How to: Teach early literacy to preschoolers

I’ve mentioned before that I work in a preschool. We are a faith-based, developmental school, serving ages 2 through Kindergarten. It’s a diverse group of kids from about 15 different countries and speaking numerous different languages at home, and a similarly diverse staff. We teach early literacy skills at all ages and stages, and we have a BIG range of abilities represented in our school. I feel like it’s great preparation for working with children in the library too.

So I want to highlight some tips from NAEYC on teaching in the classroom, because I think it’s useful for pretty much any setting with children – including parents! (Read the whole thing here: Essentials of Early Literacy Instruction)

Can we do all these things in every storytime? Probably not! But we can incorporate these ideas throughout our program so that we hit each of these strategies for learning. I hope they are helpful for you!


The idea of “rich talk” is so useful. Rich talk includes words and ideas that might be new to kids – along with the context to understand it. We can do this by enriching our storytime themes with content. For example – are we reading Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar? We can enhance that theme with vocabulary around fruits and vegetables, with pictures or real ones for kids to touch and look at. We can talk about sweet, sour, crunchy, soft, and other attributes of things. Just imagine how many words can be explored this way!


We got this one, right? Don’t worry about reading favorites over and over again. Repetition is good and useful and helpful.


Playing with words and sounds is fun. All kids like books with rhyming sounds in them. Sometimes they can predict what the word will be because it rhymes! Kids a touch older – like 4’s – can tell you other words that start with the same sound, or words that rhyme. You can write the words on a whiteboard so they see the word and hear it said at the same time.


We do “letter of the week” in school, but we have the kids for a whole school year so we have that continuity. For storytime, in addition to reading books with alphabet awareness, we could also theme around a letter. An example: Storytime Katie’s “E” storytime.


Providing a book list to parents and bringing out a selection of books that are related to what we did in storytime can help parents promote emergent reading, too.


For emergent writing activities, it’s useful to consider what’s developmentally appropriate for our storytime guests. Younger children display emergent writing in the form of scribbles and sometimes tracing or writing mock letters. Here’s a useful graphic describing how a child’s writing develops over time:


If you do center times, you can also do hands-on activities like allowing children to form letters with a finger in a tray of rice, or in a sealed bag of paint. (Here’s a handout on sensory ways to promote letter development with young children.)


These are some simple concepts related to books and reading which we might forget to discuss – but which promote fundamental understanding of how to use a book.

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These ideas reinforce why play in the library and in the context of our programs can be useful – these ideas represent using hands-on activities to give children an opportunity to explore the ideas we’ve been talking about in storytime.


Research Time, Part 5: Expanding the concept of early literacy skills

In today’s post, I want to talk a little about Tess Prendergast’s fascinating article “Growing Readers: A Critical Analysis of Early Literacy Content for Parents on Canadian Public Library Websites” (2013).

What is particularly notable for me in this article is how Prendergast pushes out the walls of the concept of “early literacy” – not only reinforcing the core concepts that we have already identified (including things like early literacy skills and practices), but embracing the complementary idea that early literacy also involves concepts like diversity and that the broader experience of the child is part of early literacy as well.  Prendergast’s article is challenging to my perspective; perhaps it will challenge yours in a good way as well.

So let’s take a tour through this piece.



Prendergast first embarks on a survey of public-library websites to look at what she finds with regard to the content of those websites, and how they discuss their early literacy programs and storytimes. She describes her findings as follows:

A word-level analysis of 150 unique storytime descriptions reveals that the ten most frequently used words across all 20 libraries’ listings were: songs, rhymes, stories, fun, books, fingerplays, learning, interactive, love, reading. Considered together, these ten words reveal the essence of most library storytimes. (p. 239)

She also finds that other aspects of storytime are emphasized, such as parent/caregiver bonding with children, preparing for kindergarten, cultural observances such as Diwali, and the simple fact of storytime being an enjoyable activity with children.

But Prendergast finds something that may come as a surprise: representation of diversity of ability is dramatically underrepresented. Librarians, this means that even if our storytimes are welcoming to children of many ability levels, we may not be getting that message across! Although it may be more beneficial for us to express this overtly, Prendergast suggests:

although not overtly welcoming to children with developmental challenges, program descriptions that welcome all “ages and stages” provide an example that sounds more inclusive of children with developmental differences. This phrase may be all that is needed to allay the concerns of parents of children who have developmental delays and disabilities, who may wonder if and how their children will be welcomed and included. (p. 243)

Parents of children who learn or behave differently than their peers may look for evidence that their child will be welcomed. I have explored some ways we can accommodate children with these differences in this post, and Prendergast highlights the importance of not only doing this, but expressing that we do this so that families know that they are welcome.

