Concepts about print and book handling skills are usually paired together as one of the earliest reading readiness skills that children develop before they can learn to read successfully. In this post, you’ll discover how easy it is to help your child develop a strong understanding of concepts about print and book handling skills.
The most fundamental idea of print concepts is that print has meaning. In other words, those squiggles and marks on paper actually mean something, and by looking carefully at them, people can figure out what they mean. Kids need to know that the individual marks on the paper are letters and that a group of letters creates a word.
The term “book handling skills” refers to the understanding of how books work. It includes knowing how to hold books, and how to turn pages correctly.
The key to helping your child these skills is to provide a literacy-rich home environment. Then, create opportunities for your child to interact with it.
Use these tips to transform your home into a literacy-rich environment that will make it easy and natural for your little one to develop strong concepts about print and book handling skills.
Keep Books as Handy as Toys
1. Have books widely available and readily accessible. Keep children’s books available throughout your home in places your child can easily reach. Add plastic books to your collection of bath toys, place baskets of books in every room, and always keep some in the car. You want books to be as commonly found in your home as toys.
2. Encourage children of any age to “read” books. Babies will play with them, toddlers may look at the pictures and preschoolers might retell the story as they flip through the book. Kindergartners and early readers may look for words they know. These are all examples of children developing their understanding of how print works.
Make the Most of Time With Books
3. Sit next to your child when you are reading, so they can see the pages of the book.
4. Before you start reading book with your child, point to the title as you read it. Run your finger under the author’s name as you read it, and then explain that the author is the person who thought the story up in their brain and wrote it down. Read the illustrator’s name the same way, and explain that the illustrator is the person who made the pictures to go along with the story.
5. When it feels natural and the print is big enough, point to the words as you read them.
6. Encourage your child to gently help you turn the pages sometimes.
7. Model how you use print throughout the day. Draw your child’s attention to it when you are writing an email to a family member, reading a recipe card, or reading a sign in the environment. Have them help you write a grocery list! Let your child see you read and write for fun and entertainment, and also for practical purposes.
8. Write out a daily schedule with your child at the beginning of the day, and then check off each activity together as you complete it.
9. Point out signs in your environment when you are out and about in the community. Draw your child’s attention to common traffic signs, and familiar street names and store names.
Make it Fun and “Hands-on”
10. Create a writing corner with a wide variety of materials. Add different types of paper, and provide crayons, colored pencils and markers. You can even staple paper together to create little books for your child to write in. Provide time for your child to explore and play in the writing corner every day.
11. Have alphabet materials available, too. Alphabet books, alphabet puzzles and alphabet toys are fantastic ways to immerse your child in print. Keep alphabet stickers and alphabet stamps in the writing corner or craft area. Display a couple of alphabet charts at your child’s height in different rooms of the house.
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Label Your House
12. Attach clearly written labels to as many items in the house as you are willing to. Post-its are great for this, or you can use index cards. When my kids were little we took a fair amount of teasing from a visiting uncle when he entered a bathroom and found the toilet conveniently labeled. Label toy containers, doors, windows, kitchen appliances, rooms, tables, chairs, sinks, cupboards etc. You can have your kids help you write the labels and put them on, or do it yourself.
13. Regularly encourage your children to “read the house” by touching each label with a pointer or a finger and saying the word. It doesn’t matter if they aren’t really reading it. The idea is to make print very familiar to your child. You want them to take it for granted as part of your home environment.
Easy and Natural
With just a little bit of purposeful attention on your part, you can help your child develop print concepts and book knowledge easily and naturally.
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Reading readiness and pre-reading skills are topics that parents of preschoolers think about often.
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If you have a preschooler, you may be tempted to start teaching them to read, and wonder if it’s a good idea or not. You certainly don’t want to push your child too early and risk turning them off reading. You also don’t want to hold your preschooler back if they seem to be ready.
While I am a huge believer in a developmental approach to early childhood education, I think its fine to follow your child’s lead if they are showing you that they are ready to learn how read.
Signs of Reading Readiness
But how can you know? What are the signs of reading readiness, and what are the pre-reading skills that kids need to have before they learn how to read?
Before you start teaching your child to read, be sure they are showing these five signs of reading readiness.
Interest and Motivation
Kids who are ready to learn how to read are interested in looking at books and listening to stories read aloud. When the time is right and other reading readiness skills are in place, this interest expands into motivation to learn how to read.
