Tag Archives: early literacy

Games and Activities that Build Literacy Skills

[This is my fourth post on early literacy. Check out my other posts on how to get your child excited about reading, and  info on developmental literacy and what types of books are best at each age, and how to read to a toddler.)

Reading books together, anytime and anywhere, is a powerful way to teach the joys to be found in books, and the power of literacy. There are also lots of other hands-on ways to build reading skills.

  • Make books together – make albums with family photos or pictures cut out of magazines. For older kids, they can dictate a story – they tell it, you write it out, then they illustrate the pages.
  • Look at family photo albums together and tell stories about the people and activities shown.
  • Explore letters: Practice drawing, painting, or writing with a stick in the sand or the mud. Make letters with play dough or pipe cleaners. Have them work with puzzles made of letter shapes. Play with alphabet refrigerator magnets. Look for apps for your touch screen device (tablet or phone) that let them practice tracing letters. Draw letters on paper and have your child trace them


  • In addition to letters, talk about about symbols in general – you could make a calendar and come up with symbols to remind them of what happens each day. Or a weather chart. Or a chores chart.
  • Act out stories that you have read, or do puppet shows. Tell the story as written, or imagine what would come next, or what other adventure those characters could have.
  • Sing songs and play rhyming games – these slow language down so it’s easier to understand, and easier to memorize. Later, try memorizing a story and telling it over and over.
  • When they ask you a question, show how you would look up the answer.
  • Visit the library often. Make it a special time in your week’s schedule.
  • Take them to story time at the library or bookstores. It’s typically free, weekly or monthly, and lasts 30 – 45 minutes. Expect to sit on the floor with your child and help him stay focused on the stories. This is great for literacy and language development – seeing other kids and parents excited about books, listening to the librarian’s voice (kids learn language better when they hear a variety of people speak it), and singing songs together. It’s also great practice for school – having to sit still and pay attention to an adult other than your own parent is important. Before going, let your child know what to expect, and what behavior you expect of her (sitting down, being quiet) to increase your chances of a good experience. Learn more here: http://www.peps.org/ParentResources/by-topic/early-learning/why-story-time-rocks

Check out fun books about the Alphabet:

  • Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. YouTube. I love the rhythm of this book, and it’s a fun rollicking read-aloud that I never tire of. The letters are just characters in a story: “A told B and B told C, I’ll meet you at the top of the coconut tree.”
  • Kipper’s A to Z by Mick Inkpen. YouTube. Most ABC books just have different unrelated ideas on each page as they go through the alphabet. I like that this book has a storyline that runs throughout. They find an ant and put it in a box, then a caterpillar they put in the box, then the duck who is too big to fit…
  • Dr. Seuss’ ABC. YouTube. YouTube sung to Banana Boat song melody. Has the great read-aloud rhythm and fun pictures you’d expect in a Dr. Seuss book. I also like the fact that on several pages it goes back to remind you of all the letters in the alphabet that came before the one you’re on.
  • The Little Red Cat Who Ran Away and Learned His ABC’s. YouTube This is a wordless book, but you can engage kids in a story-telling exercise as you read it: “What animal did he see next? Will that animal chase after him too?”

Some alphabet books are really all about increasing your child’s vocabulary:

  • Eating the Alphabet by Ehlert has lots of different fruits and vegetables for every letter. YouTube
  • L M N O Peas, YouTube, uses words for lots of jobs and hobbies: dancers, drivers, eaters, electricians, explorers, farmers and friends.
  • A is for Angry. (YouTube)

Some books allow kids to have a tactile experience of the shape of the letters:

I like Alpha Block, YouTube, which has cut outs of the letters. Think Touch Learn ABC has raised letters the children can feel. If Rocks Could Sing, YouTube, shows rocks shaped like each of the letters. Somehow looking at pictures of rocks gives me a sense of what that rock would feel like in my hand. This book could also send you on a quest of finding rocks that look like shapes, objects, or letters.

