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.


Great Ideas for Making Music Outdoors

Music has the power to lift us- body, mind and spirit. This is especially true for young children. Making and moving to music promotes all areas of development:

  • physical– coordination, muscle tone, fine and gross motor skills develop as children play instruments or dance to music
  • cognitive– creating and listening to music includes problem solving, logical thinking, patterning, counting, cause and effect, scientific discoveries, imagination and creativity
  • language– vocabulary, phonemic awareness, and rhyming can all be developed through songs
  • social– cooperation, turn-taking, give and take and the creation of shared experiences are all a part of the music making process
  • emotional– self-expression, personal reflection and the exploration of moods and feelings

When we take music outdoors all of these wonderful qualities are enhanced. Outdoors children (and teachers) have a heightened sense of freedom. Outdoors we feel more comfortable to let go and explore. We can sing loud, we can play loud, we can get silly and experimental.

So consider creating a music corner in your outdoor space. Every-day items can make wonderful instruments.

  • Plastic flower pots or 5 gallon tubs make great drums
  • a variety of old spoons hanging on a coat hanger can be chimes
  • PVC pipes of various lengths can be tapped with an old flip-flop to create all kinds of cool sounds
  • Pea gravel makes a neat sound when poured over an old washboard
  • Put a little water into a metal bowl and tap it with a stick to hear more funky sounds

Let the Children Play is another blog full of all kids of photos and ideas for musical fun outdoors. Check it out! And if you want even more info on how to create fun and inexpensive musical experiences to your children check out our Music with Little Ones binder for Infants and Toddlers, or our Making Music binder for ages 3-8.

5 Ways to Help Children Love Learning

With so much focus on accountability and test scores, much of a child’s time at school is spent focusing on his or her weaknesses. If a kindergartner is having trouble learning letter sounds, teachers make sure extra time is spent practicing letter sounds. Makes sense, right? The trouble is that even very young children begin to see school and learning as an experience that makes them feel frustrated and bad about themselves. So what can teachers and parents do to help build important skills without turning children off to learning? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Make sure your expectations are developmentally appropriate– Remember, all children develop at their own rate. Some preschoolers may be ready to sound out simple words, while others are still working on matching the correct sound to a letter. These developmental differences exist into early elementary school. Know the child you are working with and don’t push a skill that the child isn’t ready for!
  2. Build a positive relationship with each child– children are more willing to take risks and persist with challenging tasks if they feel safe and comfortable with you. Get to know children as individuals and let them know as often as you can that you appreciate them for who they are.
  3. Teach a weakness through a strength– If a child is having a hard time learning letters, but loves to move about, create a hide-and-seek letter game or scavenger hunt. Look for letters already out there in signs when you walk around the neighborhood, school or classroom, or hide letter cards around the room or playground.
  4. Create opportunities for positive experiences– Pair a struggling first grade reader with a preschool or kindergarten child who is learning letters and sounds. Give them a chance to be an expert in an area where they struggle. Encourage a child struggling with number identification help you with counting jobs around the room (Can you help me make sure I have 10 pencils in my pencil box?)
  5. Let children take the lead– if you notice that a child is really interested in dinosaurs (or any other topic), let the child lead the learning. Find out what he might want to learn about these creatures and help him to explore. As you do, encourage him to count the teeth in the T-Rex skeleton or identify the first letter sound in that big dinosaur word. The child can take the lead with the topic and you can insert skill development.

WoWKit Activity Binders can help you to reach and teach every child. Each binder is full of skill building teaching ideas for preschool and kindergarten that enable you to teach children through their strengths and interests and tap into their natural curiosity.

Tips For Bringing Structure to Transitions

Transitions are hard for nearly all young children (and their teachers!). Active children take advantage of these “free” moments to run, play or otherwise test boundaries. Children who like order become uncomfortable or nervous with the lack of structure or unclear expectations. Here are a few tips to help bring structure to those moments of transition:

  1. Review your daily schedule and decide if there areĀ  places where you can eliminate a transition time all together. One school I work with has snack set out as an activity choice. Just like other learning centers, participation is limited by the number of seats made available at the table and children rotate through the snack center throughout the morning. This eliminates the transition to snack time and teaches valuable self-help and fine-motor skills (pouring a drink from a small pitcher, spreading cream cheese, cleaning up after oneself, etc.).
  2. Teach expected behaviors– talk about behavior expectations for different transition times. Discuss what the expectations are and why they are important. Then practice those behaviors. It’s a bit like the fire drill practice of your elementary school days. Of course, it’s best if you do this during the first week of school, but any time transitions begin to cause you trouble again, review the expectations and practice. This shouldn’t be a punishment, just a reminder.
  3. Guide behaviors through song– there are all kinds of songs for every transition moment you can imagine, just a Google search away! Transition songs help to remind children of what they should be doing during those transition moments. Kids can’t focus on too many things at once, so if they are singing and following the directions in the song, they are unlikely to be getting into trouble!
  4. Evaluate your expectations– think about what you are asking children to do in light of their age or development. Young children are capable of many things. They can put away their own belongings, they can clean up after themselves, they can get their own snacks, but sitting still and waiting for long periods of time are not developmentally appropriate expectations. Make sure your circle times are short and that you are not expecting children to stand in line and wait for more than a minute or two. Of course, doing a “waiting in line” song is appropriate!

