Developing Early Reading Skills: It All Starts with Sounds

The more we learn about how children develop reading skills, the more we understand that it all begins with sounds. In fact, a child’s ability to play with the sounds within a word (rhyming, inventing rhymes, adding or removing the sounds within a word) is a key indicator of a child’s future success in developing reading skills. This skill is called Phonemic awareness. It is the ability to hear the individual sounds within spoken words. When we think about what it takes to be able to read, it is easy to see why phonemic awareness is so important. In print the sounds within words are represented by letters. These letters can be taken apart and put together in different ways to create different words. A child who is already familiar with the idea that words are made up of separate sounds that are blended together will have a much easier time making the leap to associating sounds with letters and blending those letters to sound out words.

Exploring the sounds within words is something that anyone can do with a child. It requires no special materials and the child doesn’t need to know anything about the letters of the alphabet (learning which letters go with which sounds will come later). Families, caregivers and teachers can help even the youngest preschoolers begin to develop phonemic awareness just by being silly and playing around with words. Here are a few ideas:

  • Read a lot of nursery rhymes or other rhyming text
  • Sing rhyming songs or songs that emphasize initial word sounds (Baa Baa Black sheep for little ones, and “Apples and Bananas” is a great example for older preschoolers)
  • Say the child’s name then change or remove the initial letter sound (Tommy becomes Ommy or Lommy)
  • Say a word and invent a string of rhymes (Hi there cutie, futie, lutie, putie…)

Phonemic awareness “lessons” can and should be fun, simple and short. It is all about sounds and spoken word. Identifying letters to match those sounds is the next step, and this next step will be a lot easier for kids if they have a solid understanding of the concept that words are made up of individual sounds that are blended together. WoWKit activity binders for preschool and downloads for toddlers are full of activity ideas for developing phonemic awareness. You can check them out at

For more info on phonemic awareness and guidance for educators, check out the resources posted on the University of Oregon Center for Teaching and Learning.


Summer Skills Series: Early Reading and Writing

Unlike walking, talking or even problem-solving, reading and writing are not skills that develop naturally in children. Both the right-brain and the left-brain have to work together to decipher an image, connect it to a particular sound and then string several of these picture-sounds together to create a word. It’s complicated, and takes practice!

That is why every teacher will tell you, once your child has begun to blend sounds together to either read or write words, keep up with it all through the summer. Some kids love it! They’ll take every opportunity to sound out signs, read you simple books or write lists and labels for everything. Other kids need a little more encouragement. Here are some fun and simple ideas to squeeze a little reading and writing into summer:

Get organized! Encourage your child to make labels for toy bins, book shelves or anything else you’d like to organize. Don’t worry about correct spelling. The important thing is working matching the written letter to the sounds your child hears in each word.

  • Invite your child to help you write a grocery or other list. Again, correct spelling is not important.
  • When you’re out and about, ask your child to help you find things (stores, menu items, landmarks, etc.) by looking at and deciphering signs.
  • Encourage your child to keep a summer journal to remember fun events or keep track of backyard adventures. The journal can be mostly drawings. Ask your child to tell you about the drawing, then write a sentence or two of what he says. Encourage him to do some writing too, even if it’s just a word or two.
  • Incorporate signs into children’s make-believe play. Invite them to create a sign for their club house or lemonade stand. Have them write a menu for their restaurant, etc.
  • Ask your child to help you sound out a word or two as you read a story out loud.
  • Invite your anxious reader to read to a pet or younger sibling.
  • Create a weekly reading chart- across the bottom of a paper, label the date of the week, then every time your child reads a book that week, let them make a check mark or add a sticker to the chart. See which week has the tallest check mark tower!

Learning Letters Through Multiple Intelligences

No doubt, knowing the alphabet and the sounds each letter makes are important pre-reading skills. While some kids pick this up with little effort, for most these abstract concepts do not come naturally.

Making sense of something so abstract and strange as a letter making a sound is not easy for children. But when you can encourage a child to explore a difficult concept in a way that keeps him feeling safely within his “comfort zone”, the difficult concept suddenly doesn’t seem as difficult. Learning happens more easily.

Here are a few ideas that will help children with strengths in the following intelligences learn letters and sounds more easily:

  • Linguistic– while reading a story, carefully pronounce the letter sounds within a word as you run your finger under each letter. Play word games like stringing several words with the same beginning sound together, rhyming words, etc.
  • Logical/Mathematical– Write a letter on a card and place it in or near a shallow dish. Place a variety of small objects on a tray, including several that begin with the letter on the card. Encourage children to sort the objects by placing those that begin with the sound on the card into the shallow dish.
  • Spatial– Encourage children to say the sound of each letter as they place them properly in the puzzle.
  • Kinesthetic– Encourage children to make alphabet letters with their hands or bodies. Say the sound of each letter as children complete the form.
  • Musical– sing alphabet songs or songs with a lot of rhyming or alliteration (many words with the same beginning sound strung together).
  • Intrapersonal– focus on the letters in the child’s name. Talk about personal attributes that begin with the letters in the name. For example, Eli is exciting, his legs are long, he likes ice cream.
  • Interpersonal– set out several letters of the alphabet and several objects that begin with those letters. Invite children to work together to match each object to its letter.
  • Natural– invite children to collect natural objects. As you look over the collection, emphasize the beginning sound of each. Make a letter card for each object.

