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The Development of Pre-Reading Skills in Children

Learning to read doesn't magically happen when your child enters kindergarten and primary school. Developing pre-reading skills begins at birth when people speak to your baby. Over the next year, listening to people speak prompts your baby to copy sounds and gradually learn verbal language. Graduating to decoding written language takes years and plenty of practice, but many daily activities such as doing simple puzzles, singing songs, drawing, telling jokes, sharing stories and pretending to read a book to a doll or teddy bear build these early literacy skills and prompt your child to graduate to the next level of development.

Key Pre-Reading Skills

The Reading Rockets website cites many ways to note the development of pre-reading skills in children. Engaging in word play such as chanting nursery rhymes demonstrates phonological awareness or the recognizing individual sounds within words. Picking up a book and turning the pages shows familiarity with books. Identifying printed words on signs and labels—even if your child cannot read them—indicates familiarity with print. Singing the alphabet demonstrates letter recognition while associating those letters with sounds show phonemic awareness.Teachers also call these last two pre-reading skills the alphabetic principle. What it means is that your child begins to associate letters with sounds and that these sounds, when strung together, form words.

Games That Develop Pre-Reading Skills

Victoria Tyra, a reading tutor certified in the Barton Reading and Spelling System advises, "Helping young children learn to distinguish individual sounds that make up words is such an important step in early reading acquisition."

She suggests several activities to promote this skill, including, "Simple listening games, rhyming activities, [and] counting syllables (such as clapping names)." Her students enjoy a game that starts, "I'm thinking of something that begins with the sound s-s-s-s. This animals slithers on the ground. Any guesses?" She shifts the focus of the traditional game of I Spy, changing it to be about sounds by saying, "I spy something in this room that begins with the sound /a/."

She also uses these games as a diagnostic tool. "Children that struggle with these activities may have weaknesses in their phonemic awareness skills, and trouble with these activities is one of several classic warning signs of dyslexia."

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Practicing Reading and Making It Fun

Honing early literacy skills demands practice and repetition, but this can still be a fun activity. Expose children to letters, sounds, words, stories and the basics of print by selecting high-interest books. Tyra underscores how using enjoyable, interesting stories children can relate to makes mastering emerging literacy skills fun rather than a chore. She says, "Favorite books are any books that I can read aloud to the child, which captivate them." She appreciates stories with rich vocabulary but that have a humorous twist, such as Judith Viorst's classic, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day with the goal of "showing them that reading is magical. For independent beginning reading, she recommends early reader classics by Dr. Seuss like Fox in Socks and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.

Immerse Your Child in Print

Diving into a pile of books is not the only way to surround your child in print and stimulate interest in the world of reading. Letters, words, phrases and stories are everywhere. The educators at Scholastic suggest the parents invest in toys such as wooden blocks carved with letters or a magnetic alphabet. Copy a favorite strategy of teachers and make labels for different things in the house like the clock and the table. When your child learns to decode a word, write it out on a piece of paper and add it to a word wall that you organize alphabetically.

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Troubleshooting Early Reading Problems

Tyra has expertise in identifying issues affecting early literacy. She says, "If a parent or teacher notices that a young child is struggling with some of these skills, and especially if the parent also struggled with reading, reach out for help."

As a guideline, the Multnomah County Library outlines the emerging literacy skills preschoolers should have, including increasing vocabulary, interest in books, awareness of print, the ability to point out and name letters, and the skill of forming rhymes or making up words by changing the initial sound. Once your child enters kindergarten, connecting printed letters with sounds and individual sounds with words shows developmentally appropriate reading readiness. At this point, your child masters pre-reading skills and builds upon them by beginning to read by decoding words and ultimately reading with fluency and comprehension.

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