7 Early Reading Skills Families Help Kids Build At Home

How Parents Can Build Early Reading Skills In Everyday Life

Read our article exploring why families are essential to help kids build early reading skills.

by ParentPowered contributing author Curran Mahowald, M.A. Cognitive Science in Education

Through my graduate studies and research in language development, I discovered one of the best-kept secrets about babies: From the moment they’re born, they’re developing skills that will one day help them experience the joy of reading. Reading ability begins developing long before formal reading instruction, and you don’t have to go to graduate school to understand why!

When we think of early reading skills (and perhaps even evidence-based reading strategies), we often think of learning phonics, sounding out words, and recognizing high-frequency words. But as Scarborough’s Reading Rope illustrates on the right, skills related to Word Recognition in print are only part of the story.

To become skilled readers, children also need spoken language skills (in the Language Comprehension category), so they can map what they read to meanings they already know.

Spoken language skills are something children develop quite naturally and from a very early age, long before actual reading instruction starts. They develop these skills through their experiences with language, which largely happen during interactions with parents or caregivers. Building the foundations for reading, from basic language and communication skills to print awareness and sound-letter correspondence, is also an important part of kindergarten readiness.

Fortunately, parents and caregivers can help children build foundational reading skills well before kindergarten through fun and simple activities that don’t require special access to resources or expertise in early childhood education.

In this article, we’ll share seven early reading skills that children build before formal literacy instruction, from birth through about age 5. For each reading skill, we’ll share a related sample set of text messages from ParentPowered programs. These activities provide fun, simple, and doable tips for promoting literacy development with children during family routines at home, leveraging a range of approaches that includes multisensory teaching principles. Beginning readers can benefit greatly from activities that reinforce these foundational skills, setting them on the path to becoming confident and proficient readers later on.

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Seven early reading skills to practice seven days a week

Before we dive into early reading skills, it’s important to highlight their connection to the science of reading. Educators are increasingly discussing how this expansive body of research and literature can help identify the teaching practices and educational strategies that are most effective for teaching literacy. It’s not a curriculum or even one single teaching method; rather, the science of reading is about understanding evidence-based practices and how they apply in the classroom. 

Insights from research studies indicate that each of these seven early reading skills are linked to a child’s overall success as a future reader. Share these ParentPowered activities with your families as ways to give children an extra boost in their reading journey!

Oral language skills

When we read, we see letters and associate them with sounds (aka learn phonics), and we associate those sounds with meaning (aka build oral vocabulary). That second part requires us to know spoken words. In order for children to understand and learn from what they read, they need the oral basis of language to connect to written word forms. 

A black father reads a book with his two year old son at home.

Families can use the two activities below with little learners to boost early language skills that ultimately serve their future reading development.

Activity for Toddlers

FACT: Talking to your toddler throughout the day is a key way to build language and comprehension skills. The more words they hear, the more they’ll learn!

TIP: Describe your actions as you go about your day. As you do the dishes, say: “Now I’m pouring in the blue soap.” Make sure to use lots of details!

GROWTH: Keep talking and learning! Now describe what your toddler is doing: “You are waving the blue spoon in the air. It looks like the spoon is dancing!”

Activity for Preschoolers

FACT: A good conversation goes back and forth. One person talks, then another person talks. Taking turns talking helps kids listen and share their ideas.

TIP: At bedtime, pass a stuffed toy back and forth. Whoever is holding it can say one thing they want to do tomorrow. Keep passing it and building conversation.

GROWTH: Keep taking turns talking! Now play a turns game. Say, “I’m going to make an animal noise. You guess. Then you make a noise and I’ll guess.”

Download our "Ask Away!" guide to get kids talking about school!


Building a strong vocabulary is critical to building reading comprehension skills. Although we continue to grow each of our four vocabulary types throughout our lives, a child’s first five years are an essential time for their that impacts academic achievement later on. Children who learn lots of words in early childhood will be set up for success in school when formal literacy development begins. 

The following at-home activities encourage parents to expand their child’s vocabulary in small ways each day.

Activity for Toddlers

FACT: You can help your toddler build vocabulary and language skills by expanding upon their words. The more words you use, the more words they’ll learn.

TIP: When your toddler asks for something, add words. For example, if they say, “ball,” follow with, “Oh, you want the ball. I’ll roll it to you.”

GROWTH: Keep using language. You’re helping your toddler grow. Now add more descriptive words: The ball is yellow and bouncy. Grandma gave it to you.

Activity for Preschoolers

FACT: The more words your child knows, the more prepared they’ll be to read, write, and talk. Children who know many words have a big advantage in school!

TIP: While getting mail, introduce words like “sort.” Say, “When we sort, we put things that are like each other together. Let’s sort the letters into a pile.”

GROWTH: Keep introducing new words. You’re building literacy skills! Now ask questions about the words: “What else do we sort?” (Laundry, dishes, groceries).