Once you have an idea of the types of activities your child is naturally drawn to, use that information to your advantage. Let the child’s interests be the motivator. All you have to do is create the opportunity to let the learning happen.

For more great ideas to encourage letter learning, check out the World of Wonder Letters and Sounds Kit or Activity Binder.

Read to Your Baby

It’s never too early to start reading to your child. Even babies benefit from being read to, and the benefits are deep and long-lasting.

Language- Through books babies learn vocabulary and when you talk to them about the pictures you see, they learn communication skills

Social/Emotional- taking the time to sit together, with baby in your lap, making eye contact and conversation (even if it is 0ne-sided) all work together to deepen bonds and social skills

Body/Sensory Awareness- touch and feel books and books with squeakers, flaps or other interactive elements help baby gain sensory awareness and practice body movements

Ideas for More Fun with Baby- books can be the inspiration for all kinds of other fun activities with baby including new ideas for outings, songs to sing or things to explore.

If you’re feeling a little silly at the idea of reading to a baby, need some ideas on how to get started, or are looking for easy-to-read information to pass along to other parents, check out these online tips by the Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center.

Also be sure to check out the Family Literacy Bags and Infant and Toddler curriculum at WoWKits. They are full of great reading ideas for infants and toddlers.

Liven Up Story Time: Read with Rhythm

Some kids love story time, others have a hard time staying focused. Not only is this distracting, but it can make story time a negative experience for everyone involved.

To get and hold the attention of a variety of different learners, try adding rhythm to your story time. I don’t mean sing story-songs (though if you’re comfortable doing that, go for it!) Rhythm exists in the words we speak. Just make a special effort to bring out the rhythm that is already in the text of a lot of great read-aloud books. There are so many benefits, including:

  • It emphasizes syllables in words to improve language acquisition
  • It encourages controlled movement and coordination for kinesthetic learners
  • It brings a musical element to reading for those with a strong musical intelligence
  • I promotes the sense of being part of a larger group as children clap or move together to a rhythm
  • It enhances children’s understanding story sequencing

Some simple steps you can take to bring rhythm to story time include:

  • Choose stories with strong rhythm or repetition in the text such as Dr. Seuss books, I Went Walking, by Sue Williams or Brown Bear, by Bill Martin Jr.
  • Encourage children to clap out the syllables of repetitive text or common phrases
  • Incorporate simple rhythm instruments (rhythm sticks, maracas, tone blocks) to emphasize parts of the story such as the “clip clop” of the hoofs of the Three Billy Goats Gruff

Many of the language activities in our Activity Binders for preschool include a lot of ideas for bringing rhythm and music into reading language learning. I’ve noticed a big improvement in children’s language skills and ability to retell a story when these techniques are used.

Home Visits Boost Learning Outcomes

Home visits are a great way to make a connection with families and ease a child’s transition into preschool, but did you know that regular home visits throughout the year can boost child learning outcomes?

A recent study by the New Hampshire Parent Information and Resource Center (PIRC) compared learning outcomes of children whose families were involved in a special home visits program to those whose families were not.

The home visits were conducted by an Early Literacy Specialist/Adult Educator who visited children’s homes twice a month throughout the school year.

During home-visits one on one support to parents is provided. Parents receive suggestions each week from their child’s preschool classroom on a sheet titled Homelink to aid in building a partnership between school and home. Parents work closely with the the PIRC Early Literacy Specialist/Adult Educator to tailor each Homelink to their child’s individual needs and interests.

Those children whose parents learned how to reinforce the classroom curriculum at home through tips and conversations with a home visitor significantly outperformed their peers whose families did not receive home visits in several pre-literacy learning standards.

Another interesting aspect of this program is the weekly informational sheet sent home to parents called HomeLink . In it teachers outlined simple ways parents could support the curriculum and promote learning at home.

Since most parents do want their children to be successful in school, but may not feel able or know how to help, a HomeLink type of informational sheet is a great idea.

Letter Days

My daughter’s preschool started a new concept for their summer program and it’s been a great hit with all the kids. They are celebrating the alphabet with “Letter Days”. The idea is a simple one:

  • Each day a new letter is celebrated
  • Children are encouraged to bring in an item for “sharing time” that begins with that letter. Today is “O” day and my daughter chose to bring in an orange bracelet. She is thrilled that orange starts with O and that it looks like the letter O.
  • Each day features a craft and snack that starts with that letter. For “H” day they had hummus (with pretzels) and made “hearts and hands” wrapping paper by stamping hand prints and heart shapes on a “huge” sheet of paper.
  • Each day they make a special “tribute” to the letter. The featured letter is written in the center of a half sheet of paper. Around it, the children do a leaf rubbing (they rubbed goldenrod leaves for “G”, a maple leaf for “m”), stamp images of something beginning with the letter and draw pictures.

The kids are loving it! Each day at drop-off children are showing me what they brought for sharing. Many are even choosing the clothes they wear to coordinate with the letter of the day, a shirt with a picture of an island for “I” day, a dress for “D” day. I overhear conversations children are having about things they encounter that begin with the letter of the day. At bed time my daughter wants to brainstorm ideas of words that begin with the next day’s letter. It has been a great way to reinforce alphabet concepts over the summer, but I’m sure it could be an equally successful school year project.