Home icon

Children learn language before they read. Even very young children are learning to listen to words to gain speech and language skills. While this is happening, they are exploring print in books and throughout their environment to make connections between print and spoken words.

This tool kit will provide information on print awareness, oral language, phonological awareness, letter knowledge, and beginning writing and how all of these pieces fit together to help children master the skill of reading. It will also provide adults with ideas on how they can set up the physical and social environment to help prepare young children for reading.

Learning standards developed by the state of Illinois describe what children should do and what development looks like in everyday life. Skills described in the Illinois Early Learning Guidelines for Children Birth to Age 3 lay the foundation for later learning. Later skills are outlined in the 2013 Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards, Illinois Learning Standards for Kindergarten, and the Illinois Learning Standards. The standards are aligned within each domain to connect skills in early childhood to later skills. Standards and guidelines related to literacy skills are provided in the Additional Resources section.

  • Early language and literacy skills are learned best through everyday routines. Young children are learning about reading while exploring books long before they can identify letters or know their meaning. As infants, they recognize a familiar adult’s voice and can begin to imitate sounds. As children grow, they begin to grab items, including books, and manipulate them. As their motor skills increase, babies can sit independently and then become mobile. They may begin to understand a few words because receptive language skills, what they understand, develop earlier than expressive language skills, what they can say. Preschoolers learn to recognize write their names, recognize when words and books are upside down, and may begin to associate written words with familiar objects or places.
    • Adults can support young children by providing a literacy-rich environment full of books and writing materials. Try this Home Literacy Environment Checklist. IEL’s Get Ready to Read tip sheet shares more ideas for setting young children up for reading and writing success.
    • Early childhood providers can set up a literacy environment that includes pillows or low chairs, small tables, and picture books displayed on low shelves. IEL’s Getting Ready to Read and Write in Child Care tip sheet provides additional ideas to help young children develop emergent literacy skills.
    • Adults can provide board books, cloth books, picture books, rhyming books, and alphabet books for young children to explore. There is a natural progression of reading skills development for young children, as described on Reach Out & Read’s Milestones of Early Literacy Development.
    • Domain 3 of the Illinois Early Learning Guidelines for Children Birth to Age 3 addresses young children’s interest in and comprehension of printed materials.

Oral Language

  • Early speech and language development is critical to the development of literacy skills. Children’s receptive language skills are evident before their expressive language skills. Children combine those oral language skills with what they know about print and gradually become ready to read and write.
    • Infants and toddlers make incredible increases in their ability to understand language and communicate during their first three years of life. They go from crying to cooing to babbling to first words and sentences. This IEL Early Learning Moment Video, Language Development, Communication, and Literacy, shows several clips of young children at various ages and demonstrates interactions with caregivers.
    • Young children learn by listening to language. Adults can support this learning by playing games, singing songs, and talking with young children about the words in the environment around them, as described in the IEL tip sheet Learning by Listening to Language.
    • Oral language refers to all aspects of spoken language. Children demonstrate their oral language skills through crying, smiling, babbling, first words, new vocabulary, and putting words together into phrases, sentences, and stories. Adults can support young children by talking young children through routines or expanding on what the children say. The National Center on Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness describes additional strategies for adults in its short booklet How Parents and Families Support Oral Language and Vocabulary.
    • Just as a home’s foundation must support the entire structure to create the final product, a child’s language skills must be built upon a strong foundation that includes oral language skills. A responsive communication partner should be face to face and at the child’s level, follow the child’s lead, and encourage them to continue the interaction, as described by the Hanen Center in How to Build a Strong Foundation for Your Child’s Language Skills.