Note: Many ABC books are too advanced to be understood by kids just learning the idea that an alphabet exists and that the different shapes of letters have meaning. For example, Take Away the A is a great book for kids who can already read – like first or second graders will get the jokes – like “without the N, the moon says Moo”. Z is for Moose is good for kids who already have a lot of familiarity with the conventions of alphabet books. A is for Salad would be fun and silly for kids who know how things are actually spelled, it would make no sense for kids who don’t – when it says B is for Viking, and you have to look to figure out what in the picture of a beaver in a Viking hat starts with B. On Creature ABC, you have to know some about reading to be able to guess the answers.

How to Read to a Child

[This is my third post on early literacy. Look here for how to get your child excited about reading, and here for info on developmental literacy and what types of books are best at each age, and here for other ways to build literacy skills.)

How to read to a toddler or preschooler

  • Turn off the TV or radio, and settle in to read.
  • Often we snuggle next to our kids for reading. Make sure that sometimes you sit face-to-face. Your child can learn more from you and the book if he can see your expressions.
  • Show them the cover before reading – ask them to guess what the book will be about.
  • Let them turn the pages – don’t stress if they miss a page.(Note, younger toddlers do best with board books. By three years old, they should be able to manage turning pages in a regular book.)
  • Run your finger along the words as you read – that reinforces that print goes from left to right.Or point to the words that they might recognize as you read. If you’re reading a book that repeats some of the same words on every page (“but where’s the cat?”) point them out on each page as you go along.
  • Define new words and explain new ideas as you come to them.
  • If a book has no words, or you don’t like the words, make up your own! Tell a story based on the pictures, or point to pictures on a page and ask your child to tell you what’s happening.
  • Talk about the pictures. Label what’s in each picture (“there’s a pig and a cow in front of the barn”). Talk about what’s happening in the picture (“the duck is splashing in the puddle”). Point out familiar things (“he has a toy train just like you do” or “her bedroom has some of the same things your room has… see. there’s a bed, and a table, and a teddy bear.”)
  • Make it sound dynamic: Use different voices for different characters; read at different speeds (some stories are slow and gentle, others fast and rollicking); play up the emotional tone – are characters happy? Scared? Silly? Angry? Show it with your voice.
  • Try singing a book. Some books are perfectly designed for singing.
  • Ask questions about what’s happening in the story, ask how characters are feeling, ask them to guess what will happen on the next page. Later in the day, ask them about the book you read, and talk about experiences your family has had that are like what you see in books.
  • Think of a book as a conversation starter. Beyond what’s on the page, you can ask about other things in the book, or help your child connect what’s in the book to her everyday experiences.
  • It’s OK if toddlers wander around while you read – they can still listen while moving.
  • Enjoy reading – let your joy shine through!


Collection of fabulous articles on building literacy skills at www.zerotothree.org/child-development/early-language-literacy/tips-tools-early-lit-and-lang.html


Getting Your Toddler or Preschooler Excited about Reading

This week’s theme is Early Literacy – what we can do with our babies, toddlers, and preschoolers to lay the foundation for learning about reading and writing. [Check out these posts for developmental stages of literacy, how to read to a child, and games and activities that build literacy skills.]

Building early literacy skills does not mean teaching your toddler to read a book. Formal instruction at this age is not developmentally appropriate*, and may be counter-productive, if your child comes to think of reading as a difficult and burdensome task.

Early literacy should instead be focused on creating an environment where books are so cool and the ability to read is so amazing that your child just can’t wait to learn how. Librarians call this “print motivation.” Here are some things we can do to foster this enthusiasm:

