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17 Early Literacy Skills and How to Build Them

Early childhood is the best time to begin building early literacy skills through play.

Children must develop certain skills prior to learning to read in order to build a good foundation on which to learn formal skills. 

Here’s some info on what early literacy is and how to develop it in 3-5-year-olds; 17 early literacy skills for preschoolers; and 50 ways to develop these pre-literacy skills.

What is Early Literacy?

You can start helping your children to build pre-reading skills from a very early age. In fact, when you answer your babies by babbling back to them, you are already teaching communication and language.

Early literacy is a combination of certain skills and knowledge to help children learn to read. It includes being aware of both language and writing skills.

It involves understanding the process and purpose of writing. Early literacy also involves developing listening comprehension, an awareness of print, and phonological awareness.

With time and exposure to books and language, children start to understand that phonemes (sounds) and graphemes (symbols) make up reading.

Children will also develop excitement and an interest in books, and a motivation to learn to read. This is a crucial step in the process, or else teaching them to read will not be meaningful.

Child reading a book with mother

Early Literacy Skills List

Children need to develop skills such as visual literacy, visual and auditory discrimination, and many more that aid in their progression throughout school.

Here is a brief explanation of each skill your children should start to develop early on.  

1. Visual Memory

Visual memory is the ability to remember what has been seen – important for learning sight words and letter formation and combinations.

2. Visual Discrimination

Visual discrimination is the ability to tell differences and similarities – especially in letters such as b and d, or similar words such as bad and dad

3. Auditory Discrimination

With auditory discrimination, kids will be able to hear the differences and similarities in sounds and words.

4. Retelling a Story

Once you read or tell a story to your children, they need to be able to retell the story back to you. They may be able to retell the main idea, or the beginning, middle, and end of the story, not necessarily all the little details.

5. Predicting Sequence

As a story is being told, kids should be able to predict or guess what will happen next and put events in sequence

6. Cause and Effect

Cause and effect is the knowledge about why something happens and what action led to the consequence. It can be developed very early on. 

7. Picture Reading

This occurs when a child can read a story and understand it just by looking at the pictures. It also includes answering questions related to the story by only referring to the pictures.

A child can learn to deduce from the information in pictures. For example, even though the text does not say what time of day it is, the image suggests it is daytime since the sun is shining.

8. Visual Literacy

Visual literacy is the ability to understand and make meaning of information in the form of an image. 

9. Matching

Matching is a skill most children are really good at from early on if they play matching games. It involves finding pictures or concepts that are similar to one another.

Get your own matching cards by downloading the FREE set of printables at the end of the post.

10. Focusing on Detail

This skill will help children to focus on smaller, less obvious details.

11. Sound Awareness

Sound awareness involves hearing and interpreting sounds. It includes listening for sounds, identifying sounds, telling sounds apart and more.

12. Rhyme Awareness

Rhyme awareness is when a child can recognize what sounds and words rhyme. They also learn to say rhyming words.

13. Letter Knowledge

Children should be exposed to letters early on. Playing with physical letters is the best way to teach letter formation in a practical way. 

Learning how to form letters on a worksheet is part of formal reading and writing education and is not necessary during the early years before fine motor skills are properly formed.

14. Name Recognition

This is an exciting skill as a child can look at letters on a piece of paper, read and recognise their own name.

15. Pattern Recognition

Pattern recognition is when children can clearly see a pattern. They can see shapes and the relationship between them and can even predict the missing piece in the pattern.

16. Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness is when a child can hear specific sounds within a word. It involves hearing sounds, breaking up sounds and putting them back together again. 

17. Spatial Orientation

Spatial orientation is when children understand how their body functions in space. When they can orientate themselves, they can later apply this skill when reading and writing – for example, by spacing letters on a page.

Learning to Read

Learning to read is a complex process for young children that begins when a child is little. It is not a natural learning process, like speaking, but one that must be taught.

If you focus on building pre-reading skills through play during the early years right up to kindergarten, your children will find it much easier to learn the sounds and letters and start formal reading when the time is right.

