When do early reading skills start to develop

When do early reading skills start to develop

When do early reading skills start to develop?

Children start to learn how to read written words in their first year of formal schooling. But there are pre-reading skills that they need before children can learn to read and write. They need to develop the building blocks for literacy – the ability to speak, listen and understand (oral language and vocabulary) and the awareness of sounds within words (phonological awareness). These skills need to be explicitly taught to a child.


Oral language and vocabulary

What is it?

Oral language and vocabulary includes children’s speaking (“expressive”) and listening (“receptive”) skills. Children learn to recognise and develop the sounds of the languages they hear, as well as use a growing vocabulary of new and varied words. They grow their language skills as they interact and talk with adults and other children who model language and support their own language use.


Why is it important?

Vocabulary is the most powerful predictor of reading comprehension (your child’s ability to understand what they have read). Knowing what words mean is essential for your child to understand what they have read.


A child starts to develop their vocabulary as a baby. The early years are the most important when it comes to children building their vocabulary. Research tells us that improving vocabulary before age six is very highly associated with literacy success in late primary school and even into mid secondary school.


What can a parent do to help develop it?

For a child to learn new words, they need to:

  • Hear a word repeatedly
  • Hear words spoken by the important people in their lives
  • Hear words in a meaningful context – during conversation at dinner, in the car, while playing and while reading


Children benefit from hearing the sophisticated version of a word and having that word explained. This can look like:

  • Providing a simple, child-friendly definition for the new word: “Enormous means that something is really, really big.”
  • Providing a simple, child-friendly example that makes sense within their daily life: “Remember that really big watermelon we got at the fruit shop? That was an enormous watermelon!”
  • Encouraging your child to give their own example: “What enormous thing can you think of? Can you think of something really big that you saw today? That’s right! The truck near the shop was enormous! Those tires were huge.”
  • Keep the new words alive over the next few days and weeks. Keep using them in context and in conversation


Activities you can do include:

  • Reading stories and asking questions about the story
  • Talk about objects you see and can describe in fun ways when out and about (e.g. the traffic, nature, animals you can see/hear)
  • Ask your child to explain what happened in a game/movie
  • Get your child involved in making meals – talk about what you are doing, how you are preparing it, what it tastes like and looks like


Phonological awareness

What is it?

Phonological awareness is the ability to hear, identify and say the separate parts of words such as rhymes, and letter sounds. Phonological awareness skills develop in the year before a child starts school and are further developed in the early primary school years. It includes the skills:

  • Syllabification: awareness of syllables in words
  • Initial/medial/final sound awareness: being able to identify and isolate individual sounds in words
  • Blending: putting units of language together to say a whole word (e.g. c-a-t makes cat)
  • Segmenting: separating units of language and saying each unit individually (e.g. cat is made of c-a-t)
  • Manipulating: is made up of 3 tasks
    • adding: adding a unit of language to say a new word (e.g. add /t/ to beginning of rim to make trim)
    • deleting: removing a unit of language to say a new word (e.g. remove /t/ from the word trim)
    • substituting: changing a unit of language to say a new word (e.g. change the /k/ in cat to /h/ to make hat)


Why is it important?

Phonological awareness has been shown in research to be one of the best predictors of initial reading progress. Beginning readers must develop an understanding that spoken words are made up of individual and distinguishable sounds, rather than thinking of each word as a whole. Working on phonological awareness skills before starting school will help set your child up for success with their reading development. Developing phonemic awareness is especially important for students identified as being at risk for reading difficulty, such as children with speech sound or language difficulties.


What can a parent do to help develop it?

  • Teach listening skills: Read aloud to your child frequently. Choose books that rhyme or repeat the same sound. Draw your child’s attention to rhymes: “Fox, socks, box! Those words all rhyme. Do you hear how they almost sound the same?”
  • Follow the beat: Make syllables easier to understand by clapping the “beats” your child hears in words. Let’s say you choose the word elephant. Pause as you say each syllable – e-le-phant – and clap out each syllable together. You can also get your child up and moving by having your child stomp or jump with each syllable
  • Play games like I spy: Guessing games such as I spy can be used to practice noticing what sounds word begin with. Try “I spy something red that starts with /s/”
  • Incorporate crafts: Kids love hands-on learning. Try making a collage of items that start with the same sound using pictures from magazines. Sock puppets can be another fun way to work on these skills. Make one that likes to munch on words that start with a certain sound. Let your child have fun “feeding” the puppet different objects or pictures that start with that sound


If your child has difficulty with these skills in the year before they start school or they have a history of speech or language difficulties, talk to a speech pathologist to put a plan together for your child, ask questions about speech therapy for kids to help you and your child.