Transitions are important and should be planned as carefully as the rest of your program. Short, smooth transitions are good for the kids and great for you!


Summer Skills Series: Critical Thinking

The ability to think through problems, anticipate the results of your actions and reflect on what you have done are all critical thinking skills. While these don’t fit neatly into the categories of reading, writing and arithmetic, they are definitely important skills for success in school and in life.

The brains of toddlers and many preschoolers aren’t ready to organize their thoughts and move through this kind of high-order thinking. Cause and effect experiences are a great start for this age group. Some age-appropriate activities that often create cause/effect experiences for toddlers include:

  • playing with blocks
  • digging and playing with sand (especially at a beach near a body of water)
  • water play
  • exploring outdoors and interacting with nature

Preschoolers can also develop these skills through the activities mentioned above. Help them add more thinking to their play by creating challenges:

  • Can you build a block wall strong enough to stand up to a rolling tennis ball?
  • How do you make a sand castle?
  • Can you figure out a way to make a boat that will float from these recycled materials?
  • If we wanted to find bugs or other creatures in the yard, where should we look?

Encourage older preschoolers and young school-age children to use their past experiences and knowledge about the world to think through a problem or challenge step by step, or predict what will happen when you lay out the steps for an experiment. Help to encourage problem-solving and critical thinking skills following these simple steps:

  1. Go to your local library and check out books on science experiments or cookbooks for children.
  2. Invite your child to choose an experiment or recipe that looks interesting.
  3. Encourage your child to write down their prediction for what will happen during this experiment.
  4. Help your child follow the steps outlined for the experiment or recipe.
  5. Invite your child to draw a picture of the end result. Talk about it. Was the prediction correct? Why or why not? Encourage your child to verbalize the steps of the experiment.

Following a step-by-step format and encouraging your child to make predictions and then reflect on the process step-by-step is a great way to help children to slow down, think about what they are doing and learn to organize their thoughts. Doing this through science or cooking experiments makes it fun and exciting for your child.

For more great activity ideas, check out World of Wonder’s Terrific Topics for ages 3-6.

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!

Summer Skills Series: Fine Motor Development

Whether you are a parent looking for activities that will prepare your child for school in the fall, or a teacher looking to try something new and different, summer is a great time to practice emerging skills in fun, new ways. Throughout the month I will give tips and activity ideas that will help children develop some of the important skills necessary for the upcoming school year.

Fine motor skills describe those small muscle movements necessary for holding a pencil, writing, tying your shoe, etc. It is very common for preschoolers to have trouble with fine motor skills, and even toddlers can begin working on them. Here are some ideas:

For toddlers and young preschoolers:

  • Place a couple of small cups and a small pitcher of water on a tray for your child. Encourage her to pour the water into the cups. You’ll be amazed at how absorbed your child will be! Tip: Use a tray with sides to keep the water contained if doing this indoors. Provide a sponge cut in half to encourage your child to clean up the spilled water.
  • Place two shallow dishes on a tray. Fill one with water. Give your child a damp sponge cut in half and encourage him to move the water from one dish to the other by putting the sponge in the dish with water, then squeezing it out over the empty dish. Tip: Use a tray with sides to keep the water contained if doing this indoors.
  • Place a variety of rocks, golf balls, or other small objects in a plastic bucket. Give your child a pair of kitchen tongs. Challenge her to remove the objects from the bucket using the tongs.

For older preschoolers and kindergartners:

  • Give children a white ice cube tray, a cup of water and an eye dropper or pipette. Add water to three of the compartments of the tray and add a drop of red food coloring to one, blue to another and green to the third. Encourage your child to move the colored water and add new water by using only the eye dropper. Can he make new colors in other compartments? Can he make a color lighter or darker?
  • In a shallow dish, set out a variety of different seeds (sunflower, bean, etc.), beads or other very small objects. Give your child a pair of tweezers and encourage her to sort the seeds using only the tweezers.
  • Slow down and encourage your child to zip, lace, string and even attempt to tie things as at every opportunity. It will take longer, but zipping jackets, lacing shoes, threading string through grommets are all great practice and give your child a sense of importance and helpfulness.