Handbook of Language and Literacy Development - a Roadmap from 0 to 60 Months

children image

parent narrative

Pre-Reading Development (13-24 Months)click to print Print
Research Review / Parent

Written by: Heather Sample Gosse, University of Oklahoma and Meridith Lovell, University of Alberta

Introduction to Pre-Reading Development 13-24 Months: The Pre-Alphabetic Stage

Young children's language and literacy skills develop tremendously between thirteen and twenty-four months of age. During this second year of life, children speak their first words and continue to develop their vocabulary(oral communication 13-24 months). They understand and use nouns related to their families, like mommy, daddy, baby, and phrases or refrains from popular stories and songs.

Children this age are typically not yet interested in the storyline of a book. They are still largely focused on pictures and labeling pictures in books. These young toddlers are at the pre-alphabetic stage or visual cue phase of reading because any ability to recognize words in print relies on memorizing the appearances, or shapes of words, rather than using the relationship between the letters and speech sounds. They cannot separate words or letters from a whole passage and do not yet have a meaningful understanding of how sounds relate to letters or how letters relate to words.

How Toddler-Caregiver Interactions with Print Support Pre-Reading and Language Development

Your young toddler will likely delight in having favourite stories read repeatedly. When Avery was 15 months old, she insisted that her parents read Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown to her every night. Toddlers continue to enjoy the rhythm and tone of an adult's voice as he or she reads. They also seem to enjoy the social and turn-taking parts of reading with adults. Sharing books is a pleasurable way to develop language. Toddlers who enjoy book-sharing times with caregivers come to see books as "safe". This sense of safety comes from the security and comfort they feel with the people they know and love in these early reading experiences and gives children confidence to read on their own later.

Researchers agree that young children come to understand the many different ways print can be used by observing adults using print in the world around them. Toddlers learn that print gives us information, entertains us, amuses, us, and brings us comfort. When your child is read to for enjoyment, he or she learns that books can be used to entertain or to share. When your child sees you reading books, newspapers, emails, or even street signs while driving, he or she learns that reading can provide information.

How Young Toddlers and Caregivers Interact When Reading

Don't be too concerned if your child will not readily sit through an entire story. Most young toddlers are unable to do so. It is important to be sensitive to the shorter attention span of young toddlers. Max's caregivers learned that they could keep his attention by encouraging him to label pictures. You may also wish to try encouraging your child to turn the pages. Asking young toddler simple questions about the pictures in the book may also help to extend their attention. For example, when reading a book about Dora the Explorer to 18-month-old Avery her dad asked her questions like, "Where is Dora?" "Who is that?" "What's Boots doing?"

During this second year of life, your child may begin to take control of the reading experience by pointing to pictures to focus your attention, turning pages when he or she wishes to see or hear something new, and asking questions by pointing to a picture or saying a word while looking to you for confirmation. For example, when Max saw a zebra in a new book, he turned to his mom and said, "Horsey?"As your child's second birthday approaches, he or she may also begin to choose books to "read" independently. When Avery was 22-months-old she enjoyed looking through a basket of books at her grandma's house. When she found a favourite one, she would sit down and look through the pages, saying little bits of the story to herself. Imitating adult reading behaviors to "read" by themselves is another way young toddlers show their independence.

How Young Toddlers' Experiences with Language Support Pre-Reading Development

Children typically reach the major milestone of speaking their first words early in the thirteen to twenty-four month period. Before they reach this milestone, young toddlers communicate through gestures and babbling but once the first word is achieved, they begin to say more words and combine oral language with gestures to get their messages across (language 13-24 months). Their increased language skills help young toddlers participate verbally in book sharing with caregivers. For example, your child may label pictures in books or say "more" to request more reading time. Young toddlers also begin to take turns in conversations with adults. This turn-taking is also apparent when they share books with caregivers. When sharing books with caregivers, young toddlers are able to engage in short conversations about the pictured action. For example, 18-month-old Max and his mom had the following conversation about the book Barnyard Dance by Sandra Boynton:


Toddler attention spans increase in length during their second year of life, although for the most part they do remain short and constantly shifting. As part of their development of turn-taking skills, young toddlers learn to gain or maintain adult attention by using eye gaze, gestures and sounds, and by imitating adult behaviours. Fourteen-month-old Avery quickly learned that if she took a napkin at dinner and patted her lips like Daddy, her parents would notice and comment. Young toddlers also often enjoy games where caregivers encourage them to imitate silly behaviours. Max thought it was great when his mom turned music on and showed him some silly dance moves to try.

