By Raising Children Network
Print Email

Literacy is most commonly understood as reading and writing. Before children can read and write, they need to grasp other forms of language, such as speech and the use of print and pictures. Parents have a vital role to play in helping their children develop these skills, along with a positive attitude towards reading.

Mother and baby reading

did you knowQuestion mark symbol

  • The average child learns the meanings of about 1000 words a year from birth to the start of school.
  • By the age of 10, children are learning most of their new words through reading – up to about 12 000 words in Grade 4 and 80 000 by the end of high school.

Encouraging literacy development

The growth of literacy skills is a vital part of your child’s overall development. It’s central to her future success at school and later in the workplace. But before your child learns to read and write, she needs to develop the foundations for literacy – the ability to speak, listen, understand, watch and draw.

With time, and your assistance, your child will also come to understand the connection between letters on a page and spoken words. For this to happen, he’ll need plenty of experience with:

  • pictures and objects – how you can use words to talk about them
  • letters and words – their shapes, sounds and names
  • sounds – how words can rhyme, begin and end with the same letters, be broken up into parts (for example, syllables), be formed by blending different sounds, and so on.

This will give your child a great headstart when he reaches school and starts learning the more formal aspects of literacy.

You can help your child’s literacy development by communicating with her, reading with her and teaching her about sounds in ways that are fun for both of you.

The language experiences that children have before they’re six help form multiple and powerful brain connections. These connections are used for language and thinking. Without activities like talking, singing and reading, the brain doesn’t develop this rich network of connections.

Communicating: its importance in literacy development

Bonding and interacting with your baby or child helps create a sense of security in him, and a desire for him to interact with you in return.

You might notice your baby responds to your smiles and baby-talk, and might try to imitate your sounds and facial expressions. When you repeat your toddler’s babble, it lets her know she’s communicating. Singing to her teaches her about the rise and fall of sounds. It also introduces her to the music and stories of her culture. All of these communications are getting your child ready for speech and its rules and conventions.

What you can do

  • Don’t be afraid to use baby-talk – it helps babies understand how language is put together.
  • Sing to your child (you can visit our Baby Karaoke page for ideas on what to sing).
  • Talk to your child about the everyday things you’re doing and seeing together. For example, ‘Let’s get the washing now’, ‘Look at the red bird’ or ‘Yum, what a nice lunch we’re having’.
  • Name people and point out special features on different objects (for example, the Velcro on shoes or buttons on a shirt).
  • Talk about feelings, chatting about whether your child is happy or sad. You can help out by giving him the words to describe his emotions. This can help him understand how others feel, too.
  • Listen to your child. Follow his lead and talk about things he brings up. If he asks a question, give him the chance to come up with answers before you step in.
  • Tell your child stories. You could share funny or interesting stories from your childhood or tell him about your family’s past.
  • As your child gets older, teach him that words can be broken down into segments. For example, ‘man’ is made up of m-a-n. Also show how parts of spoken words can be blended to produce whole words. For example, r-u-n or r-un or ru-n makes ‘run’.

Reading: its importance in literacy development

It’s a good idea to read with your child often – you can start from birth onwards. Children who have had experiences with language and print from an early age are more likely to develop a solid literacy foundation.

Reading with your child:

  • gives you enjoyable time with her as you share an activity, looking at pictures and playing with words
  • helps her start to appreciate what books have to offer, and shows her that books can give both pleasure and information
  • helps her learn the sounds of letters in spoken language
  • helps her understand that stories aren’t coming from you, but from the words on the page – this teaches her about how the printed word works
  • helps her develop a larger vocabulary, which increases her understanding, pleasure and interest in reading (this is because books offer more unusual words than are used in everyday language or on television)
  • improves her thinking and problem-solving skills.

What you can do

  • Read to your child. You can start from birth, but it’s never too late to begin.
  • When your child is old enough, encourage him to hold the book and turn the pages. This will help him start to understand that the book should be a certain way up, and that pages are always turned in the same direction.
  • Guide your finger on the line as you read, pointing out each word. This indicates to your child that we always start on the left and move to the right when reading English, helping him start to understand the rules of reading.
  • Point out pictures and describe them in words.
  • Make the sounds of animals or other objects in the book – have fun!