You’ll know your child is interested in books and reading if they bring books to you and ask you to read to them. You may notice that your child falls in love with a particular book and wants to hear it over and over again.
Kids who are interested in books may sit and look at books by themselves. They may retell the story out loud as they look through the book, pretending to read it.
It’s fine if attention spans are short and reading sessions are brief, but a child who is ready to learn how to read is willing and hopefully eager to listen to an adult read books to them.
A child who is ready to learn how to read views books and reading as a wonderfully positive part of life.
Listening Comprehension and Oral Language
Kids who are ready to learn how to read are able to listen to and understand stories, and then talk about them. These pre-reading skills support independent reading comprehension later on.
If you make casual comments about the story when you are reading books aloud, you may notice that your child begins to do the same thing.
Older preschoolers and Kindergartners who are ready to learn how to read can answer simple questions about the story you are sharing together. They may be able to answer your open-ended questions such “What do you think will happen next?” or “Why do you think she (the character) did that?”
A child who is ready to learn how to read understands stories and is able to talk about them with others.
Print Awareness & Book Knowledge
Print awareness is the understanding that the writing on a page is letters, and letters create words, which we can read in order to understand what they say.
Kids who are ready to read might point to the print (randomly) while they are looking through a book and telling themselves the story.
They have noticed that you run your finger under print from left to right, and start at the top of the page.
A child who is ready to learn how to read can recognize their name and other common words and symbols in their environment, such as “Target” or even just the Target bulls eye.
A child who has good book knowledge can hold a book the right way and turn the pages from right to left.
A child who is ready to learn how to read understands that print conveys meaning, and knows how books work.
The Two Most Important Pre-Reading Skills
The last two pre-reading skills your child needs are phonological and phonemic awareness and alphabet knowledge, and they are crucial.
The development of these two skills can also be supported in very natural ways, but these natural supports usually require more direction from an adult.
I’ll summarize and discuss phonological and phonemic awareness and alphabet knowledge here, but they are subjects that deserve much more coverage than this brief mention in a single blog post. Look for links to my other blog posts for more in depth discussion about these topics.
Phonological awareness is the understanding that language is made up of words, parts of words, and individual sounds. This understanding helps kids recognize and work with the parts of spoken language. Phonological awareness is completely oral – it doesn’t have anything to do with matching sounds to printed letters.
I recently heard someone describe the oral nature of phonological awareness in this way: If you wanted to, you and your child could work on it in the dark. This was so direct and clear – I loved it!
Phonological awareness can seem like a mish-mash of related skills that are easy to get mixed up. I find it helpful to think of phonological awareness in four parts. These four parts are word awareness, rhyme awareness, syllable awareness and phonemic awareness.
Word awareness is the ability to recognize individual words in spoken language. Rhyme awareness is the ability to recognize and then produce rhyming words. Syllable awareness is the ability to break words into syllables orally, or to blend syllables into words orally.
Phonemic awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate (play with) the individual sounds in spoken words. Phonemes are the very smallest units of sound in a language. (The English language has 44 phonemes, which we use to create all the words we use to communicate with each other.)
Phonemic awareness is the most complex part of phonological awareness, and it is also the most important. Strong phonemic awareness in your child is the biggest contributing factor leading to later success in learning to read.
It’s worth repeating here that phonemic awareness is an oral skill rather than a written skill. As soon as written print comes into play, we’ve crossed into phonics and “learning to read,” instead of “reading readiness.” When we add letters in print, phonemic awareness morphs into phonics, which is a different (and very important) set of skills used for a different purpose.
These five areas of reading readiness are not sequential, and they do not develop in isolation. Given the right conditions, these pre-reading skills develop simultaneously during the early years of childhood, and each supports the development of the others.
Before your child receives formal reading instruction, be sure that they have developed these five areas of reading readiness.
No matter what age your child is (birth to late Kindergarten), I believe that you should be “teaching” the alphabet, at least at some level. (Yes, I know this is a controversial statement, but stay with me here.)
“Teaching” the alphabet to kids looks and sounds very different depending upon the ages of the children.
How to Introduce the Alphabet to Babies – Yes, Babies!
For babies, it’s all about low-key, natural exposure. Make the alphabet an ordinary, expected part of your home environment and daily routine.
Think about this – nursery decor, books, and toys for babies are themed with basic concepts such as colors, shapes, animals, foods, nursery rhymes, etc. Make sure that the alphabet is included in there somewhere, too.
