Preschool Literacy Skills and Strategies for Success

Image of a preschool girl trying to read a book

Few preschool children read accurately, but there are correlations between preschool and literacy. Starting the literacy process at an early age helps create a strong foundation in reading and prepares children for learning literacy skills in elementary school.

Reading-Readiness and the Preschooler

At this age, children do the important work of preparing to read and write. However, it's rare for them to read or write with much accuracy. Instead, according to, preschoolers may learn whole words, logos, and symbols before letters. They also should grasp that stories have a beginning, middle, and end and may be able to predict how a story will unfold.

Programs aimed at preparing preschool aged children to read and write are referred to as reading-readiness. These types of programs include activities to build print, phonological, and narrative awareness, as well as oral language development. There should also be plenty of exposure to read-alouds.

Print Awareness

Before a child can learn to read, she needs to understand things about print. According to a study by the University of Kentucky, Lexington, "The distinction between print and pictures is one of the first concepts that children learn about literacy." Additional research summarized in the study show that understanding the difference between print and pictures helps children learn the function of each. Some print awareness skills include:

  • Learning that words express meaning
  • Learning that letters strung together make words, and that words strung together make sentences
  • Understanding that pages in a book turn a certain way
  • Understanding that both words and pictures provide meaning
  • Recognizing familiar print words and patterns

Phonological Awareness

Once a child has built print awareness, he can move on to phonological awareness. This refers to the understanding that words are made of sounds. Children who are learning to sing the alphabet are learning phonological awareness. Once they can say all the letters, they are ready to learn to recognize each letter in print. Then they can learn the sounds that each letter makes.

Narrative Awareness

Narrative awareness refers to a child's understanding of story elements. When a young child first repeats the phrase 'once upon a time,' she is expressing her understanding of stories. Children learn that stories often begin a certain way and end a certain way. They learn that stories are about characters along with the idea that stories are made up of events.

Research shows that narrative awareness in preschool is critical to developing literacy. A study published in the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology suggested that when a preschool child is unable to tell a personal story as well as his peers can, he may have a more difficult time acquiring literacy.

Oral Language Development

Oral language development is an important element of reading-readiness. Research shows that young children who have a difficult time expressing themselves or engaging in oral communication are more likely to struggle with reading and writing skills. Children need practice in expressing themselves orally.


Since kids mature physically and intellectually at different rates, there's no one-size-fits-all set of literacy milestones for preschoolers. However, Reading Is Fundamental suggests most preschoolers (ages three to four) should be able to do the following:

  • Listen to and talking about storybooks
  • Understand that print carries a message
  • Try to read and write
  • Identify familiar signs, labels, and symbols
  • Enjoy rhyming games
  • Identify some letters and make some letter-sound matches
  • Use known letters to represent written language

How Parents Can Help

It has long been recognized by literacy experts that the most important thing a parent can do to develop literacy in young children is to read to them. The National Education Association states on its website that children who are regularly read to at home have an advantage over those who are not. Children who are read to are more likely to recognize all the letters of the alphabet, count to twenty, write their names, and read or pretend to read. Taking time to discuss what you are reading and letting your little one interact with the books also helps develop early literacy skills. Besides reading together, the following activities help promote literacy in preschoolers:

  • Playing with letters and word games helps increase print awareness, says Reading Rockets.
  • Interacting with your child when you read to him. When reading a book with your child, explain what a title is. Put your finger under each word as you read them aloud.
  • According to an article written by Pam Shiller, Ph.D., rhymes and songs promote phonological awareness. Children learn these skills when they are read to, when they look at signs while driving, when they sing nursery rhymes, and when they watch shows like Sesame Street. Try to build these learning moments into your child's everyday activities.
  • To support narrative awareness, encourage your child to tell stories. They may be nonsensical and include only one or two simple story elements.
  • Write down your child's stories and read them back whenever he expresses interest. This nurtures his desire to write and reinforces his understanding of story elements. It also helps to build literacy confidence.
  • Support oral communication by frequently engaging in conversation with your child.
  • Let your child point to the words and pictures and turn the pages as you read.
  • Read his favorite stories again and again.
  • Play acting, role-playing, and puppet-play encourage oral development.
  • Read book recommendations for preschoolers for a list of suggested books aimed at building literacy skills for preschoolers.

Research and Statistics

Good literacy skills are the foundation for success throughout a child's school career. Yet according to BookSpring, literacy statistics are sobering:

  • Eighty percent of preschool and after-school programs serving low-income students have no access to age-appropriate books.
  • Thirty-seven percent of children arrive at kindergarten without the appropriate learning skills.
  • Half of the kids with a history of substance abuse struggle with reading.

Despite these troubling numbers, research shows that implementing literacy skills at a young age has positive results:

  • One study published in Child Development showed that by age two, children who are consistently read to have better language comprehension, larger vocabularies, and higher cognitive skills than children who were not regularly read to.
  • Another study determined that children who are read to at least three times a week by a family member are almost twice as likely to score in the top 25% in reading than children who are not read to.

Preschool and Literacy Summary

While it is not wise to pressure preschoolers to learn to read, most youngsters exhibit signs of reading readiness. To foster the links between preschool and literacy, you should expose your children to letters, words, and books at an early age and as much as possible. Reading to your children does more than promote literacy skills. With so many fun and educational preschool books available, reading together allows you and your children to bond and enjoy a variety of experiences through words and illustrations.

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Preschool Literacy Skills and Strategies for Success