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17 Early Literacy Skills and How to Build Them

Early childhood is the best time to begin building a child’s 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. 

Let’s take a brief look at:

  • What early literacy is
  • 17 early literacy skills
  • How 3-5-year-old’s develop literacy
  • 50 ways to develop these skills

What is Early Literacy?

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

Early literacy is a combination of certain skills and knowledge to help your child learn to read. It includes your child 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.

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

child reading a book

Early Literacy Skills

Your child needs 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 child 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, your child 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 child, he needs to be able to retell the story back to you. He 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, your child should be able to predict or guess what will happen next and sequence events

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 the use of 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 early on if they play matching games. It involves finding pictures or concepts that are similar to one another. (Get your own printable matching cards from the store).

10. Focusing on Detail

This skill will help your child 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 your child can recognize what sounds and words rhyme. They also learn to say rhyming words.

13. Letter Knowledge

Your child 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 the 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 your child 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 your child can hear specific sounds within a word. It involves hearing sounds, breaking up sounds and putting it back together again. 

17. Spatial Orientation

Spatial orientation is when your child understands how his 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 child 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 his favourite 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 your child develop those crucial pre-literacy skills! They are easy ideas you can incorporate daily to make sure your child develops those necessary skills for reading and writing.

  • Have frequent conversations with your child
  • Sing songs
  • Read stories
  • Ask your child to retell a story
  • Learn fingerplays
  • Create a book corner in your child’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 your child to identify the author and illustrator of each book
  • Bake cookies in the shape of different letters
Alphabet cookies
  • Sing the alphabet song
  • Have your child 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 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 with only using body parts
  • Paint rocks with each letter of the alphabet
  • Play a matching game with your child
  • Go to the library to get new books regularly
Child choosing a library book
  • Circle the differences in two pictures
  • Show your child a picture. Come up with a story about that picture
  • Put labels on common household items
  • Have your child write their name on each picture they draw
  • Have your child create a storybook with pictures and words
  • Let your child tell you a story from the pictures in a book
  • Make letter boards for your child
  • Play games involving letters and their sounds
  • Write a letter to a family member
  • Play ‘shop’ and have your child write out receipts
  • Play with foam or plastic alphabet letters
Plastic letters
Foam alphabet letters
  • Say a sound and have your child guess the correct letter and vice versa
  • Complete an alphabet or word puzzle
  • When making crafts, have your child 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
Letters on the fridge
  • Make a sensory box filled with items that begin with the same letter. Then, your child must say each item 
  • Play scrabble with your kids using easy words
  • Tell a story without an ending, then have your child make up the end

These are just a few simple ways you can help your child 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, your child will be able to read and thrive when they begin school. 


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Or shop for instantly downloadable and printable kids’ activities and games. Get more info here.

Link to shop for printable kids' activities on Empowered Parents

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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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