My favorite way to do this is by reading aloud lots of alphabet books. Just as you would point out objects in a book when you are reading to a baby – “Look, there’s the elephant,” – you can point out letters just as naturally. You might say “I see the letter B,” while you point to it, and then keep moving right along through the book.
I also like to have a simple, clear alphabet chart or poster as decor in a nursery. And be sure to include the alphabet song in your repertoire of lullabies.
I want to be very clear here. You are NOT teaching the alphabet, per se. You are making it an ordinary part of your home environment and family culture. The goal is to make the alphabet a natural part of the background in your baby’s life.
Helping Toddlers Learn the Alphabet
Take a look at that heading just above – notice that I used the term “learn” as opposed to “teach.” With toddlers, it’s all about helping them LEARN the alphabet, as opposed to TEACHING them the alphabet.
To help younger toddlers learn the alphabet, start casually building on the exposure you established during babyhood. This is the time to add a few alphabet toys to your child’s toy box.
Be more purposeful when reading alphabet books. Transition from telling the name of a letter to inviting your toddler to point to a letter – “Where is the B? Show me the letter B.” If they can’t, point to the letter and say, “There’s the B!” Keep it fun, brief, and low-key.
Use your home’s alphabet chart in this same way. “Read” it together once each day, perhaps as part of the bedtime routine.
Toddlers are usually able to point to letters before they can say the names of the letters. Once you notice that your little one can say the names of some letters, start asking, “What is this letter?” as you point. If they have trouble, say it yourself and encourage them to repeat it. Keep it conversational, and don’t ever let it sound like a demand or a test.
If Kids Can Learn That a Cow Says “Moo,” They Can Learn That the /b/ Sound Goes With the Letter B
For older toddlers who seem ready, you can repeat this process with letter sounds. Always start by modeling – “That’s the letter B. /b/, /b, /b/.” When the time seems right, move on to prompting “What sound does B make?” Again, if they have any trouble, say it yourself and encourage them to repeat it. Keep it as casual as any other conversation you share with your toddler.
The goal is for your toddler to learn to identify letters by name and know their sounds in the same way that the rest of their language is developing – naturally, and on their own personal timeline.
Use magnetic letters to form your child’s name, and point it out to them every day. This is a great way to start developing the concept that letters form words, which convey meaning.
Toddlers love to play with jumbo magnetic letters, stacking them, rearranging them on the fridge, and taking them in and out of containers. Continue modeling by commenting casually – “You’re putting the letter M in the tub, aren’t you?” Then move along to inviting participation – “Can you hand me the letter W?” You can make these same activities a part of your child’s bath-time by adding foam letters to your collection of bath toys. Early on in your child’s journey to learning the alphabet, magnetic letters should be more of a toy, not a formal learning tool. It won’t be long before you’re using them to reinforce letter sounds and early spelling skills.
If your older toddler seems ready, do the same sort of activity with sounds.
Along with plush toys, blocks, play vehicles and dolls, be sure to include alphabet puzzles and alphabet games in your child’s toy box. This is another way to make letters and sounds a natural part of your home’s culture and environment.
Alphabet puzzles help your child develop fine motor, visual discrimination and problem-solving skills while physically touching and exploring the letters of the alphabet. Work on these together at first, until your child has built some success in fitting the letters back into their spaces. Try offering one letter puzzle piece at a time, and pointing to the general area of the puzzle frame where it can be found. Offer clues – “Can you find the picture of the ball, for the letter B?”
Teaching the Alphabet to Preschoolers
Up until around age three, I recommend keeping letter and sound activities informal and casual. At around age three, as kids move into the preschool years, they should interact with letters and sounds in a more purposeful way. Start including 10-15 minutes of more structured (but still fun!) alphabet activities in your daily routine.
Continue modeling, especially with sounds, but invite your child to actively participate more often. In addition to taking advantage of learning opportunities as they come up, start intentionally creating fun teaching opportunities. Add a few alphabet games to your home and establish a weekly family game night. Suggest doing an alphabet puzzle together, and then comment on or ask your child to identify most of the letters rather than just a few. Have your child watch LeapFrog’s Letter Factory while you are cooking dinner. (It’s an incredibly effective way to reinforce letters and sounds.)
