wonder why? questions as you read together.  

Singing – Sing, Sing, Sing! 

  • Many of your child’s favorite songs or nursery rhymes tell a story. Help them learn and sing the whole song and think about what happens in the beginning, middle, and end.  

  • Sing “listen and do” songs with your child to help build strong listening skills, such as The Hokey Pokey, Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, and If You’re Happy and You Know It. 

Playing – Play, Play, Play! 

  • Engage in dramatic play with your child as you role play different characters in a make believe story or scenario such as pretend playing restaurant, school, grocery store, or a favorite movie or book.  

  • Use puppets, stuffed animals, and toys to act out songs, poems, and stories. Have them use good listening skills to know what to do next. 

  • Play games that highlight the importance of careful listening, such as Simon Says and I Spy.  

  • Listen to audio books with your child. As you listen together, act out the story, add facial expressions that match the story (surprise, funny part, sad moment, uncertainty of what will happen next,…), and ask questions and make predictions as you listen.  


We hope our at-home play ideas have been helpful to you! If you are able, please support Port Discovery Children’s Museum by renewing your membership, purchasing a gift membership for someone, or making a contribution of financial support.

Port Discovery's At Home Play Tips & Resources is generously sponsored by M&T Bank

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