  • Model how powerful reading is. Point out to your child how helpful it is that you can read the instructions on how to cook food or assemble toys, how much you enjoy reading friends’ news on Facebook, and how whenever you want to do something new, you can learn how by reading. Point out the words that are all around us – signs, menus, etc.
  • Model reading as something you do for pleasure. Whether you read books, magazines, newspapers, or blogs on your tablet, let your child know how much you enjoy it.
  • When you read to your child, make it fun! Choose books you will enjoy reading.Choose books that are about the things your child loves – whether they’re passionate about chickens, trucks, gardening, building or splashing in puddles, there are books about it, and reading about things they are excited about will help them be excited about reading.
  • Literacy is a social process, which happens in relationships with family, caretakers and teachers. There’s a wonderful connection that happens you snuggle up with a book, give your child your full attention, and you enjoy sharing an experience together. (When your kids are too old for snuggled up story time, you can still enjoy books together. Try listening to audio books in the car on the way to school, and talking about them over dinner.) This together time can be a big motivator for spending time with books.

When and where to read

Don’t just save books for in the bedroom at bedtime. Have them scattered around the house, in the car, the diaper bag and so on. Share books every day – at breakfast, naptime, the grocery store, the doctor’s office, when you arrive at a class or meeting early… show that we can always enjoy a book, anytime, anywhere!

It’s OK to read for just a few minutes at a time – don’t worry if they don’t want to finish a story. They may flip through several books quickly or glance at one, then want to run off to play. On the other hand, if they want to read a book slowly, lingering over one page, going back to it over and over again, don’t feel like you need to rush them.

Resources for books and songs to get excited about:

King County library has a collection of lyrics to songs and rhymes AND videos of librarians singing them (so you can learn the tunes): http://wiki.kcls.org/index.php/Main_Page

Brooklyn Public Library’s site includes great literacy tips, book recommendations, and lyrics for lots of children’s songs: http://www.bklynpubliclibrary.org/first-5-years


* Note: I’m saying that formally teaching reading by using textbooks or formal lessons or flash cards is not necessary. Expecting your child to read at a young age might end up being frustrating for them and disappointing for you.

However, some kids naturally learn to read at a very young age. For example, with my son, we just used the tips I’m sharing this week for creating an environment with lots of great books and fun reading times. We didn’t “teach” him to read, and didn’t expect him to read. But, he learned anyway! He could read basic words before he turned three, and now at three and a half, can easily read books that are written at a kindergarten to first grade level.

Books that Sing

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a talk by Nancy Stewart, a local kids’ musician (check out her work and her upcoming show schedule at http://www.nancymusic.com/).

On her Sing with Our Kids website, she has created a song library (http://singwithourkids.com/song-library.htm) which includes lyrics and .mp3 audio recordings of lots of great traditional kid songs. This site is great for everyone, but I imagine this would be an especially useful resource to parents who have moved to the U.S. from other countries, and want to become familiar with those songs that “everybody knows” that always seem to get sung at library story-times and other places families gather. [Note: I also have lots of song lyrics here.]

Nancy Stewart has been doing a lot of work in 2012-13, in partnership with the Mercer Island library and Island Books, to explore benefits of music, and ways in which singing can be used to enhance early learning and literacy skills. She has lots of great information on her Sing with Our Kids website. What I think is especially unique and special is her “bookshelf” page (http://singwithourkids.com/bookshelf.htm)

She has collected lists of recommended books that fit into four categories. Here are the categories, benefits of sharing these types of books with kids, and my personal experience with my almost-three-year-old son Ben. [Note: If you click on the links below, they will take you to Amazon, where you can read details and reviews about the books. You can then get them from your local library. If you decide to buy them from Amazon after clicking on my link, I will get a small portion of the proceeds – this helps support my work here….]

Books Based on Traditional Songs and Books Based on Original Songs. These are picture books which illustrate traditional songs like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, Old MacDonald’s Farm, and The Wheels on the Bus, or original songs like Baby Beluga and Puff, the Magic Dragon. Some books contain ONLY the familiar words, some add additional verses, like a The Bear Went Over the Mountain that adds verses about the five senses and the four seasons. Some add a whole new (and entertaining) twist to a known song, like I Know a Shy Fellow who Swallowed a Cello.