As they approach their second birthdays, young children become concerned with asserting their independence. They will explore objects around them and attempt to perform daily routines independently. This independence is also displayed in how young toddlers use language. Near the end of your child's second year, he or she will likely show more interest in imitating how you speak as a way of becoming more independent. Around 23 months of age, Avery started to imitate how her mom would say, "Good idea!" When her mom would suggest a new activity, Avery would say, "Good idea!" if she liked it. This verbal imitation is an extension of earlier imitation of movements. The drive towards independence through imitation extends to the reading process as well. For example, a two-year-old may choose a book to read, refuse adult assistance in reading the book, orient the book properly, and imitate adult reading behaviors, then set the book aside after a short period and move on to another activity.

Pre-Reading and Language Skills Developed by Young Toddlers while Reading with Caregivers

Increased Awareness of the Unique Characteristics of Books and Print

Young toddlers continue to be fascinated by books that allow them to feel different textures or interact in some way with the book. This might include pop-up books, books with sounds like Eric Carle's The Very Quiet Cricket (Carle, 1990) or other children's books with features like the flashing lights in some versions of Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Carle, 1969). Children enjoy sharing these books with adults and anticipating the "surprise" parts of the story.

Researchers have found that young toddlers may identify themselves as readers by the time they are twenty-four months of age. At this age, they will often mimic reading behaviours they have observed in adults, even if they are simply "reading" by labeling pictures. Toddlers will also mimic eye movements and other gestures they observe adults making while reading. Max's parents noticed that when he was looking through one of his favourite books, his eyes would move across the pages just as if he was reading every word.

Most young children have a good understanding of some of the parts of a book and how to handle books by the time they reach their second birthdays. Researchers have found that these children are aware of the covers of books and can recognize and select familiar books by their covers. When at the library, Avery recognized the cover of Sandra Boynton's Belly Button Beach book, saying, "My book!" Young toddlers are also aware of the page layout with pictures and print. They may sometimes be able to identify which are words and which are pictures on a page when asked, although they are likely still somewhat confused about how each gives meaning to the reader. This confusion is evident in the way that many young toddlers continue to point to the pictures when discussing what a story is about. For example, Max could retell almost the entire story of The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. As he retold the story he would point to and talk about the pictures.

Knowledge of Story

Most young toddlers have short attention spans and often will not sit through an entire story. At thirteen months of age, they often label pictures while reading rather than focusing on the written story. Young toddlers may interrupt an adult who is reading to them to ask simple one or two-word questions about the story or pictures, such as "What's this?" or "Who's that?" even if they already know the answer.

Young toddlers rely on their familiarity with and memories of shared experiences to predict what will occur in stories, rhymes, or songs. Between the ages of thirteen and twenty-four months, toddlers' memories of phrases, actions or words from familiar stories, rhymes, and songs increase. Once they have spoken their first words, young toddlers begin to respond to stories or rhymes by filling in missing words. For example, 14-month-old Avery was able to fill in "star" when her mom paused at the end of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star."

Children will typically not be able to recite or follow a complete narrative storyline from a book until they are older however. For example, twenty-four-month-old Max's retelling of The Little Mouse, The Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear by Don and Audrey Wood consisted of saying "Mousie comes….Mousie strawberry. Oh-oh Mousie!" as he turned the pages and pointed at the pictures. Around the age of two years, some children are able to identify the conflict of familiar stories in a general manner such as "Boy sad", "Ball gone." For example, while reading Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed by Eileen Christelow, two-year-old Avery shook her finger at her mom and said, "No jumping! Bad monkeys!"

During their second year, children typically become aware of words like beginning and end and may learn to identify the beginning and end of a story. They will come to be able to discuss the characters and action in stories. Their discussions will be directly linked to the pictures in the book.

For example, Robin Campbell, a professor and researcher in early years' education, chronicled his granddaughter's literacy growth from her birth until she began formal schooling. In Campbell's granddaughter's case, her parents read stories to her regularly from an early age, played alphabet games with her using pictures of letters and objects, demonstrated the parts of a book, and asked many questions to help her learn about books. As a result, even by one year of age, she showed a very early understanding of vocabulary related to books, such as book and story, and she showed some understanding of the parts of a book. It is important to remember that her familiarity with book language and book concepts was fostered through the adults' deliberate efforts to use the words book, cover, story, beginning, and end. Her parents also used several other words for parts of the book with her and demonstrated these concepts to her at a very young age. Campbell's granddaughter may be an exceptional case, but her example does show that even very young children can come to understand the words for book, cover, story, beginning, and end if adults use these words when reading to and talking with them.

Words and Pictures

Young toddlers will often interrupt an adult's reading to ask simple questions like "What's this?" and "Who's that?" as they label pictures. Focusing on the pictures and not noticing the print shows that at their age, young toddlers still view the message as coming from the pictures. As many books for young toddlers have a simple picture and a print label on each page, many of these children continue to believe that the print in books labels pictures. They fail to understand that the pictures support the meaning or story told in the print. Researchers have found that young toddlers believe that the main message in a book comes from the pictures even when they are listening to a book that tells a more complex story.

