early literacy reading

Early literacy

Early literacy skills are critical for your child’s success in school (and beyond!). For young learners, literacy skills are those needed to set them up for reading and writing success in later years. Keep reading to learn how to help support your child’s early literacy journey at home.

What is early literacy?

According to the Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy (CLEL), a coalition of children’s librarians, research says that six key skills make up early literacy: Print motivation, print awareness, letter knowledge, vocabulary, phonological awareness, and narrative skills.

Check out the sections below to see why each skill is essential and how adults can support it at home. These are an overview of the six early literacy skills outlined by CLEL, with added resources to help teach each skill at home (or in the classroom!).

1. Print motivation

CLEL definition: Being interested in and enjoying books

To encourage print motivation, you’ll want to provide literacy activities that are tailored to your child’s interests and that inspire your little one to explore new topics too. It’s also about enjoying the process, so make reading a positive experience that everyone looks forward to!

For 25 simple and engaging activities to encourage print motivation, check out this PDF created by Ed Kame’enui and Deborah C. Simmons.

And, remember, engaging with books doesn’t need to be limited to when children can read! Even babies can start exploring texts with age-appropriate books like board books or sensory books.

2. Print awareness

CLEL definition: “Noticing print everywhere, knowing how to handle a book, and knowing how to follow the written word on the page

Learning how to read a book is an important part of the reading process. You’ve got to teach kids the basics, like where the title of a book is and how to read the text, for example!

For some prompts that help teach emerging readers about print awareness, check out this post by Reading Rockets.

Child writing "I love you dad" on a pillowcase.
Once a child shows interest in writing, find a technique that works for them to learn letter formation. Copying from a writing sample like this is one of many ways to help with writing. You can also write in highlighter, provide letter blocks, and practice making letters from manipulatives like sand or playdoh.

3. Letter knowledge

CLEL definition: Knowing that letters are different from each other, knowing letter names and sounds, and recognizing letters everywhere

Learning letters is a foundational literacy skill. And, with 26 letters to learn in the English alphabet, it’s essential to work with your children to learn this skill.

Here’s how Christina Winters, a former elementary teacher of 21 years, suggests you teach letter knowledge:

  1. Teach their name letters
  2. Practice making the shapes of letters often with letter tracing activities
  3. Read alphabet books whenever you can
  4. Include multi-sensory activities

For tons of letter recognition activity ideas, check out her blog post here.

If your little ones are interested in worksheets, I’ve also created a free set of ABC worksheets. Get them here!

4. Vocabulary

CLEL definition: Knowing all kinds of words

By following your child’s lead with vocabulary acquisition, being patient in the process, and helping your child understand the meaning of words with actions and definitions, you can help expand your child’s vocabulary, according to the Hanen Center. This means exposing them to lots of spoken language by talking with and around them.

For more research-backed activities to build your young child’s vocabulary, read this post by the Hanen Center.

5. Phonological awareness

CLEL definition:Hearing and playing with the smaller sounds of words

Phonological awareness is essential for reading because written words correspond to spoken words. Readers must have awareness of the speech sounds that letters and letter combinations represent in order to move from a printed word to a spoken word (reading), or a spoken word to a written word (spelling).

Moats, as quoted by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

For five phonological and phonemic awareness activities, check out this post by Learning Without Tears!

6. Narrative skills

CLEL definition:Describing things and events, telling stories, knowing the order of events, and making predictions

Young learners don’t need to be able to retell a long story or sequence of events to demonstrate narrative skills. They should, however, be able to understand the order of basic events and logically put a story in order (and predict what comes next). There are many simple ways to practice this at home, like those from the Speech Sprouts (see below).

For some simple activities that you can do to boost narrative skills, read this post by Lisette Edgar. Note: This is a teacher-centered blog, but you can do most of these activities at home too! I especially like the cookie sheet storytelling idea.

Child reading a book with the words "My favorite things to do are spinning. -it takes me a whole day to go around once-"

What else does the research say?

There are many early literacy practices above to support your child’s learning, but if you’re still not convinced about how critical early literacy is, keep reading to find out what the experts say about establishing these essential skills.

Daily reading

Keisha Siriboe, an award-winning researcher in early childhood literacy, recommends reading aloud to your children every single day between the ages of 0-5 years. A minimum of 15 minutes of daily reading has been proven to develop collaboration, conversational, and storytelling skills. Further, books can act as a pathway for addressing tough topics in the child’s life, like bullying, for example.

The research shows that doing so helps set them up for success in the age of technology and innovation that we are currently living in, but also supports skills they will need to thrive as they age.

I would also highly suggest watching her Ted Talk below, as she dives into much more detail on the topic. Skip to 4:10 for her parenting toolkit if you’d like.

Early literacy starts in infancy – Meaning babies benefit from having books read to them, too. See our favorite books for 1-year-olds here.

Encourage your child to explore books on their own, too

Reading with your child is excellent for establishing early literacy skills for reading and writing, but what happens when little ones want to read independently? Encourage it, of course! While Keisha Siriboe suggests that you should continue the practice of reading to your kids as long as possible, there is also evidence to show that independent reading can improve fluency and reading achievement, too.

