Pre-Reading Strategies to Develop Early Literacy

Kelley Spainhour

Special Education Consultant

Reading is a lifelong journey. When we are young, we learn to read; as we grow, we read to learn. What a joy it is to curl up with a new release from your favorite author! And how easily we are captivated by great nonfiction as we learn about a new topic.

Literacy development begins in infancy as parents and caregivers talk and sing to their children and read aloud from storybooks. As children enter early childhood settings, teachers and families work together to establish a strong foundation with the knowledge, skills, and joy of reading. Let’s explore some of the strategies you can use in the classroom and at home to help cultivate a love of literacy.


Our goal in this article is not to favor one literacy approach over another (e.g., structured literacy versus balanced literacy), but rather to highlight strategies known to be helpful across settings for learners as they begin to explore letters and stories.

Pre-Reading Strategies in the Classroom

Educators are incredible as they engage our wildly entertaining, insightful, delightful, and sometimes bewildering children while carefully and intentionally guiding their holistic development. Teachers address the whole child and plan for their healthy physical, social, emotional, and academic growth. In particular, early childhood teachers use structured play, free play, art, dance, song, movement, storytime, science exploration, group work, and so much more to shape minds, bodies, and hearts. When it comes to literacy development, the same is true. Teachers draw upon a variety of best practices to understand their students’ reading and writing readiness and plan for how to facilitate their growth.

10 Best Practices to Support Emerging Readers

1. Incorporate Multisensory Letter Work

This is a strategy for engaging the whole child. Start by cutting out letters from sandpaper to have children trace with their fingers. Ask them to say the name and/or sound that the letter makes as they trace the letter. This tactile-auditory experience helps increase neural connections to improve memory of the letter, its shape, and sound.

2. Build Phonological Awareness

This is easily accomplished with books, songs, and play activities that rhyme and/or have a distinct cadence (rhythm) to the story.

3. Use Whole Body Learning

Have children clap syllables when learning a new word. For older children who are learning to decode, consider the “thumb-tapping method,” to isolate phonemes (or another similar strategy that requires physical engagement). Other ways to incorporate whole body learning include:

  • Trace alphabet letters in the air with one or both arms.
  • Use chalk to write letters or draw pictures on the ground (outside).
  • Toss and catch a beach ball with letters or symbols drawn on the different colors, and name or identify what you’ve caught based on where your thumb lands.
  • Play hopscotch and jump from letter to letter or symbol to symbol.
  • Sing songs.
  • Dance.
  • Use whole body listening (eyes on teacher, arms folded or hands clasped, mouth closed, ears “open,” feet together or crossed).

4. Develop Oral Language Skills

Plan time during the school day to practice oral language skills. Ask open-ended questions, model the kind of speech you are looking for in your students, and encourage them to share how they are feeling or thinking. For nonverbal learners, try using symbol-based communication cards to help them express their thoughts and ideas.

5. Encourage Digital Literacy

The role of technology in early childhood settings is evolving, and recommendations for the best ways to interact with screens and digital media at a young age frequently change. When and if you do introduce screens, be sure to choose digital media that is high quality and educational—it should supplement your curricular and learning goals. Digital technologies that support creativity, problem solving, collaboration, and knowledge development are key.

6. Keep a Word Wall

Showcase new vocabulary words with their accompanying symbol or visual representation.

7. Make Connections

Help students make connections from read-alouds and stories to their own lives with sentence starters and guided, open-ended questions.

8. Include an Art Activity

Use visual or tactile arts to help students represent some aspect of a read-aloud or story, such as a new vocabulary word, the main character, an important detail, etc.

9. Create a Print-rich Environment

Even if your students are not yet reading, label common objects (like door, chair, sink, markers, whiteboard).

10. Use Specific Praise

Take note and comment when your students use a new vocabulary word, identify a letter in environmental print or a storybook, or practice any other strategy you have been working on in class.

Pre-Reading Strategies at Home

As a parent or caregiver of an emerging reader, opportunities for cultivating the habit and love of reading are everywhere! It might take a bit of practice to recognize this day to day, but with the tips below, you’ll be well on your way toward a daily reading rhythm.