Phonological awareness and phonemic awareness

Words are made up of sounds combined in a specific order to signify meaning. This may seem obvious to you as a skilled reader, but children in the early stages of literacy development need to learn this concept. They also need to become familiar with individual sounds as units that can move and combine together to create larger units of meaning. This ability to perceive and manipulate sounds in general is called phonological awareness. Its counterpart, phonemic awareness, takes it a step further — children recognize the sounds that make meaningful differences in their own language. 

Each of the ParentPowered activities below taps into developing phonological and phonemic awareness in their young children. Families can also use these tips in other languages, not just English! It’s all about practicing word-sound associations.

Activity for PK-3

FACT: When kids find words that start with the same sound, they take a step towards reading. They discover that the same sound can be used in different ways.

TIP: Everyday objects are great for thinking about sounds. When you see a ball, say, “BALL! BALL starts with Bbb. What else starts with Bbb? BOOK!”

GROWTH: Keep talking about same sounds! Now ask, “Which word doesn’t start with Bbb? BALL, BOWLING, BOOK, BABY, HOCKEY.”

Activity for Preschoolers

FACT: Rhyming helps children discover that different words can share the same sounds. This discovery helps them learn to read later on down the line.

TIP: Rhyme with objects. As you cook, point to the pot and ask, “What rhymes with pot (hot, dot, lot)? How about spoon (moon, soon, balloon)?”

GROWTH: Keep rhyming! You’re getting ready 4K. Now rhyme with things you see on the table. What rhymes with cup (up, pup)? How about plate (late, date)?

Letter knowledge

When children learn to read, they discover that letters correspond to sounds in predictable ways. This is called the alphabetic principle. It forms the basis for phonics, in which children learn the sounds made by each letter and different letter formations. 

Smiling Caucasian Mature woman with her son shopping at the supermarket

Offer the following ParentPowered activities to your families to encourage building letter knowledge in students anywhere, anytime — even at the grocery store! Here again, even though these activities use English as the example, families can practice letter-sound correspondence with these in many other languages.

Activity for Toddlers

FACT: When you point out the first letter in your toddler’s name, you help them learn to identify letters – an initial step towards reading and writing.

TIP: In the kitchen, find the first letter in your child’s name on boxes and labels. Point it out with excitement. “Look, it’s ‘T’ for Tanya. That’s your letter!”

GROWTH: Keep celebrating your toddler’s special letter. Now say words that start with its sound: T-t-t Tanya. T-t-t tomato. Hunt for more “T” words together!

Activity for Preschoolers

FACT: Preschool is when many children begin learning how to write letters. Kids can get ready for this big step by making letters with everyday objects.

TIP: Make letters with things you find outside. Can your child use sticks, grass and rocks to make letters like T, X, L and N? What about curvy letters like S?

GROWTH: Keep making letters to prepare your child 4K! Now work together to use these objects to try making all of the letters in your child’s name.

Print awareness 

Print awareness is a key reading skill component. This concept refers to the organization of printed letters or words in the environment around you. All around us, there are opportunities to point out print and how it’s used. Think about it! When you’re sitting at the breakfast table, do you notice the letters and words on the cereal boxes? If you ride the bus to school or work, try keeping track of street signs that pass by. 

Taking advantage of environmental print isn’t just convenient. It also demonstrates an important principle: the written word communicates important meaning to us as we move through our days. 

Families benefit from encouraging print awareness in their young learners, too. Share the following ParentPowered activities to help families and students alike recognize learning moments from the letters and words all around them!

Activity for Toddlers

FACT: When reading is important to you, it becomes important to your toddler too. Reading print throughout the day shows your toddler just how essential it is.

TIP: At home, read food labels. Share why they matter: “These words tell us what’s in the cereal. We need to know about that to stay healthy!”

GROWTH: Keep reading print! Now invite your toddler to point to words they want you to read. Look on signs, magazines, or toy boxes. As they see it, you say it!

Activity for Preschoolers

FACT: A big step in learning to write is learning that printed words represent thoughts and ideas. You can build this knowledge by writing as your child talks.

TIP: During play time, encourage your child to draw a picture of the best day ever. Then have them tell you about it as you write down their words.

GROWTH: Keep exploring printed words! Now read your child’s words back to them. Ask if they want to add any new words to the page and write those down too.

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Book sense

Reading and writing are human technologies that were invented rather than evolved, so children do not come hardwired knowing how to navigate written texts. They must learn to follow text from left to right and from up to down (in the case of English) through literacy experiences. From positive experiences with books, they also learn how to properly hold a book and how to turn its pages.

Families play a key role in helping kids build their “book sense.” These ParentPowered activities are perfect for families of early learners to get comfortable with handling and using books, even before they recognize the letters and words. 

Activity for Infants

FACT: Your baby’s new physical skills make it possible for them to handle books on their own. Hand over a sturdy book so they can discover how books work!