Flashcards Can Be Fantastic
While I don’t recommend using flashcards to “drill” your preschooler, they are invaluable for playing games and creating alphabet activities. A great physical activity is to have your child lay alphabet flashcards out on the floor in order, and then read them aloud, walking or crawling along the line of cards.
Or, grab your tub of magnetic letters and have your preschooler place each one on top of its matching flashcard. You can tape flashcards around the house and send your child on a treasure hunt to see how many letters they can find.
Buy two of the same sets and use them for playing matching games or “concentration.” Play bingo by pulling a few flashcards from one set to create a bingo card, and using the other set for letters to “call.” With two sets, you can even play a limited version of “Go Fish.”
Once each day, point to each card in order from left to right and “read” the card with your child. This activity is a great addition to your bedtime story routine. For babies and toddlers, just say the name of the letter and the name of the picture. For preschoolers and Kindergartners, say the name of the letter, the name of the picture, and the sound.
Invest in an Excellent Alphabet Curriculum
If you are homeschooling, or you want to provide activities in a more systematic way, invest in a high-quality alphabet curriculum.This Reading Mama has an unbelievable, affordable product called the “Learning the Alphabet Bundle.” It’s jam-packed with powerful hands-on activities for learning letters and letter sounds. To get the most bang for your buck, I recommend purchasing a downloadable bundle product such as this rather than just picking up alphabet workbooks here and there. You’ll receive many more activities to choose from, and you can download and print out exactly what your child needs.
Any of the activities the Learning the Alphabet Bundle would be great for that 10-15 minutes of structured alphabet learning time that I recommend for preschoolers. When we provide engaging activities like these, kids learn much more easily and quickly. I guarantee there is something in this bundle that your child will fall in love with, which will totally supercharge their alphabet learning!
Developing Deep Letter Knowledge
In order to become a skilled, fluent reader and writer, your child needs to develop deep letter knowledge. And the time to do this is during Pre-K and the beginning of Kindergarten. If you haven’t started using a curriculum like the “Learning the Alphabet Bundle,” now is definitely the time to add 10-15 minutes of structured alphabet activities to your child’s day.
Having deep letter knowledge means that your child can:
Readily identify all lowercase and uppercase letters by name.
Write each lowercase and uppercase letter.
Hear a vowel or consonant sound and immediately know which letter represents it.
Look at a letter and articulate the sound it makes.
True mastery of these four skills takes time – from informal babyhood exposure to direct instruction during Pre-K and Kindergarten. It takes steady, age-appropriate practice and review at the same time your child is developing other reading readiness skills.
Whether you are homeschooling or reinforcing what your child learns in preschool, Pre-K or Kindergarten, isn’t it wonderful that you can set your child up for success in learning to read by something as simple as teaching the alphabet? You’ll never regret taking advantage of this amazing power and precious opportunity.
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You may have heard that Kindergarten is harder these days, and let me tell you, IT IS! When I started teaching 25 years ago, Kindergarten was all about reading readiness, NOT learning to read.
Today, we expect Kindergartners to come in with reading readiness skills solidly in process, so that actual reading instruction can start as soon as possible. By the end of the school year, these little guys are expected to be early readers!
Fortunately, reading readiness in preschoolers is easy and fun to develop. There tons of wonderful reading readiness activities and games for preschoolers that you can enjoy with your child as part of your family’s everyday life.
It isn’t hard, and it doesn’t have to feel like “teaching” or “learning” at all! To learn everything you need to know about developing reading readiness in your child, check out my online course for parents, “How to Raise a Reader – Reading Readiness Edition.”
Here is a quick overview of the ten reading readiness skills your child needs in order to learn how to read. I’ve also included a few tips and activities to help you nurture those skills in a fun, natural way.
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Book Handling Skills and Concepts About Print
These two skills are your child’s ability to understand and recognize the way books and print “work.” Take a look at the list below. Before Kindergarten, we hope that the first four are fully mastered, and the remaining three are solidly in process.
The easiest, most natural way for you to help your child develop book handling skills and concepts about print is to make reading aloud a regular part of your daily routine, pointing out the following concepts in a low-key manner as you go along.
*Books have parts such a front and back cover and title page.
*Pages are turned from left to right.
*Text is read from left to right and top to bottom.
*Letters and words on the page have meaning and are providing a message.
*A cluster of letters can create a word.
*Words are separated by spaces.
*Several words strung together can create a sentence.
Learning the Alphabet – Recognizing and Identifying Letters
When shown a lowercase or uppercase letter, your child needs to be able to promptly recognize it and say its name.