Rhyme: its importance in literacy development

Rhyming is a great way to teach children the connection between the sound of a word and how it’s written.

What you can do

  • Play games that involve rhyming. Rhyming words helps children appreciate beginning and ending sounds – for example, cat, pat and mat. You can play them at any time – in the car, while shopping or at the dinner table.
  • Play games that involve the sound and rhythm of words. You could try ‘I Spy’ and tongue twisters such as ‘She sells seashells by the seashore’.
  • Read rhyming books, such as The Cat in the Hat or Doodledum Dancing.
You might like to read about more activities to promote literacy.

Signs of early difficulties

Children develop at different rates. While some children with foundational literacy difficulties will catch up to their peers, children who make slow early progress often need extra help. If they don’t get it, they can experience delays in literacy development over the long term.

There are some early signs that your child might be having trouble with foundational literacy skills. These signs involve both oral language (vocabulary and listening skills) and knowledge of word structure (knowing letters, rhyming, sounding out and blending sounds in simple words).

3-4 years
Seek help or advice if most of the time your child has trouble with three or more of the following activities:

  • telling you what action is going on in a picture book (running, barking, eating)
  • using all of the necessary words to make a complete sentence – for example, ‘I'm going to the zoo’ rather than ‘I going zoo’
  • listening to an adult read to her on a regular basis
  • remembering a previously read book when shown its cover
  • showing an awareness of how books are handled
  • naming simple objects represented in books
  • concentrating on and responding to print, such as the letters in names, signs and so on
  • scribbling to make shapes that look like letters
  • stringing similar-sounding words together (‘cat, bat, hat’)
  • repeating at least parts of nursery rhymes.

5 years
Seek help or advice if most of the time your child can’t do the things listed above, and struggles with three or more of the following.

In spoken language:

  • understanding everyday spoken directions
  • incorporating new words when he speaks, and noticeably using longer sentences (often more than five words)
  • recognising the beginning of words and sounds that rhyme, and producing examples
  • breaking simple words into their parts (syllables or single sounds), and putting sounds together to make words
  • using the proper endings of words – for example, ‘He played football with me’ rather than ‘He play football with me’
  • using comparison words, such as ‘heavier’, ‘stronger’ or ‘shorter’. For example, if you said, ‘A car is big, but a bus is ______?’, your child should reply, ‘Bigger’.

In reading:

  • showing interest in books and reading
  • trying to read – for example, your child might say, ‘This word says cat. See, I can read!’
  • following the sequence of events in stories
  • relating what happens in books to her own life events
  • listening attentively when books are read aloud, deriving meaning and pleasure from it.

In understanding print concepts:

  • knowing that words in print are different from pictures, and are there to be read
  • observing and commenting on print in different settings, such as on TV, food packets and so on
  • appreciating the different purposes of print – for example, locations, prices, assembly instructions
  • knowing that each letter in the alphabet has a name and a sound, and being able to name at least eight of them
  • understanding that writing is a tool for communication, and scribbling his name, messages and so on (regardless of whether you can read what he scribbles).
If you need professional help or advice, you could start by talking to your local child health nurse, your GP, paediatrician, speech pathologist, or your child’s preschool teacher. They may be able to direct you to other services and support.

Helping your school-aged child

Prepare your child for reading and writing tasks at school by giving her lots of opportunities to experience language and print in all its forms.

If you think your child is having difficulties, try the following:

  • Check with her teacher about progress, and work on an intervention plan together. The earlier you and the teacher step in to help your child, the better she will progress in the long term.
  • Provide your child with lots of encouragement for trying, even if she repeatedly makes similar errors.
  • Make sure your child is ready to learn by being organised in the morning. It will help her to have set routines and quiet times to do her reading.
  • Schedule times for you to read with your child. You can alternate between your child reading to you and you reading to your child. If she’s struggling, this will help her avoid becoming too frustrated. If she’s tired at the end of the day, try to schedule time during the day for reading. 