Phonological Awareness

  • The ability to hear the different sounds of letters within words is known as phonological awareness. Parents often observe this when infants coo and babble, which then develops into a more meaningful “ma ma” or “ba ba.” Older toddlers and preschoolers explore this when learning about the sounds that letters make and rhyming.
    • Playing games such as “I Spy” and rhyme time with young children can help them begin to demonstrate an understanding of spoken words, syllables, and sounds as described in IEL’s Learning by Listening to Language tip sheet.
    • Phonemes are the smallest units of spoken language. Phonemes combine to form syllables and words. Children develop a familiarity with phonemes by reading books and adult-led language activities such as talking about consonants and vowels and the sounds they make. Adults can talk to children about letters, words, signs, and symbols while on a walk around the neighborhood or around the house. The IEL tip sheet Out and About with Preschoolers: Literacy Activities provides more ideas to help adults support young children.
    • Children can detect syllables first, then segments, and finally phonemes. When adults expose children to books with predictable texts, such as repeated features, children develop a love for “reading” those books by themselves. Books that play with language, such as made up words, also provide engaging interactions with words, sounds, and letters. Authors Shickedanz and Collins describe features of emergent literacy and language in the book So Much More than the ABCs: The Early Phases of Reading and Writing.
    • The Center for Early Literacy Learning Practice Guides for Parents are related to variety of topics that can help parents provide fun and exciting literacy learning experiences. Activity suggestions include lap games, fingerplays, playing with words and letters, scribbling, and alphabet fun. There are Infant Practice Guides for Parents as well as Toddler Practice Guides for Parents.

Letter Knowledge

  • Letter, or alphabet, knowledge is the ability to recognize and name lower- and uppercase letters. It builds on young children’s experiences with letters in their daily lives. Babies and toddlers explore print in books and on labels and signs. Preschoolers begin to recognize these letters and learn letter names and sounds, typically beginning with the first letter of their name.
    • Children must be able to recognize and name letters to be able to learn the sounds those letters make. It is important for adults to recognize that children learn these relationships at different rates, as indicated in this article, The Alphabetic Principle, from Reading Rockets.
    • As described on the National Center on Early Childhood Development, Teaching and Learning’s Alphabet Knowledge and Early Writing page, adults help children to develop letter knowledge through games, comparison of shapes and letter formations, and by pointing letters out in books or on an outing.
    • Caregivers can reinforce the connection between letters and sounds in various ways. Reading to young children and labeling objects in the classroom or home are just two ideas suggested by Scholastic in this article, Go Back to Basics By Teaching Students Phonemic Awareness.
    • Talking About Numbers and Letters, a video from IEL, demonstrates how a classroom teacher supports a student as he is exploring plastic letters on a tray.

Beginning Writing

  • Young toddlers’ first experience with a marker or crayon and paper may look uncoordinated to adults. They may look at the marker, inspect the mark on the paper, touch the marker, or even try to smell or taste the paper and marker. Finger paints and messy foods also provide young toddlers with the opportunity to notice that their finger movements leave a mark on the surface. These are the beginning skills needed for writing. For older toddlers and preschoolers, as their fine motor skills advance, their drawings and writings become more graceful and intentional.
    • As very young children explore writing utensils, including paint brushes, crayons, and markers, they are learning that their actions have effects, that they can leave a mark on paper, a high chair tray, or any surface. Young toddlers’ scribbling evolves into repeated marks or shapes on a page and then to lines and patterns for 2- and 3-year-olds. Preschoolers begin to draw pictures of objects or people and practice writing letters and words. Zero to Three describes this development in this article, Learning to Write and Draw.
    • The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) encourages adults to support young children’s love of literacy by talking and listening, reading aloud together, exploring the sounds of language, offering alphabet activities, and providing early writing materials in this article, Everyday Steps to Reading and Writing.
    • Adults can Help Young Children Develop Strong Writing Skills during day-to-day activities. Adults can model writing notes, copying words down, and keeping a journal. It is important for adults to allow young children time to practice writing, to respond to ideas expressed verbally, and to avoid rewriting children’s work. These suggestions and more are provided in English and Spanish by Colorín Colorado.

IEL Resources

Web Resources