During their second year, young toddlers become increasingly aware of the printed word and will sometimes want to know what the word on the page says. This curiosity may lead your child to ask questions about what different words on the page say, as well as questions about the pictures. For example, Avery was particularly interested in pictures in books that included signs and would point to the words on the signs and ask what they said. Although young toddlers generally continue to respond to the book based on the pictures, they may follow the pictures in order, suggesting that they are using them to follow the storyline. Max did this when he followed the pictures to help him tell the story of The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.

Letters and Words

Between thirteen and twenty-four months of age, many young children begin to notice words in print. If your child has heard and seen the same stories read over and over, he or she may begin to recognize some words from the story or nouns that relate to members of a family like mommy or daddy. These commonly experienced words typically become sight words or words that are recognized automatically by toddlers when accompanied by a picture.

Researchers note that young toddlers do not read these words in a traditional way with full knowledge of the letters and sounds. Rather, they often recognize the words by noticing relationships between the shape of the word and either its pronunciation or its meaning. For example, the "tail" on the g at the end of dog that reminds a child of a dog's tail, or the oo in the middle of look that resembles eyes. This visual memory strategy gives the appearance of "reading" actual words and is effective if the child encounters these words frequently in reading, especially single nouns related to pictures in storybooks. The ability to memorize words by how they look is, however, effective for only a very limited range of words because it relies on visual cues rather than use of sounds or letters. As a result, young toddlers cannot generalize their knowledge of these memorized words to other words in order to increase the number of words they can read. For example, even if a toddler recognizes look by the oo, which looks like eyes, he or she will not be able to use that knowledge of oo to sound out book or hook.

Another strategy that young toddlers use that gives the impression they are reading words is using memory to say phrases or lines that are used repeatedly in a familiar book. Avery was able to do this when she repeated, "No more monkeys jumping on the bed!" while looking through Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed by Eileen Christelow. Like that of many other young toddlers her age, Avery's recitation gave the appearance of reading, but often children do not look at the print while reciting. Avery likely used the pictures and her memory of the story to know when to insert the phrase. She would probably not recognize any of the words if they were pointed to on a page and she was asked to read them.

Toddlers typically start to show an interest in letters around eighteen months of age. Although they may remember some letter names, they do not yet connect letters to speech sounds. Max called letters, "alphabets" and loved to point out examples around him, such as the "Toys R Us" sign and headlines on newspapers. Your child may point out known letters, especially letters from his or her own name, when they are seen in books or in other print. Avery started to recognize the letter A and could find her locker and artwork at daycare by locating the "A" at the start of "Avery".

Your child may also start to do some play writing. Avery came to understand that her artwork from daycare should have her name on it so she would turn completed paintings and drawings over and put a little scribble on the back. Young toddlers do not yet, however, understand the relationship between letters and sounds so they cannot use the letters they know to form or read words. An understanding of the relationship between letters and sounds begins to develop about six months after the letter-naming stage, or around twenty-four to thirty months of age.

Because recognition of and ability to manipulate sounds, letters, and words is usually not evident until after twenty-four months of age, young toddlers rely instead on their visual and auditory memories of favourite books to recognize familiar words or phrases. Between 13 and 24 months of age, children's memories help them understand what they are hearing or seeing. Memory allows young children to recognize what was said and the sequence of actions in stories.

Awareness of Sounds in Spoken and Written Words

Researchers have found that young toddlers begin to have an awareness of the rhyming patterns in books and songs at about fifteen months of age. Awareness of rhyme marks the beginning of the first stage of phonemic awareness or conscious awareness of the speech sounds (also called phonemes) of the language around them.

Young toddlers cannot create their own rhyming word pairs yet. As your child's second birthday approaches, he or she may attempt to supply the missing word from rhymes in familiar stories or songs, although the words may not always be said clearly. Max enjoyed a rhyme which began "Slowly slowly, very slowly, creeps the garden snail. Slowly slowly, very slowly, up the wooden rail." If his mom mimed the rhyme's action by slowly moving the fingers of one hand up her other arm, Max would chime in "sowy, sowy, vewy sowy". He also showed his understanding of "slowly" by using the word to appropriately describe other movements, such as how to walk in the library or a slow-moving car.

Exposure to rhyming patterns in books and songs will help your child develop his or her phonemic awareness. This conscious awareness of speech sounds is critically important to later reading and writing development.

Sample Gosse, H., & Lovell, M. (2008). Caregiver Narrative: Pre-Reading Development (13 - 24 Months). In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 6. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development