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Early Literacy Skills: How Children Learn to Read

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Learning to read is a process, and although some kids grasp the idea by the time they turn four, others take longer. And guess what? That’s OK: No one learns to read overnight. But no matter how long the journey takes, the steps children take as they grasp early literacy skills lead to bigger, better things. 

Supporting your child as they learn how to read is a wonderful part of parenthood — one that’s better cherished than rushed. Below, we look at what the process is like, from the “when” to the “how.” 

When Should My Child Start Reading? 

It can be challenging as a parent not to compare your child to their peers when it comes to big milestones. Many parents feel an urgency about teaching their children to read at the earliest age possible and become worried if they’re not seeing things happen in preschool. But unlike learning to talk, which is a skill hardwired in kids’ brains, reading is a taught skill — and a complex one, at that. 

What teachers say is true: Every child is different, which makes it hard to predict the early readers from the late ones. Beyond recognizing shapes on a page and making the corresponding sounds, learning to read also means: 

  • Learning to understand what others are saying
  • Learning to express yourself in full sentences, while using varied vocabulary
  • Having awareness of print rules
  • Knowing the parts of a book
  • Gaining pleasure and confidence from the reading experience 

For some kids, it takes time for these components to gel. For others, early literacy skills materialize quickly. So many factors, including confidence, can help determine when children reach the milestone. 

If you’re curious when kids learn to read, the answer is always: when they’re ready. Even if your child is a late reader, they will usually catch up to their peers when the time is right. 

The Stages of Learning to Read

Like other developmental processes, reading is learned in stages. Children begin building the blocks they need to break the written code as babies. Here’s a more detailed look at what happens behind the scenes as kids begin to grasp literacy skills: 

Emergent Stage

Reading begins with learning how to speak, which begins in infanthood. The emergent stage provides foundational receptive and expressive language skills that kids will eventually need to read.

During the emergent stage, parents can: 

  • Ask open-ended questions: Open-ended questions help children expand their knowledge and can lead to rich conversations. Ask what color T-shirt they want to wear; if the answer is “yellow,” follow up with another question. For instance, what other things in the room are yellow? This simple technique gives children the opportunity to further develop language.  
  • Embrace parallel and self-talk: Self talk is perfect for infants. It doesn’t require a response; all it requires is that parents describe their actions and what’s happening around them, sports-commentator-style. It’s as easy as narrating whatever you’re doing: “I’m sitting down at the table now to eat my dinner. Let’s have a look at what food is on my plate.” As your infant develops more expressive language, parents can also narrate their reactions (parallel talk).

While these communication techniques can feel awkward or silly at first, ultimately they help equip your child with the language skills they’ll eventually need to read and write. 

Decoding Stage

When we think about reading, it’s the decoding stage that often comes to mind first. The key skill that children learn during this stage — before they even begin identifying words — is letter recognition.

Letter recognition begins with recognizing shapes. Before children associate letters with sounds, they differentiate between shapes. For example, the letter “N” and the letter “H” look similar, save for the height and angle of the middle line. 

Parents can help cultivate letter recognition by creating a print-rich environment. Labels with pictures and names of household items, for example, will help children grasp visual differences among letters. Eventually, kids will be able to read the words they see. Remember to put the picture first and the word second — young kids are chiefly drawn to photos and illustrations. 

Vivvi’s campuses are full of labeled shelves, toys, and cubbies, all in an effort to promote letter-recognition in early literacy development.  

Reading for Learning Stage

Next up: reading for learning. While it may not seem like your child is formally reading during this stage, this is when they’re beginning to use early reading skills. Two concepts feature heavily at this point: functional words and the use of picture cues. 

In the reading for learning stage, young children rely heavily on picture cues: The letter symbols won’t make sense to them, so they need images to understand a story’s context. That’s why pointing to the picture and its corresponding word can help your child connect the dots more easily.

Many of the first words that children learn to read are functional words: words learned through familiarity. For example, kids will learn to read signs above familiar stores like Target, or they’ll be able to recognize the word “stop” from stop signs on the street. Once children learn to identify letter shapes, they start to ascribe sounds to word shapes. 

More Than Scribbles: How Writing Plays a Role 

Writing also plays a role in early literacy. Scribbling and pretend-writing can both be helpful as children begin to process language. 

The sensory experience of scribbling teaches kids that writing movements can form shapes and dots. As they gain better control over their hands, the scribbles become distinct lines. The letters may look warped, but there’s no doubt about what’s happening: Your child is learning to write. 

As their writing skills develop, children purposely try to spell out more letters. This early development skill goes hand-in-hand with reading — and it’s all part of how kids process language. 

To learn more view our video on How Children Learn To Read.

How to Support Your Child’s Early Literacy Skills at Home

The key to early literacy is practice. Set aside time to support children as they learn to read; even an hour a day can make a huge difference. The following tips and tricks are also great:

  • Read a book every morning and evening 
  • Encourage your child to scribble on paper
  • Put kids’ books all over your house so that literature is always within reach
  • Talk to babies often about what they’re feeling, seeing, doing, and hearing
  • Have open-ended conversations during the day

Vivvi’s early learning curriculum focuses on helping children reach their critical developmental milestones, including literacy. Storytime is a core component of our days, and our literature-rich campuses allow children to engage with books that span a wide range of age levels and interests. 

For more information on the Vivvi Learning Model or to schedule a tour of one of our New York City campuses, please contact our team today.

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