Prendergast also explores subtle ways that our web presence can signal diversity and inclusion, such as visual representation of children of diverse heritage and diverse ability in our web and print content.

In discussing her findings, however, Prendergast now shifts to a profoundly important, if disquieting, discussion of the limitations of our understanding of early literacy. She argues that our understanding of early literacy practices is limited to that found in ECRR/ECRR2 and library-industry information about early literacy which is primarily based on ECRR/ECRR2. But…

The problem with ECRRR being the primary “go to” resource for early literacy in the field of children’s librarianship (and therefore appearing frequently on library websites) stems from the resource’s very narrow view of early literacy and how this narrow view might limit its inclusiveness of and relevance for the diverse communities served by public libraries.  […] no evidence of a broader view of early literacy, beyond the skills-based, reading readiness frame, was found on any of the sites examined, nor did any of the links provided on these sites lead to resources that convey a broader view of early literacy. Of particular concern is the fact that none of the libraries’ websites portrayed a nuanced understanding that all families engage in and support their young children’s learning in ways that are culturally important to them, and that this support may not look like Western notions of early literacy (i.e., reading books to young children).(p. 246)

Prendergast cites Hamer and Adams’ proposed broader definition of early literacy as follows:

the experiences, practices, attitudes and knowledge experienced by young children in multiple settings that contribute to their understanding, enjoying, engaging with and using oral, visual and written language and symbols of their own and other cultures to express their individual identity and allow active participation in literate society.

Quite a left turn from our traditional understanding of early literacy – but I think that we absolutely must see the value in it. Consider the ways in which language is culturally bound, the role of a child’s interacting with the environment in shaping language learning, the benefit for a young person to see concepts that are relevant to his or her own cultural milieu in his or her education.

Prendergast goes on to say:

Expanded views of early literacy (i.e., those that go beyond things like phonological skills and school readiness) can help practitioners learn about ways that literacy skills can be developed for children labelled with a variety of disabilities. These expanded, flexible, and inclusive views of early literacy and the ways that libraries’ collections, programs, and services can support them should be made evident on library webpages for parents and caregivers to see.  (p. 248)

In this conclusion, then, I feel that Prendergast has proposed a bit of a seismic shift in our definition of early literacy, and this is appropriate and useful, in a big-picture, sociocultural-understanding sense. The subsequent recommendations in an on-the-ground sense are also useful and can provide us with some ways forward:

  1. Create parent pages on our websites that will help parents understand specifically what we offer and what they can do to support their children’s literacy development. Include information about our inclusion of children with differing needs!
  2. Translate web content into non-English languages. (This is fairly easily automated now – and in some communities this is an increasing must-do.)
  3. Expand our portrayal of early literacy skills and abilities on our websites. Include information about early literacy’s cultural and heritage components.
  4. Visual representation of diversity on our web and print materials.
  5. Relax our storytime rules to create a more relaxed, welcoming environment.



Prendergast, T. (2013). Growing readers: A critical analysis of early literacy content for parents on Canadian public library websites. Journal of Library Administration, 53(4), 234-254.

Research Time, Part 2: Working with Struggling Readers

In my previous post, I took a spin through a journal article that discussed some of the cognitive and experiential factors that influence children’s early literacy attainment, and focused particularly on the cognitive factors. I learned that there are a wide variety of processing characteristics on the brain level that vary in different children, and that a deficit in any one of those characteristics can cause difficulty in learning to read.

The processes involved include things like being able to perceive spatial order, being able to process the relationships between groupings of letters and the words they become, being able to remember the names for things and connect the word to the thing itself. There is a surprising level of granularity that can be studied in literacy learning.

So the next thing I want to do in this series of posts is to look at specifically how reading teachers and tutors overcome some of the inherent cognitive processes and the potential deficits therein that impact children’s literacy attainment. In other words: how do we – librarians and literacy practitioners – teach through and around the vast variation in children’s cognitive abilities?


What really matters when working with struggling readers

So for today’s post, I want to look a piece by Richard Allington that discusses the actual practice of working with struggling readers. The eventual hope of this series is that we can begin to establish some specific practices and useful strategies for working with children of varying reading ability levels.

Perhaps one particularly significant statement in Allington’s piece is that there is no one “best way” to pursue literacy learning. Historically, trends and strategies have varied greatly, and though perhaps each time we believe we have cracked the code, it is difficult to identify a decided superiority of one approach over another. Allington’s discussion of literacy curricula purchased for school settings is absolutely damning: he says most such programs “typically provide lessons that bear little or no relationship to the research on fostering the development of reading comprehension” but even so, “in the past decade, federal, state, and district policies have focused on mandating the use of an approach that has generated no support in the research on teaching beginning readers.”