Here is how Reading Rockets suggests you support independent reading for children:

  • Help children find books that they are interested in. Having lots of books available that your children enjoy inspires a desire to read. You can also make heading to the library a routine event, as they have tons of books and other literacy resources available to borrow.
  • Provide books that are ability-appropriate. Reading Rockets say that a child should be able to understand 95% of the words in their books during independent reading and say that if a child is very interested in a particular book you can suggest reading it to them another time while they pick a book more appropriate for their current level.
  • Variety! Provide a variety of different texts and types of stories. Remember, reading doesn’t just mean reading books – there are also newspapers, letters, comics, recipes… etc.!
    • This isn’t on the linked Reading Rockets page, but I also suggest having an inclusive library that includes characters of diverse abilities, backgrounds, and experiences. It’s important children see themselves and those around them reflected in texts.
  • Have materials available for all levels of readers, including struggling readers.

Read more in their article here.

To sum it all up, though, reading books fosters a love of literature that can last your child’s lifetime. By having lots of materials available that interest them and are at their current ability level, you can help instill a passion for reading and a feeling of ownership over choices by giving them the sense that they can decide for themselves what interests them most.

You can make this process easier by introducing topics or genres that align with their interests or encouraging conversation about what type of stories they’re attracted to or want to learn about; these conversations will create solid foundations for developing as greater readers later on.

Child tracing on a worksheet for the letter "C"
For a free set of alphabet worksheets, head to my post here.

Emerging literacy

Teaching reading and writing can be pretty intimidating. But thankfully, there is tons of support for early childhood education (including literacy!). Before thinking about how to teach reading and writing, though, I would suggest reading up on how children learn how to read.

Many play experiences support children’s emerging literacy skills. Sorting, matching, classifying, and sequencing materials such as beads, a box of buttons, or a set of colored cubes, contribute to children’s emerging literacy skills. Rolling playdough and doing fingerplays help children strengthen and improve the coordination of the small muscles in their hands and fingers. They use these muscles to control writing tools such as crayons, markers, and brushes.

Derry Koralek and Ray Collins at Reading Rockets

They’ve also got some great examples of the types of activities that young children might engage in, so I highly suggest checking out their post (linked above).

For more early literacy tips for parents, check out my post here.

Talk to your child often, using simple words and phrases

When children hear a lot of different words, they’re likely to learn, understand and use plenty of different words themselves.

Raising Children

One of the easiest ways to encourage your child’s language development is to talk to them often. This will enable them to learn new words and phrases and also help establish a bond as they grow up. The key is to ensure you are using simple words and phrases they can understand.

For example, if your child points at something interesting, like a bird outside, rather than just saying, “look at the bird,” try explaining what it looks like by using descriptive words such as “That looks like an eagle! Can you see its strong wings?”

Also, try to use open-ended questions as frequently as possible. Look for questions that prompt more than just a “yes” or “no” response. Try creating questions with starters like:

  • “Why do you think…?”
  • “How can we…?”
  • “What should we do about…?”

The Illinois Early Childhood Project says that “Open-ended questions and phrases allow children to provide a full and meaningful answer that conveys their thoughts and feelings.” It’s also important to be patient when your child is responding because they require a little more thinking time than us adults.

Help them understand what they’re reading by asking questions about the story

When kids are learning to read, understanding the text can be one of the biggest barriers for them. One way to help them comprehend is by asking questions as they read. Questions can help bring meaning to the text by encouraging learners to reflect. If they’re actively thinking about what they’re reading, it gives them an opportunity to consider possible interpretations and make deeper connections with the story.

Here are some questions you can try:

  • Before reading: Ask questions about what they think might happen based on the cover or the title. Follow up with questions about why they predict this or how they know.
  • During reading: Check for understanding by asking about specific details in the story. Like “why do you think the character did that?” or “how could these pictures help us predict what is coming next?” You might also check in about specific details, like asking what children think a certain image or phrase means.
  • After reading: Ask questions like “what was your favorite part?” or “who would you recommend this book to?” You can also extend the learning by having children make up ideas for sequels, for example.

For a comprehensive list of prompts for young readers, check out this page by Mrs. Judy Araujo.


What are early literacy examples?

Early literacy skills are the skills that set children up for success as they learn to read and write. Babies learn by hearing adults converse and exploring board books. Toddlers practice early literacy with tactile activities and begin to understand how books work and how to follow words on a page.

What are the early literacy skills?

The early literacy skills are print motivation, print awareness, letter knowledge, vocabulary, phonological awareness, and narrative skills.

How do you teach early literacy skills?

For young learners, you will want to make reading to them a daily practice. You will also want to encourage independent reading and inspire a love of reading by practicing reading and writing skills with hands-on activities that match your child’s interests. And, remember, reading isn’t just books! Kids can read recipes, signs, letters, etc.!


Looking for more literacy-related posts? Here you go!

Learning with littles

Whether you’ve got budding scientists, little artists, or busy mathematicians, we’ve got resources for you! Check out our learning category, filled with teaching tips and free printables that your kiddos will love.


Six Early Literacy Skills, by the Colorado Libraries for Eary Literacy

25 Activities for Reading and Writing Fun, by Ed Kame’enui and Deborah C. Simmons

Tips and Activities for Teaching Alphabet Recognition, by Christine Winters

Build Your Child’s Vocabulary, by Lauren Lowry

Phonological Awareness, by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

5 Phonological & Phonemic Awareness Activities, by Learning Without Tears

How to Improve Narrative Skills In Young Children, by Lisette Edgar

The Power of Open-Ended Questions, by the Illinois Early Learning Project