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When will your preschool-age child eventually learn to read and write? When they are four years old? Five? Six? Or are they already learning?

Although it depends on where they are in the world, most children are actively being taught to read basic books and write in sentences by the age of five or six. However, it may be a surprise to find out that there are essential literacy skills that must be mastered first in the nursery years before actual reading can happen. These are the building blocks, known as pre-reading and pre-writing skills or early literacy skills. 

How are early literacy skills taught in nurseries?

Literacy is one of the specific areas for learning and development in The Early Years Foundation Stage, which is the British nursery curriculum for little ones, from babies to five-year-olds. This framework demands that preschool children should be encouraged to “link sounds and letters and to begin to read and write.”

Pre-reading and pre-writing skills are taught in nurseries and preschools through active play. If your preschool child attends a good nursery, the foundations for their school-age reading and writing lessons are already being put in place. Your child should be consistently encouraged to:

  • Identify letters and words (i.e., signs) during their play.
  • Use toys, games and other play materials that encourage an interest in letters and words.
  • Share and enjoy books and stories. 

How can I help my child at home?

The most important way to help is to encourage your child to love books and reading from an early age. Cuddle up and share stories on the couch, at bedtime or anytime. Read their favourites over and over, as many times as they like. Visit the library or bookstore. Attend storytimes and rhymetimes. Doing all these things will encourage your child to associate reading with happy times and help encourage a lifelong love of reading.

There are so many other fun ways to help your child with their pre-reading and pre-writing skills at home, too. It’s easy to introduce some literacy-based play into your home. Here are some ideas that use inexpensive materials, and are easy and quick to organise:

  1. Sensory Writing Trays

You may have seen your child using these at nursery to develop pre-writing skills. They are always a popular activity because children enjoy the sensory nature of the activity. Most children find using the trays very calming, too. 

All you need is a tray filled with a shallow layer of something your child can move their fingers through. This could be something like flour or rice or, if you don’t mind the mess, you could make a basic slime mixture using cornstarch and water.

The idea is the child can move their finger around the tray to form pictures and patterns. You could encourage them to form letter shapes or even words, depending on their stage of development. You could also allow them to use a paint brush or pencil-like stick to draw with.

There are so many variations of this activity to keep your child engaged. You could add sparkle to your tray with glitter or you could mix spices such as cinnamon with flour to make it smell wonderful. You could dye rice with food coloring for color themes or a rainbow effect as well. Search online for even more inspiration. 

2. Alphabet Pebbles

Doing something as simple as painting letters onto large pebbles has so many benefits. Pebbles are a simple material frequently found in nurseries using the Reggio Emilia approach to learning, which encourages children to be creative and imaginative

Once painted, there are so many ways that the pebbles can be enjoyed by even the youngest child: counting, sorting and organising, building, pattern-making, and many more. Through their play, your child will become familiar with the letter shapes. As their pre-reading skills begin to develop, you can help identify the sounds. Later, your child will be able to experiment in building words. 

Of course, there are other materials you can use. Dried beans or shells are two more ideas. 

3. Storytelling Baskets

This is a fun way to help develop your child’s storytelling skills plus their communication and language abilities. Having strong verbal communication skills underpins good non-verbal communication (i.e., writing). This activity will help build a strong foundation for their primary school years.

To create a basket, pick a favorite story or traditional tale. Using toys and objects from your home, try to gather several things together that are connected with the story. For the characters, you could find toy figures of people and animals, or puppets, or you could create them using card. Key objects from the story could also be easily collected up or created using basic craft materials. You can even encourage your child to get involved in creating the storytelling basket.

Once the basket is ready, encourage your child to play with the objects. You will probably hear them begin to retell the story themselves. They may even have fun creating new stories with the same characters. You can encourage them by asking questions, applauding their efforts and helping enrich their vocabulary. 

These are just three examples of activities to encourage your child’s early literacy skills at home. There are many other possibilities that your child may enjoy. If you’d like more ideas, your child’s nursery teacher will be able to recommend other literacy-focused play ideas to engage your child and encourage early reading and writing skills. 

AUTHOR BIO:Ayesha Hoda is a marketing and communications specialist working at Step By Step Nursery Group in the UAE. She holds an MBA degree from a leading business school in Pakistan and has more than 13 years of experience in corporate communications and journalism. She has worked in both agency and client-side roles, designing communication strategies for multinational clients, nonprofits and small businesses in various industries, such as education and healthcare.