He cites Vellutino and Scanlon, the same researchers from whose work I learned about cognitive and processing factors in my previous post, as illustrating the superiority of professional reading specialists in a direct intervention strategy for struggling readers. But librarians are not usually professional reading specialists. What can we glean then from this research?

I propose that there are three major functions from Allington’s work that librarians can perform for struggling readers – they happen to be functions that benefit more proficient readers too, and things we can do without undertaking a massive program or policy shift. Here are these three major functions:

  • Summer reading, summer reading, summer reading. Allington points out that a dozen self-selected books provided to kids at risk of falling behind can undo the “summer slide” which comprises a great deal of the difference between high achieving readers and low achieving readers. Why is this the case? Because independent reading, or self-instruction, is a sometimes-forgotten key to literacy attainment. Processing, phonics, and comprehension are all attained at least in part by independent reading. So, librarians: when you perform the simple act of putting books in kids’ hands, you are contributing to their literacy attainment.
  • Reading at an appropriate level. Struggling readers often do better when they are reading at their own level, as opposed to reading at grade level. High-success reading is actually not lazy reading at all – it is the kind of reading that most adults prefer as well. Too-difficult texts are exhausting and demotivating. So, librarians: when you have the skill to suggest a level-appropriate text to a child, you are contributing to their literacy attainment. Help a child find a book they can read and want to read.
  • Providing literacy support to struggling readers. Libraries already provide numerous literacy supports that can promote literacy learning through literacy doing. An example: a library program in which a child has an opportunity to read to a therapy dog, a common early literacy program, provides a child with a chance to participate in a reading assignment in a friendly and judgment-free environment. As Allington points out, poor readers are often given assignments in isolation, but good readers are often given opportunities to demonstrate their abilities. Perhaps giving struggling readers an opportunity to practice demonstrating their abilities at any level promotes engagement and confidence. This, in addition to trained literacy tutors which are present in many libraries, is a potentially useful strategy with children who are struggling to read. So, librarians: when you provide a child with an opportunity to exercise his or her reading skill in a safe environment, or to improve it with a literacy tutor, you are contributing to their literacy attainment.

Allington’s article is surprising in its conclusion. He seems to be arguing – and I would say that this argument is compelling for sure – that strict adherence to a pre-existing literacy curriculum doesn’t work in a big-picture sense. Some children will learn adequately in this context (and this may be despite the curriculum, not because of it), while others will fall behind, and it is the children who are falling behind who are the focus of my study this week.

Instead, Allington is proposing something almost radically simple: professional, relational, individual reading instruction; opportunities to experience and demonstrate reading success; and opportunities to read materials that are actually interesting and actually at a child’s ability level. This is a perfect opportunity for libraries to lead, and if not to lead to partner.

I hope that you read these ideas and feel excited about what you already do and what you have the ability to do in the future.


Allington, R. L. (2013). What Really Matters When Working With Struggling Readers. Reading Teacher, 66(7), 520-530. doi:10.1002/TRTR.1154

Research Time, Part 1: Cognitive and Experiential Deficits and Reading Performance

Today I am attempting to gather additional information about the relationship between cognitive factors and early literacy attainment. I have at other times written about one of my overarching questions for this semester, which is how cognitive factors (a child’s inherent factors) and experiential factors (a child’s early exposure to literacy fundamentals, a child’s primary school experiences with literacy instruction) interact.

Popular literature on the topic has been fairly consistent: it’s reading that makes readers, and a primary factor in low early literacy attainment is environmental. But as we work with children, we can easily observe that there are some children who absorb early literacy concepts like little sponges and other children who struggle with their literacy attainment even with significant intervention. What’s the difference? What’s going on here?

So in my next series of posts, I have some pieces of more formal literature I’d like to discuss, and I want to see if I can approach this question from various angles.


Cognitive factors and reading remediation

I’m going to start with Vellutino and Scanlon’s piece entitled “Cognitive profiles of difficult-to-remediate and readily remediated poor readers”. It’s a clinical article with a clinical title, but I spent some time digging into it to see what factors might make one child more likely to respond to remediation than another. In particular, I want to pull from this piece some understanding of the cognitive functions involved in literacy learning.

Notable in this piece is the fact that over and over again, they point out that it is difficult to control for many, many factors in this research. It is difficult to control for school experiences; it is difficult to control for limited early exposure to reading; it is difficult to control for deficits in experience. These repeated caveats bring to the fore how difficult it is to generalize over a population with factors as complex as these.

However, the authors explain that both the inherent cognitive factors and the experiential factors can be seen along a continuum. While we have to be careful about labeling children as more or less intelligent in our practice, if we consider that children do have an inherent range of capabilities with regard to literacy and that children do in turn have an experiential range of exposure to early literacy practices and instruction, we can see that there are almost an infinite number of combinations of ability and experience that come to bear on children’s literacy attainment.

