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Learning to read and write: Children 0-4

Babies are learning about reading and writing from birth through everyday interactions with you, routines and experiences. Babies learn best through having fun, playing, songs, rhymes and stories. It’s never too early to start sharing books and talking about the words and writing they see and hear in their world. Watch this video from Zero to Three to learn more about early reading.

Literacy starts with language

There are many simple things you can do to create an environment where there’s lots of communication and interaction with your baby. These videos about developing language and communication have lots of information and advice to help you with this. Hungry Little Minds also has some simple, fun activities for kids, from birth to five.

You can help by:

  • Repeating back what your child says or signs and add in extra information. Pausing and waiting. It may take a little longer for your child to respond.
  • Using a wide variety of language, including language to describe emotions and feelings.
  • Discussing how others might be thinking or feeling.
  • Commenting on what your child is doing or what they are interested in.
  • Giving them simple choices. For example: “Do you want the apple or the banana?”.
  • Supporting them to tell simple stories or ask them to ‘read’ a book to you.
  • Playing and acting out simple routines and imaginary events.

Spelling and phonics start with listening and attention

The more language and speech your child sees and hears, the more they learn the sounds that make up speech. Music and singing is a great way to stimulate the auditory pathways. Baby Beats put movement and language and to music and BBC Tiny Happy People has lots of ideas, for songs and rhymes that will help your child to develop language.

As your child gets older there are lots of games and activities which can help develop your child’s ability to tune it to the spoken word and recognise different speech sounds. Twinkl has more information and ideas to develop phonological awareness. 

Don’t worry if your child isn’t able to hear all the speech sounds. Your child’s Teacher of the Deaf or Speech and Language Therapist can help you to help your child understand the sounds they can’t hear using visual clues such as actions, signs or pictures.

You can help by:

  • If your child can see your face when you’re talking, they can match what they’re hearing with what they can see on your lips.
  • Varying your tone, pace and pitch. Make your voice interesting and use lots of intonation and expression
  • Changing your speech volume according to the event, for example talk quietly if someone is asleep, or loudly if you’re calling out.
  • Using gesture and actions to draw attention to the different sounds in your language. For example ‘whee’ as you push them on the swing or ‘up’ as you pick them up.
  • Sing and sign songs and rhymes to help them learn about rhythm, rhyme and alliteration.

Reading starts with book sharing

Sharing a book is a great way into reading. Children can listen and play with sounds, learn about stories, see what writing looks like on the page and build a love of reading. Make sure your child can see the book and your face as this will give them lots of information about what you are reading. You can find out more about what children might do at different ages, books you could share and activities to try on the Auditory Verbal UK website and the Hooked to Books website.

You can help by:

  • Putting your child in charge. Have books in every room, in the car and in your bag so there’s always a book to share. Encourage your child to choose which book they want - even if you have read the book lots before and let them lead, even if they move through the book quickly, go backwards or start in the middle
  • Surrounding them with language. Tell the story using the pictures and connect the story to real life experiences as well as reading it. For example, ‘Look they are going on the train, do you remember when we went on the train?’ As you go along discuss what you can see, what you think might happen and how the characters feel. Ask open questions such as “What will he do now?’ and use language about thinking such as ‘I wonder?’ and ‘What do you think?’ Remember, it’s never too early to introduce children to the type of language they’ll find in books such as ‘page’, ‘writing’ and ‘once upon a time’
  • Having lots of fun -Play with the rhymes, repeat phrases and every now and again put in a wrong word and see if your child notices. Use your whole body to engage your child by using your voices for different characters, your face to show the feelings of the characters and gestures and signs to add in extra information. Use toys and objects and act out the story or pretend to be one of the characters

Mark-making is the start of writing 

Children as young as two years old understand that spoken language can be recorded and may ‘write’. This is sometimes called ‘pretend writing’. Their early marks will often be shapes and lines, but as time goes on marks will look more like ‘normal writing.’ Children will spend lots of time pretend writing before they’re ready to form letter shapes and spell. They will thrive if you’re excited about their writing and ask about what they’ve written. The British Association for Early Childhood has more information on how children learn to write.

You can help by:

Developing their arm and hand strength.

  • Provide lots of opportunities for outdoor play such as climbing, swinging, hanging and lifting.
  • Encourage them to pick up and sort small objects, thread beads and completing jigsaws
  • Form models with plasticine, play dough and clay
  • Make marks with their hands and fingers in paint, foam and sand
  • Draw and create using a range of pens, pencils, paintbrushes, sticks, chalks and crayons

Finding real-life opportunities to write and communicate about writing

  • Show them their names and helping them ‘sign’ their name
  • Write for a purpose, such as shopping lists for the supermarket
  • Looking at writing around them such as signs, notices and labels.
  • Draw attention to the writing in books, comics and magazine by asking ‘I wonder what that says?’