Hang an alphabet chart in a handy place and a few times a day, help your child practice touching underneath each letter and saying its name. Alphabet flash cards are great for matching and memory games. Point out letters in your child’s environment or play “I Spy.”
Learning to Write the Letters of the Alphabet
Your child should be learning to form uppercase and lowercase letters, starting at the top of each letter.
Writing the letters of the alphabet can be practiced in so many ways – try letting your child make letters in shaving cream on the side of the bathtub, or in pudding on a tray, and provide plenty of paper and crayons, markers and pencils. One of my favorite alphabet writing activities is to use the app “Letter School,” and have your child use both an index finger and a stylus.
Matching Letters to Sounds
When the name of a letter is said out loud, your child needs to be able to provide the matching sound.
You can work on this very casually, pointing out letters in your child’s environment and saying the sound for your child to repeat back to you, or you can use games and flashcards to address this more directly.
Matching Sounds to Letters
This is a little trickier. When you child hears a letter sound, or “phoneme,” they need to be able to say the letter for that sound.
Again, you can work on this directly with alphabet games and flashcards or in a more casual way by commenting on the sounds as they come up. For example, when cutting up an apple for lunch, you might say, “Apple, apple, I hear the /a/ sound. That’s the sound for the letter ‘a’.”
Word Awareness/Word Counting
Word awareness is the knowledge that sentences are made up of separate words in a particular order, and that this conveys meaning.
Most young children do know this intuitively, but bringing it to a higher level of awareness is important in the development of reading and writing. Try saying short sentences with your child and counting the number of words on your fingers. Use sentences from everyday life “We-will-go-to-the-park-today,” or favorite books, “In-the-great-green-room…”
Hearing Syllables/Counting Syllables
Your child needs to be able to hear how words break into syllables.
This is easy to teach and fun to practice. The most common way to teach this is to clap as you say each syllable in a word, and then count the claps. Start with two syllable words and three syllable words and then double back to one syllable words once your child understands the skill.
Onset & Rime
In almost all cases, a syllable can be divided into two parts. The onset is the first part of a syllable, and it is the initial sound. Notice that I didn’t say initial letter there – the onset is the initial sound. So it could be the /k/ sound or the /m/ sound, with one letter, but it could just as commonly be the /sh/ sound or the /pr/ sound, with two letters. The “rime” is the remainder of the syllable, usually a vowel and any remaining consonants.
Your child needs to be able to hear the individual sound at the beginning of a single syllable word, and then hear the remainder of the word as one piece.
This sounds tricky, and it does take some practice. You might say to your child, “I am going to say a word in pieces or parts. You listen and put the parts together and tell me what word I said.” This would sound like you saying “/c/ – /at/” and then your child providing the word, “cat.”
Exposure to rhyming helps children notice and work with the sounds within words. Heading into Kindergarten, your child should be able to identify words that rhyme, and produce words that rhyme.
There are so many fun rhyming activities for preschoolers out there! Reading nursery rhymes and poems and of course rhyming books is a great way to develop this skill. You can also play oral rhyming games with your child – “Let’s say all the words we can think of that rhyme with ‘cat’.”
Hearing Beginning and Ending Sounds
Your child needs to be able to hear the sounds within words, and the place to start is with beginning and ending sounds. Encouraging children to hear beginning sounds comes more naturally. We all seem to say to our children, “What sound do you hear at the beginning of the word ‘ball’?”
However, being able to isolate and hear ending sounds is also important. Use words that have a clear consonant at the end and say “What sound do you hear at the end of the word ______?” Be sure to provide plenty of modeling before expecting your child to do this on their own.
As you think about your child and these ten reading readiness skills, you will notice that your child shines in some areas and needs a little more support in others. This is completely normal!
Children enter school with different levels of reading readiness, and all of these skills are embedded in the Kindergarten curriculum, even as direct reading instruction begins. As a parent, you have tremendous power and a precious opportunity to set your child up for easier success in phonics and reading by reinforcing these skills at home.
Use daily read alouds to casually draw attention to these skills, in a low-key way, and look for opportunities to play oral games with rhyming and letters and sounds throughout your day -in the car, while waiting for an appointment, or during mealtimes. If you want to provide more formal instruction with commercial teaching materials, keep it light-hearted, enjoyable and brief. Before you know it, your child will be ready to read!
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