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.


Do Babies Really Understand Words?

We’ve all been told to speak to our babies to encourage their language development, but how much does an infant really understand? New evidence shows that they understand quite a bit!

A recent study out of the University of California, San Diego shows that baby brains process words just as adult brains do. This flies in the face of the idea that baby learning is more primitive and with time the brain processes information in a more sophisticated way. You can learn more about this study in this article in PsychCentral.

So, talk to your baby. Use real words. Read with your infant. Create an environment full of wonderful language and know that every word is soaking in.

As for future implications of a study like this, I worry it may be used to support the idea that even infants should be placed in a “school setting” similar to that of older children. I hope it will help people to see that even older children would benefit from the more holistic, integrated natural learning environments that help babies to thrive.

Raising Bilingual Children

As the world becomes more and more connected, the benefits of celebrating diversity are clear. Children who are exposed to different cultures, different experiences and different languages will be better prepared for whatever lies ahead. Whether or not a parent (or parents) come from another country, it is this line of thought that is leading more and more parents to become interested in raising bilingual children.

Today, parents who are native speakers of another language, often choose to maintain that language at home. They promote English language learning through school and other outside experiences. In addition, many native English speakers here in the US are choosing to send their children to bilingual schools or hire a bilingual caregiver that can provide an environment of immersion for their children in a second language.

Either approach can be very successful. They key is to be consistent. Young children are sponges for language and will have no problem navigating two (or more!) languages, as long as they have clear expectations of when,  where and with whom they will be speaking each language.

According to an article by Christina Bosemark, founder of the Multilingual Children’s Association, the two most popular methods for dual language learning are:

  • One person, one language- one parent might speak only English to a child, the other only Spanish (or French, Dutch, etc.). In the home both languages are spoken, but the child knows which language to expect from which parent and that remains consistent.
  • Minority Language at Home- in this situation, English is not spoken at home, the entire family speaks only French (or Japanese, Spanish, etc.). Children learn English through interactions and experiences in the community, including attending preschool or other care environments outside the home.

This article stresses that while these are the most popular methods for raising bilingual children, the are not the only methods. Every family needs to find the right fit for them.

People working to raise bilingual children see the advantages of knowing more than one language or culture, but often struggle against the concerns of others. According to Bosemark:

When your child isn’t speaking the community language on the same level as his or her monolingual peers (generally the ML@H child doesn’t reach parity with them until around 5 years of age), it’s difficult not to worry…Some parents fear that he will never learn the primary language, even though this really only occurs when children are isolated from the primary language within a minority speaking community.

Child care providers and parents can work together to ensure strong language development in both languages.

Tips for child care providers/teachers:

  • Help break the ice by encouraging social interactions between English speaking and non-English speaking children. Block play, water play group games and other similar joint experiences can build relationships in a way that doesn’t rely on spoken communication.
  • Build English language skills through songs with finger plays, repetitive text books and a lot of conversation (even if it’s very one-sided at first!)
  • Promote self-esteem by celebrating the child’s native language skills and culture.

Parents can help by:

  • Supporting a child’s efforts to build relationships. Arrange play dates with classmates or other experiences outside the home to encourage English language development.
  • Find books in the home/minority language or engage your child in conversations about the topics that are introduced at school. For example, if your child’s class is starting a unit on Dinosaurs, look for dinosaur books in Spanish (or whatever the home language might be). Talk about the materials or activities your child encounters at school so that the home language vocabulary continues to grow and flourish through the school experiences.

Most importantly, whichever path you choose, be consistent so that your child will know when, where and with whom to speak each language.

Preschool Science: Something to Talk About

Preschool children are filled with wonder and curiosity about the world around them. They want to know how things work, why, and what they can do to influence things. They want to see what happens if they do this or touch that. They are natural scientists.

Unfortunately, most preschool programs don’t tap into this interest and according to a study by a University of Miami researcher,

science is one of the areas in which children show the least learning growth during their preschool years.

A recent article posted in Education Week explores science in the preschool classroom, and encourages teachers to go beyond the typical preschool “science center” which usually consists of a few shells, a magnifying lens, some magnets and perhaps a book on animal camouflage. Children need an opportunity to explore, test ideas and see how things work. The process of scientific inquiry or discovery is what can really have an impact on children’s future learning.

Play advocates may be concerned about packing too much “academics” into preschool. Preschoolers need free play. According to one expert quoted in the article,

efforts to expand preschool science teaching need not necessarily conflict with young children’s need for playtime. Science can be taught in the context of play… the evidence is pretty clear that you don’t just need to have free play for children. There’s free play, and there’s guided play. You just have to be careful,” she added, “because sometimes adults can become too intrusive and the play just stops.

An added benefit of allowing children to engage in real scientific exploration is that it helps boost their language skills. It’s amazing how much children will talk, and how their vocabulary will expand, when you give them something exciting to talk about.

Here are some ideas of science topics to explore with preschoolers:

  • Water– use funnels, tubes, pumps, basters, water wheels to explore how it moves, flows, fills space, interacts with objects and air.
  • Worms– how they dig, move, where they live, how they react to different surfaces or water.
  • Plants– how they grow and change over time, how animals/insects interact with them, what they need to live, parts of the plant and it’s function
  • Blocks– try mixing different textures, shapes, density and explore concepts of balance, size, gravity, structure

For all kinds of ideas for scientific exploration, check out World of Wonder’s preschool themes. Each month-long unit contains an entire section full of hands-on science ideas.

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.

The Power of Pictures

When I think back on my childhood memories, I find that many of them are rooted in the photos that make up my family photo albums. I’ve often wondered if I actually remember the moment, or have just created a story based on the picture…

In the end, it doesn’t matter. Our memories (whether pure or photo-based) are what make up our experiences. As young people, our experiences helped to build our vocabularies, helped us to understand our environment and to make sense of new situations. We continue to draw on our past experiences every day.

My children and I look through family pictures all the time. My 2 year old son’s speech therapist first recommended this activity as a way to encourage his speech and build his vocabulary. It works. He can’t help but call out “fishing!” at the sight of himself holding a fishing pole at a nearby lake. He repeats the names of family members who came to visit over the summer as he sees them in photographs. He tells stories of what we did together.

I can also see the positive effect it has on my 5 year old daughter. Looking at these pictures has really helped to cement family vacations and fun experiences in her mind. She makes current connections to past events in a way that I don’t think would be possible if we didn’t make frequent trips “back in time” through the family album.

I’m not sure why photographs are so powerful. I wonder if it is related to the concept of Multiple Intelligences. Perhaps a photograph has the unique ability to transport us back to a multi-sensory experience. We remember the people we were with, how we were feeling, what we were doing, etc.

I have no doubt that pictures can be just as powerful in the classroom. When children can see themselves at work during various stages of a past project, or revisit a field trip through photos, or use photos to watch a tree in the schoolyard change through the seasons, their understanding becomes deeper, their vocabulary richer, their ability to communicate and make connections, stronger. I also love the way photos can bring parents into the classroom and help to start conversations that might never have happened otherwise.