For Parents, Caregivers, and Pre-K Staff

The Pre-K Years: Getting Ready to Read and Write

Parents, caregivers, and preschool staff play a critical role in preparing young children for school and life success. In addition to a warm and nurturing environment, the adults in children’s lives should also focus on the building blocks of reading and writing.

This overview is designed to walk you through key pre-reading building blocks, including oral language, letters, awareness of spoken sounds, and print awareness. Within each section, you’ll find easy to read and use resources for learning more, and for trying some activities within your setting. Short videos bring concepts to life, booklists provide ideas for extension, and we provide guidance about when to have concerns about a child’s development.

Preschool children listening to read aloud

Creating literacy-rich environments

There’s no doubt that building skills in a few areas during the preschool years can make a huge difference when a child enters school. Browse through to learn more about helping preschool children learn about language, letters, sounds, and how print works. Finally, learn how to choose and read children’s books that will help you enjoy reading together for years to come.

Learn about each of these key areas

Letters and the alphabetic principle

The best predictor of success in reading is a child’s familiarity with the the alphabet. This includes knowing a letter’s name, shape, and sound. A child who can name the letters and their sounds accurately and quickly have an easier time learning how to read. Let’s watch some activities that help children learn their ABC’s.

The Importance of the Alphabetic Principle

Renowned reading researcher Dr. Louisa Moats explains the need for understanding the alphabetic principle.

The Building Blocks of Reading

In Baltimore, a pre-kindergarten program called Children’s Literacy Initiative helps at-risk children meet the school’s high expectations.

Teaching the Alphabetic Principle

In Houston, the teacher of an advanced kindergarten class connects letters and sounds in a systematic and explicit way.

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Children’s Books to Read Aloud

Sounds in speech

Babies, toddlers, and preschoolers can learn to have fun with sounds! Figuring out words that rhyme, coming up with words that share a beginning sound, and saying silly words all help build a child’s phonological awareness; that is, the ability to notice, think about, and play with sounds in words. These skills will be used every time your child reads and writes!

Fun with Phonemes

One family in Raleigh, North Carolina, shows how playing word and rhyming games puts their child on the road to reading success.

Babies Tune in to Speech Sounds

At a baby speech lab at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, psychologist Janet Werker studies how babies develop skills that distinguish speech sounds of their native language.

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Children’s Books to Read Aloud

Oral language and vocabulary

Unlike reading, babies and young children are wired to learn how to speak. From birth to 5 years old, children learn to communicate and acquire a sophisticated vocabulary. This foundation of spoken language forms the bedrock that supports their future reading and writing skills. Let’s learn some ways to support children’s budding language skills and explore some activities for the early childhood classroom.

Having fun with words

This brief Parenting Minute video from WNET talks about how parents and caregivers can help build their children’s language skills through storytelling, talking, singing, playing rhyming games, as well as by pointing out and discussing things throughout the day. (Video also available in Spanish, Bengali, and Chinese)

Encouraging Young Storytellers

Two- and three-year-olds benefit from a project based in Washington, D.C., called STORIES, which is built on the premise that when adults respond to a toddler's efforts to communicate, they increase conversational skills, boost vocabulary, and propel toddlers towards literacy.

Exposing Pre-K Children to Big Words

In this clip from our webinar, Babbling to Books, early literacy expert Dr. Sharon Ramey talks about the importance of exposing very young children to rich language and big words.

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Children’s Books to Read Aloud

Print awareness

Print awareness is understanding that print is organized in a particular way — for example, knowing that print is read from left to right and top to bottom. It is also knowing that print communicates meaning. Watching your child scribble and ask you to “read” it back. Sharing a book together as you point out the title and pictures versus the print. Activities that adults may take for granted, such as finding letters, words, and spaces in books. These are all examples of concepts of print.

Parents can support print awareness by pointing to words as you read and stopping a few times during the story to ask questions, make a comment, or to point to something in the text you want your child to notice. Justice and Ezell (2004) call this strategy print referencing and suggest adults stop and make 3-5 verbal or nonverbal references to the print during read alouds. Understanding how print works puts children on the path to learning to read and write.

Becoming Aware of Print

Mira is two-and-a-half years old. Watch how Mira's parents help her become aware of print.

Concepts of print and letter recognition assessments

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Children’s Books to Read Aloud

Reading together

Sharing books with your child can be among the most special moments of the day. These moments with books teach your child many reading readiness skills. Our resources in this section describe the why's and how's of reading with even the youngest child.

House Calls for Literacy

Watch as an early literacy educator visits a family at home to demonstrate and support interactive readalouds.

Bringing Up Baby

Parents are a child’s first teachers and those early years are key to creating a strong foundation for later reading. The Reach Out and Read program works with pediatricians across the country to help parents and kids start off on the right foot.

Reading as Dialogue

In a Long Island Head Start classroom, children who are at risk for reading failure boost their reading skills using a technique called "dialogic reading."

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Children’s Books to Read Aloud


Children, even our youngest learners, enjoy putting crayon to paper. What often starts as scribbling ends up being important clues to a child’s understanding that print carries meaning. Four-year olds often enjoy “writing” their name and other special words like Mom, Dad, love, and you. Helping your child develop writing readiness skills includes making the most out of everyday writing and providing lots of opportunity to practice!

First Marks

Writing expert Dr. Jane Hansen describes how powerful it is for very young children to realize that they can communicate through oral language — and by making "marks" on a piece of paper.

Emergent Writing

Let’s watch classroom teachers demonstrate effective writing instruction for young children in this video by the Northeast Florida Educational Consortium.

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Children’s Books to Read Aloud

Developmental milestones

Find out what language accomplishments are typical for most children from birth to age three. If you have questions or concerns about your child's progress, talk with your child's doctor, teacher, or a speech and language therapist. For children with any kind of disability or learning problem, the sooner they can get the special help they need, the easier it will be for them to learn.

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If You Have Concerns

High-quality preschool programs

Strong preschool programs are lively places — there’s lots of conversation, active play, interactive read alouds, adults listening to and responding to the kids, all with full attention to each child’s social and emotional needs. A high-quality pre-k curriculum sets goals specific to pre-k and uses learning and developmental standards that are research-based, age-appropriate, and aligned with your state’s K-12 standards. And families are valued — high-quality programs respect and support each family’s home language and at-home teaching efforts.

Reading Maestros

Master teacher Dr. Rebecca Palacios runs a dual-language immersion preschool in Corpus Christi, Texas. While teaching her kids, she also mentors teachers-in-training on how to provide top-notch teaching in a preschool environment.

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