Reading is not the only literacy skill. Literacy also involves writing, communicating and working with language for different purposes.

Emerging Literacy Skills in 3-4-Year-Olds

Here are some of the typical signs you will start to see when your 3-4-year-old is developing their literacy skills.

Child reading a book
  • Has one or two favourite books or rhymes.
  • Points out to you when you make an error in their favourite story.
  • Enjoys new stories and asks lots of questions.
  • Can sequence the events of a story.
  • Enjoys listening to bedtime stories.
  • Knows the letters of their own name.
  • Can ‘write’ by scribbling.
  • Can find a book when asked.

Emerging Literacy Skills in 4-5-Year-Olds

Here are some signs you will start to notice when your 4-5-year-old is developing their literacy skills.

  • Knows their favourite book by its name.
  • Knows a section of their favourite book.
  • Prefers one book over another.
  • Has a certain reading routine they follow at home and school.
  • Knows the purpose of reading.
  • Understands that the story remains the same.
  • Talks about the story sequence.

50 Ways to Help Children Develop Early Literacy Skills

Here are some ways to help children develop those crucial pre-literacy skills. They are easy ideas you can incorporate daily to make sure they develop those skills necessary for reading and writing.

Simple ways to build your child's early literacy skills - pinnable image
  • Have frequent conversations with your children.
  • Sing songs.
  • Read stories.
  • Ask children to retell a story.
  • Learn fingerplays.
  • Create a book corner in your children’s bedroom.
  • Play language games.
  • Model a love for books by also reading books yourself.
  • Make up your own story.
  • Point out road signs while driving.
  • Ask children to identify the author and illustrator of each book.
  • Bake cookies in the shape of different letters.
Alphabet cookies
  • Sing the alphabet song.
  • Have children mimic you as you say the sounds of each letter.
  • Make “listen to the sound” boxes for each letter.
  • Play a musical guessing game.
  • Clap to different rhythms and songs.
  • Play an auditory story or read a book out loud, then discuss.
  • Ask questions about the stories you read.
  • Make up a story with a beginning, middle and end.
  • Point to parts of a word and ask what the sound is.
  • Do the Hokey-Pokey Dance.
  • Play Simon Says by only using body parts.
  • Paint rocks with each letter of the alphabet.
  • Play a matching game.
  • Go to the library to get new books regularly.
Child choosing a library book
  • Circle the differences between two pictures.
  • Show children a picture. Come up with a story about that picture.
  • Put labels on common household items.
  • Have children write their names on each picture they draw.
  • Have them create a storybook with pictures and words.
  • Let kids tell you a story from the pictures in a book.
  • Make letter boards.
  • Play games involving letters and their sounds.
  • Write a letter to a family member.
  • Play ‘shop’ and have your children write out receipts.
  • Play with foam or plastic alphabet letters.
Plastic letters of the alphabet
Foam alphabet letters
  • Say a sound and have children guess the correct letter and vice versa.
  • Complete an alphabet or word puzzle.
  • When making crafts, have kids read step-by-step instructions.
  • Make up your own rhyming song together.
  • Sing nursery rhymes.
  • Write letters in a tray of salt.
  • Play a rhyming game.
  • Read instructions out loud to show their importance.
  • Connect dots to make up letters and words.
  • Write words on the fridge using magnetic letters.
Letter magnets on the fridge
  • Make a sensory box filled with items that begin with the same letter. Then, your children must say each item.
  • Play scrabble with your kids using easy words.
  • Tell a story without an ending, then have children make up the end.

These are just a few simple ways you can help develop those vital early literacy skills. Find time to do these simple activities daily. After a while, they will become a natural part of your daily schedule.

By focusing on these kinds of activities, kids will be able to read and thrive when they begin school. 

Are you a preschool teacher or working in Early Childhood Education? Would you like to receive regular emails with useful tips and play-based activity ideas to try with your children? Sign up below.

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Ruth Kipchumba

Friday 13th of August 2021

Thanks for the generous information Tanja,this is soo helpful for my kids am really looking for more information on speech and language development. warm regards

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