What You Need to Know About Language and Literacy Development in Preschoolers

Plus, the activities and books that help kids master language at their own pace.
By MICHELLE ANTHONY, PHD and Scholastic Parents Staff
Jul 12, 2019

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What You Need to Know About Language and Literacy Development in Preschoolers

Jul 12, 2019

If the job of a toddler is to learn to talk, the job of a preschooler is to learn to communicate, which can be a complicated task indeed! From learning the sounds that make up words, to figuring out what words on a page mean, this is an important phase of our child’s life — and an exciting one.

Forming Clear Sentences

By the age of three, most kids can understand the use of basic prepositions like "on," "in," "under," and use pronouns such as "I," "you," "we," and "they." Their sentences will continue to grow more complex, and when they don’t know a word, they’ll use their imagination to make something up. Is there anything cuter then them calling broccoli “tiny trees” or renaming snow "fluffy rain"? Across the preschool period, children also learn to categorize items (for instance, a collar, leash, and bone are all dog items).

Keep in mind that learning all of the sounds we use to form words doesn't happen overnight. Trouble forming "r," "s," "f," and "th" sounds is still common at this age, especially with kids who are still working on developing their motor skills. As these childrens’ motor skills continue to develop, their tongues will learn how to make the movements necessary to form different word sounds.  

Reading silly tongue twisters together like those in The Wonky Donkey or the Dr. Seuss Beginner Books Collection will help them practice those trickier sounds. Of course, if you have any concerns or questions about your child's speech, it's best to see a speech pathologist to determine what's normal and what they could use help with improving. 

Let Questions Boost Vocabulary

Kids this age love to ask “why?” over and over. As much as it may make you cringe after you've heard it 20 times in a row, this is another way for them to learn about the world around them and expand their language. Embrace this stage of wonder with books full of silly questions, like Frog on a Log?, a rhyming story in which a frog questions why he must sit on a log. You can also try a StoryPlay Book, like The Three Little Pigs and the Somewhat Bad Wolf — full of activities and prompts, your little storyteller can make the tale of the three little pigs her own while developing reading comprehension skills.

For extra practice, flip through these preschool flashcards that feature pictures of common household items and their names to help your child associate words with objects. Beyond using them at home, these are perfect for taking along as entertainment on a road trip or an airplane ride! You can also offer clues about a certain word and see if your child can identify the term. For instance: "I'm thinking of something that's round, yummy, and we eat it with syrup! (Spoiler alert: It's a pancake.)  

Help Them Learn Phonics With Sounds

Your child may not start kindergarten being able to read independently, but it’s during these preschool years that kids' literary abilities first start to emerge. From learning their upper and lowercase letters to beginning to recognize individual letter sounds in words, these skills are the foundation for the reading and academic abilities they’ll have later in life. 

Once your child understands the sounds each individual letter makes, they can use phonological awareness skills to find rhyming words, identify words that begin with the same sound, and blend sounds together to make words. 

To practice phonological awareness skills with your child, try these fun activities: 

  • Read the BOB BOOKS: Rhyming Words with your child, and you'll both have a blast! This collection of 10 mini-books and 30 flashcard puzzles highlight rhyming patterns and words. 
  • Switch out letters: See if he can manipulate isolated sounds by making new words as they switch out sounds (e.g., replace the /c/ in ‘cat’ with /b/ (bat)). 
  • Come up with rhyming words while passing the time in line at the store. 

Show Them How to Grasp the ABCs

Getting comfortable with the alphabet is an important skill for preschoolers. Besides memorizing the catchy alphabet song, they also use their fine motor skills to learn how to write the letters of the alphabet on their own. To help your child learn how to write the alphabet without creating a mini mountain of used paper, try a reusable book like Scholastic Early Learners: Write and Wipe ABC 123. It allows kids to practice writing out uppercase and lowercase letters and numbers. Plus, dry erase books make it easy to fix mistakes! 

Make Learning to Read Fun

Children this age love stories. They can often memorize and “read” their favorite books, sometimes reciting the lines by heart. Once they learn all the letter sounds, they may begin to sound out small two and three letter words on their own. 

As much as we want our children to excel at this age, keeping reading fun is more important than perfection. When they make a mistake while sounding out a word, say the word correctly once or twice and then let the child go on, says Julianne Barto, a school librarian manager and literacy specialist at KIPP Whittier Middle School in Camden, New Jersey. “Reading should still be so incredibly enjoyable at this age, and they should see themselves as a reader.”

To boost their literary development during reading time, reach for a phonics reading set featuring your child’s favorite characters like the PAW Patrol Phonics Set or the Peppa the Pig Phonics Box Set. These multi-book sets will get them excited about learning word sounds and set them on the path to reading on their own. If you have a more advanced reader on your hands, give her a boxed set of the Pete the Cat readers or the complete collection of the Owl Diaries series. These fun characters offer easy-to-follow plots and simple storylines, so they're an age-appropriate challenge for eager early readers.  

But remember, learning to read is a long process, and every child develops skills at a different level. Holding a book the right way, flipping through the pages, and making up a story as they go along are all signs of reading success. “What makes a child a reader is that they love books, and books are explaining the world to them,” says Barto.  To find age-appropriate books your preschooler will love, check out popular books for kids ages 3 to 5 at The Scholastic Store Online.

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