A useful granularity in Vellutino and Scanlon’s piece is a delineation of the specific cognitive factors involved in literacy attainment: selective attention, associative learning, cross-modal transfer, serial-order processing, and rule learning. These specific brain-level cognitive functions may be stronger or weaker in different children, and may explain variations in a group of children exposed to similar levels and styles of instruction. Syntactic processes that are also part of this learning include sentence comprehension, grammatical evaluation, and contextual deduction.  And even the relationship between vision and the brain’s processing of what is seen impact literacy attainment on a functional level; visual memory, form perception, spatial orientation, tracking, and directional sequencing are such factors.

In summary: we cannot discount the impact of cognitive factors in learning, as there are brain-level processing functions and reading-specific processing functions that affect children’s literacy attainment. Deficits in these specific processing functions constitute, in some children, what we more familiarly call learning disabilities.

The authors are arguing here that these characteristics are likely to be heritable – that some of these factors are present in the brain from its formation in utero, certainly existing long before any early literacy learning strategies are employed. These are likely to be inherent characteristics that are hard to change, but strategies can be employed to teach the individual child through and around these differences. And in fact, the longitudinal study undertaken here indicates that over time, these seemingly inherent characteristics, in the presence of reading intervention and remediation, no longer predict nor identify children’s literacy attainment. In other words: children who received intentional reading tutoring achieved and maintained a high rate of skills increase and advantage in reading achievement.

This is actually very good news for literacy practitioners. We have the capability to understand the detail processes that go into a child’s learning to read, write, and comprehend, but even if we don’t have that knowledge ourselves, we can learn the techniques and approaches that help children learn through and around these functions to achieve literacy skills, and we can employ them in our programs and storytimes.

It is those approaches to achievement that I would like to pursue in my next couple of posts, with gratitude for the foundation provided by this study.


Vellutino, F. R., & Scanlon, D. M. (1996). Cognitive profiles of difficult-to-remediate and readily remediated poor readers. Journal Of Educational Psychology, 88(4), 601.

Fundamentals of Early Childhood Literacy

I want to begin the blog content with an overview of the stages and characteristics of early literacy development. It is important to note from the beginning, however, that not all children learn to read in the same way or at the same ages; every child is different. But understanding what early literacy behaviors look like and how to promote them is good for all stages of development.

Early Literacy Skills
These skills are also known as preliteracy skills, because they form before a child is developmentally ready to read and write. These skills come together to form a child’s reading ability, and develop at different rates in the same child. Let’s look at the skills that go into literacy development in children.

  • Vocabulary – knowing the words for things
  • Print motivation – taking an interest in books
  • Print awareness – understanding that a book has pages with words that are read from top to bottom, left to right
  • Narrative skills – the ability to tell a story
  • Letter knowledge – identifying letters
  • Phonological awareness – understanding the component sounds of words

Learn more about early literacy skills in this parent handout: early literacy skills.

Early Literacy Stages
Children develop these preliteracy skills through being read to, through looking at books on their own, and through everyday interactions with parents/caregivers and their environment. Let’s look at how children develop literacy throughout their early years.

Babies 0-12 months
Yes, babies learn literacy skills! Babies may enjoy looking at books with bright, simple pictures and with objects and people they recognize from their everyday world. Baby may cuddle with a soft book or chew on a hard one, but is learning what a book is and why it is interesting. We may not even realize how much vocabulary baby is taking in at every step along the way!

The second year
Between 12 and 24 months of age, young children often like books with pictures of children doing things they do every day – going to bed, visiting Grandma, playing at the park, saying hello and goodbye to mom or dad. They may also like books with pictures of animals, trucks, or other objects of interest to them.

Two to three
Children ages two to three may enjoy simple stories that can be told over and over again, or books with rhymes, and may start to memorize and retell the stories they hear. Counting, alphabet, shapes, sizes are all themes that are good for children of this age; children in this age group also enjoy seeing their favorite characters in books. Now is a great time for toddlers to discover that books have interesting characters and are meaningful to their lives.

Read more about developmental stages of literacy in this handout: zero-to-three early literacy

The development of a young child’s brain is rapid and remarkable. Among the things a child learns between birth and three, we find gross motor, fine motor, language, music, spatial, and other skills. Children learn words to describe everything – things they do, things they see, things they eat, things they hear, people and places and things in their environments. We may not even realize that they are learning those things. And they are learning rhyme, rhythm, melody and musicality. Together with print-based skills, these concepts form connections within the child’s brain in which the brain learns to process the words, the meaning, and the context ever more efficiently. This is an exciting process that has many implications for the child’s cognitive and scholastic development throughout childhood.