TIP: During playtime, offer your baby a board book to explore on their own. Talk about each picture and page that they explore. “Oh look, it’s baby bear!”

GROWTH: Keep encouraging your baby to explore books. Try placing board books in your diaper bag. Give your baby a book to explore when you’re out and about!

Activity for PK-4

FACT: One great way to help children develop a love for reading is to let them pick out and hold a book. We hold books right side up with the cover in front.

TIP: Today, let your child pick out and hold a bedtime book. Ask, “What’s the right way to hold it?” Help them if necessary and turn the pages together.

GROWTH: Keep holding books to prepare 4K! Open the book and ask, “Can you show me where we start reading?” Now follow along with your finger as you read.

Love of reading

As with any activity, motivation and skill have a positively reinforcing relationship. With early reading skills, the more a child is motivated to read, the better she’ll get at it. One easy way for grown-ups to motivate children is to model their own attitude of excitement about books and reading time. As a bonus, families reading together enjoy a sweet moment of social connection and bonding.

An Asian mother smiles as she shows her delighted infant son a picture book.

Encourage your families to celebrate a love for reading with their child by offering the ParentPowered activities below.

Activity for Toddlers

FACT: Reading with your toddler every day helps them develop a love of books. It also builds key reading skills like print awareness and comprehension.

TIP: Pick a pillow to be your reading pillow. Meet at your pillow before bed so that you can share a book together. Make sure to cuddle up as you read!

GROWTH: Keep reading together. Bring a book on-the-go. Your toddler can look at the pictures as you shop. As you wait in line, you can read it together!

Activity for Preschoolers

FACT: Children who love books are more motivated to learn to read. You can inspire a love of books by doing little things to make reading time extra fun.

TIP: At bedtime, grab a flashlight and a book. Try reading under the covers. Invite your child to make sound effects to go along with the story as you read.

GROWTH: Keep having fun with books to prepare 4K! With your child, give each character a different voice. Ask, “How do you think this character sounds?”

Top tips for family engagement in literacy

Families are invaluable partners in supporting children’s literacy ability. Here are some key points to remember when involving families in supporting early literacy skills

Reading is fun!

Rather than being “one more thing” parents need to add to their to-do list, reading can be something families look forward to when they realize how simple and fun it is. In your messaging to families, remind them that any and every minute they can spend with a book counts. There are no wrong ways to read or tell stories! 

You can also encourage a spirit of play and exploration, perhaps suggesting using silly voices while reading stories out loud. These strategies are fun — and happen to boost fluency in reading, too.

Reading is a routine!

When suggesting activities for parents to do at home, it’s important to give ideas mapped onto daily routines. This approach works for three reasons:

  • You’re more likely to remember to do something when it’s connected to something that’s already on your daily schedule.
  • You’re more likely to do something consistently over time when it’s connected to something else that happens consistently over time. Repetition is key for learning, especially with skills like phonological and phonemic awareness.
  • Your activities become more equitable by minimizing the time burden on families. Only some families have extra time dedicated to early learning goals, but nearly all families have bath time, mealtime, and commuting time.

ParentPowered programs are designed with this model in mind — creating everyday learning moments as part of everyday routines. Join an upcoming info session to learn more about our approach, the research behind it, and how our family engagement activities grow alongside students. 

Reading is great at gatherings!

Do you have a family literacy workshop planned? Don’t just talk about reading — do it together with families right then and there! 

A live event is an excellent time to model ways of supporting emergent literacy skills and allow families to practice, too. Be sure to provide a variety of books and encourage families to bring in their favorite books as well.

Whether you plan special activities to highlight strong reading practices or simply ask families to act out a story together with their child, your early literacy-focused gathering will be a great opportunity to bring early reading skills to life.

Reading in all languages is valuable!

Linguistic diversity is an asset! Children who are exposed to a language other than English at home have the potential to develop as bilingual and biliterate, given the right support. Encourage your multilingual parents to talk and read with their child in those languages they speak other than English at home. They can even use English-language picture books as tools to build their child’s multilingual skills by simply making up their own story based on the pictures. Home language development matters!

Early reading skills are essential for later growth

I already shared one best-kept secret about kids — that babies begin absorbing crucial information about language, words, and stories from all interactions happening with and around them. And now, you’re in-the-know on another amazing secret to how children cultivate a joyful experience of reading: their families! 

Families are essential models, cheerleaders, guides, and supporters for their children’s reading journey. They have so much to offer when it comes to developing early reading skills. That’s why both of these secrets are worth spilling with educators and families everywhere!

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About the author

Curran Mahowald is a former high school language teacher turned education research advocate. In addition to having worked at ParentPowered, she has also designed parent-facing informational materials at Oakland Unified School District and currently works on improving national research-to-practice infrastructure at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. Curran holds an M.A. in Cognitive Science in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and B.A.s in Linguistics and French from the University of Southern California.

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