6 Early Literacy Skills

Baby Enjoying Tummy Time
Mother and Baby Reading Together
Baby Boy Playing with Hat

What is early literacy?

Early literacy isn’t teaching our children how to read at an early age; instead, it lays the foundation that they will need later in life to become successful readers. This foundation comprises six fundamental pre-reading skills that we, as parents, need to nurture and includes vocabulary, print motivation; print awareness; narrative skills; letter knowledge; and phonological awareness. Once we understand these skills, we can add five guiding practices that strengthen that foundation through play, singing, writing, reading, and talking with our children. 

Looking at these pre-skills and what we can do to help build these skills can seem daunting, but take heart; you have libraries and their staff ready to help you gather the tools needed and act as guides to help you build these foundations. Also, we will take a moment to break down these skills to make them more manageable. Look for more articles giving tips and ideas on incorporating the five building blocks into your daily routines.

Six Early Literacy Skills


Child Holding Phone
Cute Baby talking on a cellphone, Pune, Maharashtra.

Vocabulary is knowing the names of things; it is essential to your child’s development as they begin to read. By age 5, your child should have a vocabulary of 2,200 to 2,500 words. By the time they are six years old, they should have an expressive (words they say) vocabulary of 2,600 words but have a receptive (words that they understand) vocabulary of 20,000-24,000 words.

Print Motivation

Print motivation is your child’s interest in and enjoyment of books and reading.  Children who enjoy books are likelier to learn how to read and keep trying even when it becomes more difficult.  As parents, we can encourage our child’s love of reading by allowing them to choose books they enjoy.  This love of reading is reinforced when we read with our children, attend storytimes or toddler times, and show them how much we love reading ourselves.

Print Awareness

Family Reading Together
Mother Helping Children With Homework

Print awareness is the ability and understanding that print is organized in a certain way.  It also means teaching our children that print moves from left to right and from top to bottom when we read.  We also want to point out that words consist of individual letters and that spaces appear between words.  Print awareness is essential because it allows our children to “develop letter/sound correspondence, word reading skills, [and] the ability to read and understand the text.”

Print awareness occurs when our children connect that symbols mean something and aren’t only pictures.  For example: when my daughter was younger, although it may sound as if we spent a lot of time going through drive-thrus at fast-food restaurants, which wasn’t the case, at the age of 2 or so, she was able to call these restaurants by name because she recognized the logos on their signs.

Narrative Skills

Narrative skills are the ability to understand and tell stories and describe things and events.  These skills are essential as they help our children learn the structure of a story (beginning, middle, and end), predict what will happen next in the story, understand what they are reading, and build their critical thinking skills.

We can help our children build this skill by asking them to recount what happened during the day.  If you took a trip to the zoo, you could ask them what they saw, their favorite part, what they would like to do on the next trip, or what they didn’t like about it.  Again reading together can help develop this skill; however, don’t read the story word for word, have them listen and ask them to tell you about the book and what is happening.  Finally, please encourage your child to tell you what they regularly do that has a regular sequence.  

Letter Knowledge

Animal Alphabet ChartLetter knowledge is learning that letters have names and are different from one another, and specific sounds go to specific letters.  An example of letter knowledge would be your child’s ability to tell you the name of the letter “M” and the sound it makes.  You can help your child develop this skill through various reading/writing activities.  

You can use alphabet books, picture books, and signs and labels to point out different letters and the sounds they make.

Phonological Awareness

While the term, phonological awareness, can seem intimidating on its own, as our children’s first teacher, we can’t let it scare us.  By helping our children develop this skill, they learn to hear and manipulate the smaller sounds in words.  Phonological awareness includes the ability to hear and create rhymes, to say words with sounds or chunks left out, and the ability to put two-word chunks together to make a word. (e.g., say a word with a pause between syllables (“mon” and “ster”) and have your child guess the word you are trying to say).  Most children who have trouble with this skill will have difficulty in learning how to read.

As mentioned, these skills are those needed to build a strong foundation for learning how to read.  When combined with singing, reading, talking, playing, and writing, these practices cement that bond.  Learn how you can incorporate those five elements into everyday life.