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The science of reading is the body of research focused on how we learn to read. In this Q&A, we respond to several questions about the science of reading in preschool.

What is the science of reading? Why is it important for preschool?

The science of reading is a body of research on reading development, dating back to the 1980s, that emphasizes the science, rather than the commonly held beliefs, about reading. Knowing the science behind reading is critically important today, when nearly one-third of fourth graders are substantially behind their grade level in reading and nearly 10 percent of children in elementary grades have learning disabilities such as dyslexia that can significantly affect reading success.

Why is the science of reading important to know about in early childhood? Because early training of phonological awareness and vocabulary can prevent many reading difficulties from happening in the first place.

The science of reading has focused on five factors critical to future reading success:

  • phonemic awareness: the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words
  • vocabulary: the words a child can understand the meaning of and can properly use in conversation
  • phonics: the ability to match written letters to the sounds of spoken language
  • fluency: the ability to read words and sentences smoothly, quickly, and with expression
  • comprehension: the ability to make meaning from what is read

The first two factors are relevant to preschool teaching. Phonics instruction usually begins in kindergarten and continues through second or third grade. Fluency and comprehension instruction usually begin in first grade and continue until the older elementary grades. Let’s focus on the two skills that can be taught in preschool: phonemic awareness and vocabulary.

Phonemic awareness is when a child understands the sounds that make up words. There are 44 phonemes in the English language represented by 26 letters. Phonemes are the smallest units of the spoken language. The 44 phonemes can be categorized by consonants, vowels, digraphs (e.g., sh, ch), diphthongs (e.g., oi, ow), and R controlled vowels (in words such as her, horn, cargo).

We can teach the letter sounds to preschoolers quite easily through games and songs. Some favorite songs that help children practice phonemic awareness are “Apples and Bananas” and “Willaby Wallaby Woo.” Although many adults focus on teaching letter names in preschool, teaching the letter sounds is also very important at this stage. Teaching letter sounds can be done through reading a letter-sound book or simply stating the sound a letter makes aloud and having the children repeat it together, such as “The letter B says /b/.”

Vocabulary can be taught through reading books aloud and having complex conversations in the classroom. A variety of books for read-aloud time is critical for teaching vocabulary. Books with characters that are different culturally or in other ways than the children in your class can expose children to new words and increase their vocabulary more than the everyday language they use in their home and at school. What about a book about farm life, if your school is in the city, or a book about the animals of South America, or a book about working at the post office? All these books are going to expose your students to new words that you can define and talk about, leading to a bigger vocabulary for each child.

Are we pushing first-grade and kindergarten curriculum down to preschool?

We can look to the Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards (IELDS) for guidance and find language arts standards intended specifically for children ages 3, 4, and 5. According to the IELDS, young children should be able to

  • demonstrate increasing competence in oral communication (listening and speaking).
  • demonstrate understanding and enjoyment of literature.
  • demonstrate interest in and understanding of informational text.
  • demonstrate increasing awareness of and competence in emergent reading skills and abilities (e.g., recognizing and naming some letters of the alphabet, blending sounds of words aloud with help, recognizing rhyming words).
  • demonstrate increasing awareness of and competence in emergent writing skills and abilities (e.g., scribbling, writing letters, and drawing).

Preschoolers don’t need to be able to read, although some may read at an early age. In a high-quality early childhood program, preschoolers learn from a language-rich environment. In this environment,

  • read-alouds are frequent and fun.
  • many oral language games are played and children’s vocabularies grow.
  • children know how to hold a book, flip the pages, and treat it with care.
  • children know that words on a page have meaning.
  • children can communicate to get their wants and needs met.

Preschoolers do need play. Children should have a balance of play and more structured activities such as read-alouds, singing and rhyming songs, and other oral language activities. When learning in this way, all activities feel like play for young children, who will grow and develop in their language arts skills.

What can I do as a preschool teacher to support early literacy using the science of reading?

At the preschool stage, oral language, especially phonemic awareness and vocabulary, are the most critical skills to develop. Most of the activities to support the science of reading in preschool require no more materials than you and the children. Worksheets, handouts, and paper are not needed. High-quality children’s books are recommended for reading to highlight these concepts :

  • Rhyming and alliteration: Read aloud every day, especially stories with rhyming and alliteration. For example, nursery rhymes can be a fun way to introduce rhyming. Predictable books often feature patterns and sequences that appeal to young children.
  • Singing and vocabulary: Sing finger-play songs such as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” with children and talk about the new vocabulary in the song. “Twinkle, what do you think that word means? To sparkle in the sky? Yes, that’s a great definition! Twinkle is to sparkle! Let’s make a twinkle motion with our hands. Wow, you are all twinkling!”
  • First sound awareness: Practice letter sounds together with initial sounds of short words. “The first sound we hear in the word cat is /k/. Does anything else start with /k/? Yes, cup starts with /k/. Candy starts with /k/, too!”
  • Syllable segmentation: Segment words into syllables. Try this as you dismiss children from group time. “Jennifer’s turn. Let’s clap out the sounds in Jennifer’s name. JEN-I-FER. How many was that? Yes. Three syllables!”

What can I do at home with my preschool-age child to support early literacy in line with the science of reading?

You can help your child develop their vocabulary and their understanding of language with some simple, daily activities.

  • Read together: Read books to your child every day. Talk about the characters in the stories and any new words you may come across. “The tiger was riding a train. Isn’t that silly? Tigers don’t ride on trains! Have you ever seen a tiger? Yes, it is a very big cat!” For ideas for reading and playing games, see our tip sheet The Gift of Words: Reading and Games.
  • Talk together: Talk a lot! Have conversations. Talk about what you see when you are out and about. Try to have a back-and-forth conversation, taking turns to talk a few times. The longer and more turn-taking in your conversation, the more growth you will see with your child’s language skills.
  • Notice things: Notice signs and words in your environment. “That is the sign for the bakery. Do you know what it says? Alberta Bakery!”
  • Emphasize your child’s name: Help your child recognize their written name. “You drew a wonderful picture of the dog. Would you like me to write your name on the bottom? Max. M-A-X, that’s your name!”

Additional skills and habits to help your preschool-age child get ready to read can be found in our tip sheet Fun at Home with Preschoolers: Getting Ready to Read!

What literacy skills might a kindergarten teacher expect from young children coming into their classroom?

Children who begin kindergarten have a wide variety of abilities and prior experiences with school environments and formal learning. Not all children attend preschool or prekindergarten, so kindergarten may be a child’s first school experience.

Many kindergarten teachers say that it is beneficial that a child knows how to follow two- or three-step directions, knows how to communicate their wants and needs, and has some social skills such as waiting for a turn and sharing toys with others. Knowing some letter sounds, some letter names, and being able to identify their written name also are helpful skills.

As the school year approaches, here are some activities that families can do to be prepared for kindergarten.

IEL Resources

Tip Sheets


Tool Kit: Helping Young Children Get Ready to Read

About this resource

Intended audience(s):
  • Parents / Family
  • Teachers / Service providers
  • Faculty / Trainer

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Related Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards:
Reviewed: 2022