Children get excited when they realize that a book contains words that they already know, and enjoy seeing illustrations that go along with the song – creating beautiful new images that can play in their head anytime they hear that song. These books also help with a key reading skill: “Print awareness” is about noticing print, and understanding how those marks on a page are associated with the sounds that they hear and say. When a book contains the familiar words of a well-known song, and you sing it through while pointing to the words, the association becomes clear.

My son knows the song “Five Little Ducks” very well – we have lots of rubber duckies, so we sing it in the bathtub all the time. (As a side note: this song is a fabulous tool for teaching: counting in reverse, subtraction, and the concept of zero.) We checked out from the library two different book versions of the song, and he loves to “read” them. Because he already knows the words of the song, and he can tell by the pictures what part of the song is represented on each page (4 little ducks came back…) he can flip through the book, telling it himself, which he’s very excited about. And the books divide up the verses on the pages differently, so he’s had to learn two different systems for when to turn the page. It’s really reinforced his awareness of how books work.

Picture Books with a Song in the Story. These are stories where a song is woven into the storyline, and repeats throughout the book. As you read through the story, each time you sing the song, your child will tune in more closely to your reading, and soon start humming along or singing along. Being able to predict what will happen is a very empowering thing for a young child – they rarely know what’s happening next, so there’s great joy in knowing! There are also countless books that feature repetition of a similar phrase, or a refrain that comes up again, such as Jump Frog Jump and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do You See? The repetition and learning of a song or refrain also helps to develop your child’s memory.

One of our family’s favorite books is Love You Forever by Robert Munsch. At the beginning of the book, a mother sings a lullaby to her baby, then her baby grows and grows into a challenging toddler, and she sings it again, and again when he’s a child, a teenager, and an adult. We then see him sing the song to his own baby, and then to his dying mother. My son knows the melody and will hum along with it when we read the book, but he prefers the funny parts of the story (like where the toddler flushes things down the toilet!). My girls, who are 16 and 20, still remember the book from their childhood, and could sing the song to you if you asked. Now, they certainly memorized other books from their childhood, but the ones with the repeating refrains are definitely the best early memory builders.

Books with a Beat. While they’re not necessarily songs, some books are written with such a strong rhyme scheme and rhythm, it’s impossible to read them without getting into the sing-songy rhythm. As Nancy Stewart says “Rhythm is the foundation of music and language. [These books] help build a sense of rhythm with lots of repetition of words, phrases, sounds and sentences…. They draw children into the rhythm of oral language.” These help children to recognize rhymes, which can make it easier to grasp word families when starting to read (once you read pig, it’s easy to figure out big, wig, dig). They begin to recognize words when the same word is used repeatedly on a page, which then lays the foundation for figuring out what the other words are that fit around that one. And these books are FUN, which means kids may want to read them over and over again, and easy to memorize.

My family loves Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin. It goes through the alphabet, beginning “A told B and B told C, I’ll meet you at the top of the coconut tree. Whee said D to E F G – I’ll beat you to the top of the coconut tree.” The rhythm is infectious, and due to the alphabetical order and the musicality of it, I memorized it after just a few readings with my daughters, and could still repeat it word for word for my son many years later. Ben also loves it and has memorized the whole thing and will recite it word for word. Remember, he’s not yet three years old! He likes to look through the book, and point out each of the letters in the book, which has helped reinforce his knowledge of letters, it’s also helped him with learning alphabetical order. Sometimes he’ll play with his magnet letters on the fridge and work on putting them in order while he says the words of the story. By the way, if you like Chicka Chicka, check out the videos on YouTube. LOTS of people have created a pretty wide variety of videos – some professional looking, some not so much, but most are very enjoyable. But there is one awful one where the narrator seems to have missed the rhythm of the book completely – I don’t know how you could not hear the rhythm in the words, but apparently it’s possible!

If you’re looking for some books that pair a great traditional song with beautiful illustrations, and have a lovely animated video version of the book, check out Barefoot Books YouTube channel. I recommend Over in the Meadow, Here we go Round the Mulberry Bush, and If You’re Happy and You Know It.