When your child is a baby (yes, even just a couple of months old!), spend time reading with them. Your baby will learn to associate the warmth of your caregiving with the storybook you read and appreciate the different cadence and rhythm of your voice as you narrate the story. Take care to pay attention to the inflection of your voice and even your posture—these are important elements of nonverbal communication that babies begin to learn at a very young age.

Infants love the contrast of black and white picture books—this may be a good place to start when choosing your first few books. From there, you can add in short, rhythmic board books filled with brightly colored pictures and varying textures. All of these are a wonderful introduction to the world of stories.

Throughout your day, talk to your child about what you’re doing. Sing nursery rhymes, lullabies, and any other song you wish—including ones you make up! When they gaze back at you (or even when they’re fussing), they are taking in your words and your gestures.

Fun Literacy Activities

As your child gets a little older, try these fun at-home literacy activities to bring the joy of reading and writing through play, exploration, and time together:

Use Magnetic Letters

Decorate the refrigerator or any other magnetic surface with colorful letters. Practice naming the letters and spelling simple words like “dog” or “hi.”

Practice Identifying Environmental Print

Take note of the print of everyday life by naming common restaurants, stores, and other establishments that you visit, as well as common signs and labels. Children as young as two or three years old can recognize familiar places such as Target or McDonald’s as they associate color, image, and letters with the name and experience of visiting these places.

Stage a Reading Party

Invite your child and their siblings and/or stuffed animal friends to a porch party to read! Let your child pick out any number of books from their collection or the local library and set up a reading nook on the porch, deck, or picnic blanket outside. Bring a special snack and enjoy the novelty of this special reading spot. You may choose to read a story to your child or encourage them to pretend-read to friends. It does not matter if they are not yet able to decode and make meaning of the words on the page. The experience of holding the book, looking at the pictures, turning the pages, and wondering about the story is a critical component of literacy development.

Create a Letter Scavenger Hunt

Hide some letters, and encourage your child to find as many examples of the letter A as they can as they walk from room to room. Depending on age and ability, you may let them navigate this alone, or you may prepare the letter “A” on sticky notes and place them in different rooms for them to see. Children can discover letters on packages, labels, cereal boxes, newspapers, and more.

Use Family Meal Time

Combine meals with practicing important skills such as prediction and recall. For example, at breakfast, make a prediction about the day ahead.

“What do you think will happen at the park today?”

“Can you guess our afternoon activity?”

“I wonder if the splash pad will be crowded this morning.”

Alternatively, you may use dinnertime to recall or summarize the day. This is an especially helpful, connecting question for the whole family if one parent/caregiver has been caring for children during the day and another parent/caregiver has been working.

Play a Game of Charades

For young children learning a new word, you may need to model one example for how to act out a new word. Let’s say you are introducing the words “delicious” and “disgusting” to your preschooler. You could initially use a prop, like a cookie, pretend to eat it, and make nonverbal gestures like rubbing your tummy while smiling to show how much you enjoy it. Then, use something “disgusting” like a muddy shoe and pretend to lick the shoe. That would be gross! Your child will get a good laugh out of these examples. Let them choose next, and practice playing with fewer scaffolds and new words.

Offer Specific Praise

Praise your child as you notice them trying out new words, looking up books, identifying letters, practicing sounds, tracing letters, and more. Instead of saying, “Good job!” try using specific language that reinforces the desired trait, such as:

“I see how careful you are being as you trace the letter P in your workbook!”

“You seemed to enjoy the book you were looking at—would you like to show it to me?”

“How wonderful you found an example of a vowel on the cereal box! Can you find one more?”

Learning to read is a complex and ongoing process. One of the best things a teacher or parent can do to support a child’s literacy journey is to make reading accessible and enjoyable. Teachers who meet their students where they are with reading and writing instruction will find their students are more likely to jump into the activities with eagerness. Therefore, accommodate, personalize, and offer choice as needed and wherever possible to help your learners grow in their love of literacy. Parents who do the same at home will marvel at the growth of their children as they soak in the stories—written or told—that fill their home. Happy reading!
About the Author

Kelley Spainhour is a special education professional with a decade of teaching and leadership experience. She is passionate about the unique needs of children with medical needs and enjoys collaborating in multidisciplinary contexts. Kelley currently serves as a special education consultant and writer.