This is the third article in a series on the Importance of Reading and supporting literacy at home. This week, we take a closer look at early literacy and several activities that help develop foundations for literacy even before a child reads his or her first words.

Parents often ask how they can help their young child learn to read. Literacy is a complex process that develops over a lifetime. Children begin this journey at a very young age through oral language, which lays the foundation for literacy development. 

Language and play are a child’s major tools for learning about the world and the most important tools for early literacy learning and building background knowledge. According to theorists, children acquire oral language in a series of stages that can vary from child to child and begin with “baby talk.” Children who spend their early years participating in rich dialogue with parents, older siblings and other adults grow expansive vocabularies (Hoff-Ginsberg, 1991, 2006; Pancsofar & Vernon-Feagans, 2006). This is true for any language a child speaks (Biemiller, 2006; Pinnell & Jaggar, 2003; Scarborough, 2001; Squires, Gillam & Reutzel, 2013). 

Children differ in the amount of literacy exposure and experience they have prior to entering school and home literacy experiences can make a real impact. Get your child off to a great start in reading by providing a lot of exposure to literacy through easy, fun and enjoyable activities. Children are curious about literacy and will naturally engage with literacy in a playful way if it is presented as an interesting part of their physical and social world. 

Read to your Child

Hundreds of studies show the benefits of reading to children when they are young. Reading aloud improves a child’s language, intelligence, and later literacy achievement. Listening to parents, older siblings and other adults read books can help a child develop a real love for reading. Reading aloud has been found to better prepare children in the challenge of learning to read once they enter school (D. Holdaway, 1979). 

What should you read? Picture books, rhyming books and poetry are perfect for younger children and provide opportunities for conversation and playful language experiences. 

Tips for Reading with Younger Children:

  • Teach your child some basic concepts about how books work such as marks on the pages of books are letters and words and symbols, words are speech written down, which way a book goes, and reading top to bottom and left to right (English).
  • Use your finger to point where a sentence begins to promote directionality.
  • Before reading, read the title, look at the front cover, the back cover and look at the first few pages of the book. Make a prediction about what the book will be about and why to help your child dive in with a better understanding of the book.
  • Make sure your child shows interest in reading. If your 18-month old shows no interest, put the book away and come back to it later when he or she is ready.
  • Add body percussion when you read books for different characters or movements and encourage your child to participate.
  • Encourage your child to use voices or instruments to add sounds to stories.
  • When discussing words, talk about the sounds of letters.
  • Provide ample time for your child to talk about the book you are reading.
  • Explain the meaning of new words to your child to build his or her vocabulary.
  • After reading, ask what happened at the beginning, middle and end of the story.
  • Make reading an enjoyable part of your family routine.

Come to the CIS library after school when our campus re-opens to check out books or click here to connect to the CIS Parents’ Literacy Corner online. 

Play Word Games and Sing Songs

Explore language in playful ways to support phonemic awareness. These types of games can help develop general speech and sound discrimination which helps children become readers. 

Sound Games:

  • Listen for and identify general sounds, speech sounds and patterns in your environment such as vehicles, birds singing, animal sounds, machines, other children or adults speaking, etc. or listen to everyday sounds such as water being poured or splashed.
  • Identify the sounds of different musical instruments.
  • Use your own body as percussion to make sounds such as clapping, knee pats, or stomping. Play a hiding game using body percussion.
  • Sing or chant nursery rhymes encouraging your child to move with rhythm such as swaying, marching or skipping to the beat of the rhyme.
  • Ask your child to find an object that begins with the sound of the first letter sound of a family member’s name.
  • Play games where your child uses his or her voice in different ways to explore sounds.
  • Perform chants or play games where you and your child use different voices such as singing, speaking normally, shouting, whispering, growling, squeaking, etc.
  • Create opportunities for your child to explore other sounds he or she can make with his or her voices using emotions.

Rhythm and Rhyme Games:

As children chant and sing rhymes to a beat, they gradually develop a repertoire of rhymes. Children may start to imitate them when “talking” to their toys because they like the sound or feel of the sound on their tongues. An example is ‘eensy-weensy’ or ‘munching, wunching’. 

  • Help increase your child’s awareness of rhyme by changing the words of a well known rhyme.
  • Make up rhymes. 
  • Make up rhyming couplets (a pair of lines that rhyme). An couplet example is below:

April showers
Bring May flowers

  • Sing rhymes and songs with alliteration such as “Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers” or tongue-twisters to help tune your child’s ears to the relationships between sound structures of words. 

Have Conversations About Print 

Children demonstrate a basic understanding that print (images, pictures, symbols, etc.) conveys meaning. For example, young children point to cereal boxes or a picture of an object in a book or on television and begin to connect meaning to everything they experience. Younger children use their oral language and knowledge of the world to read pictures, images and text (Holdaway 1979; Snow, Burns, and Griffin 1998). Adults can help children build on their existing understanding of print by providing opportunities to interact with print and have conversations about the meaning of print.

Have fun, be playful and enjoy language and literacy experiences at home! 

Parent Resources:

Literacy Activities for Children

Print Awareness

Julie Gibson is a Grade 2 teacher with a special interest in literacy, at The Canadian International School of Phnom Penh.

For references used in this article, contact Julie Gibson at

Photo by Ash Kinsella