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Feature Articles—Child Care


Promoting young children’s early literacy

Sara Gable, Ph.D., State Specialist & Associate Professor, Nutrition and Exercise Physiology, University of Missouri Extension


Young boy reading surrounded by icons indicating knowledgeTo promote young children’s delight in talking, listening, reading and writing, adults need to provide a variety of interesting language experiences. Children who have reading difficulties in the primary grades often had limited early literacy learning experiences.

Children with reading difficulties have:

  • less letter knowledge
  • less sensitivity to the notion that the sounds of speech are distinct from their meaning
  • less familiarity with the basic purpose and mechanisms of reading
  • poorer general language ability


Children who are skilled readers:

  • understand the alphabet and letters
  • use background knowledge and strategies to obtain meaning from print
  • and can easily identify words and read fluently


Activities that prepare young children for learning to read emphasize counting, number concepts, letter names, shapes, sounds, phonological and phonemic awareness, models of adult interest in literacy, and independent and cooperative literacy activities.


Key concepts in children’s early literacy:

  • Phonological Awareness: An appreciation of the sounds and meanings of spoken words. For example, a phonologically aware child can perceive and produce rhyming words, divide words into sounds and/or syllables and put them back together again (e.g., ladybug, butterfly), and recognize that groups of words have the same sound at the start (fish, frog, fruit) or the same sound at the end (dice, mice, ice).
  • Phonemic Awareness: An advanced form of phonological awareness. The awareness that printed symbols, such as letters, systematically represent the component sounds of the language. Children who demonstrate phonemic awareness recognize the sound-symbol relationship. Phonemic awareness allows children to sound out words.


To promote early literacy:

  • Be a model of literate behavior for your children: write notes, keep a calendar and daily planner, post lists of food and household needs and children’s responsibilities, introduce new vocabulary words during routine conversation and while reading, and subscribe to a local newspaper or magazines the entire family will enjoy.
  • Discuss printed text, words and sounds as objects that can be thought about, manipulated, altered and explored: sing songs, make up silly rhymes, read books and play with words and sounds every day.
  • Help children build and use their ever-growing vocabulary.
  • Provide children with the tools of literate behavior (pens, pencils, markers, paper, envelopes, a stapler, paper clips, stamps, a dictionary, an atlas, magazines, catalogs, newspapers) and engage in daily literacy activities with your children (write thank you notes, mail birthday cards, look for specific words in magazines, find exotic destinations in an atlas, write lists, read books, visit the library).



Burns, M. S., Griffin, P., & Snow, C. E. 1999. Starting Out Right: A Guide to Promoting Children's Reading Success. Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children, National Academy Press: Washington, DC. (Ordering information can be found at: or 1-800-624-6242)


Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children. 1998. Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. National Academy Press: Washington, DC.


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