Children whose pre-literacy skills haven’t developed at the same rate as their peers might find that they don’t enjoy tasks involving reading and writing. This can become a cycle – a child who’s unable to read might avoid reading, and fall further behind his peers.

If you continue to be concerned about your child’s progress, talk to your local healthcare professional about seeking further professional advice from an educational psychologistor literacy specialist. 

Two languages or more

For most children, learning to speak more than one language is a good thing.

If English is your second language, you might wonder which language you should be encouraging – your first (or ‘home’) language or English. It’s up to you, or course, but here are a few things to consider:

  • Young children can pick up a new language more quickly and easily than an adult.
  • Language and literacy development in your first language can support English language and literacy development.
  • Speaking two or more languages in your home is unlikely to negatively affect your child’s development of literacy skills in the longer term.
  • It might take some children a little longer to learn all the rules of both languages, and to learn as many words as their English-only speaking peers. But most children who speak two languages do catch up with their peers. By about 10 years of age, they’re usually just as effective in all aspects of language.

If you have concerns about your child’s progress, speak to the classroom teacher.

  • Add to favourites
  • Create pdf
  • Print
  • Email
  • Last Updated 14-09-2011
  • Last Reviewed 22-04-2009
  • Bricker, D. & Squires, J. (1999). Ages and Stages Questionnaires: A Parent-Completed, Child-Monitoring System (2nd Ed.). Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

    CCCH (Centre for Community Child Health). (2008). Literacy in Early Childhood. Policy Brief No. 13. Melbourne, VIC: Centre for Community Child Health.

    Faires, J., Nichols, W. D., & Rickelman, R. J. (2000). Effects of parental involvement in developing competent readers in first grade. Reading Psychology, 21, 195-215.

    Fritjers, J.C., Barron, R.W., & Brunello, M. (2000). Direct and mediated influences of home literacy and literacy interest on prereaders' oral vocabulary and early written language skill. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 466-477.

    Goswami, U. & Bryant, P. (2007). Children’s cognitive development and learning (Primary Review Research Survey 2/1a). Cambridge: University of Cambridge Faculty of Education.

    Handley-Derry, M. (1998). In Fox, A. M. and Mahoney, W. J. (Eds.). Children with School Problems: A Physician’s Manual. Canadian Paediatric Society: Ottawa, pp29-36.

    Hasbrouck, J., & Tindall, G. (2005). Oral reading fluency: Ninety years of measurement (BRT Technical Report No. 33). Retrieved May 13, 2008, from

    Justice, L.M., Invernizzi, M.A. & Meier, J.D. (2002). Designing and implementing an early literacy screening protocol: Suggestions for the speech-language pathologist. Language, Speech adn Hearing Services in Schools, 33, 84-101.

    Lange, S.M. & Thompson, B.W. (2006). Early identification and interventions for children at risk for learning disabilities. International Journal of Special Education, 21(3), 108-119.

    National Early Literacy Panel. (2009). Developing Early Literacy: Report of the National Early Literacy Panel, Executive Summary. Washington DC: National Institute for Literacy. Retrieved 11/5/09 from

    Powell-Smith, K. A., Stoner, G., Shinn, M. R., & Good, R. H., III. (2000). Parent tutoring in reading using literature and curriculum materials: Impact on student reading achievement. School Psychology Review, 29, 5-27.

    Resetar, J.L., Noell, G.H., & Pellegrin, A.L. (2006). Teaching parents to use research-supported systematic strategies to tutor their children in reading. School Psychology Quarterly, 21(3), 241-261.

    Senechal, M., & Lefevre, J. (2002). Parental involvement in the development of children's reading skill: A five-year longitudinal study. Child Development, 73, 445-460.

    Vervaeke, S.L., McNamara, J.K. & Scissons, M. (2007). Kindergarten screening for reading disabilities. Journal of Applied Research on Learning, 1(1), 1-19.