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

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Pre-Reading Development (25-36 Months)click to print Print
Research Review / Parent

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

Introduction to Pre-Reading Development 25-36 Months: Experimenting with Pre-Reading and Reading

As twenty-five- to thirty-six-month-old children investigate the physical world around them, they also explore the world of sound and print. These older toddlers want to know how things work, and this curiosity extends to an increasing interest in and understanding of language. As early as twenty-five months of age, children may begin to learn the underlying sound structure of the language (known as the "phonological structure") and start to match it to the written structure, the alphabet.

How Older Toddlers Interact With Print

Two- to three-year-old children consider themselves to be readers. Your older toddler will likely take an active role when reading with others. Children this age enjoy being read to by adults from familiar stories and delight in new stories as well. Older toddlers typically take an active role in reading by pointing to pictures, commenting on the story, turning pages, and holding the book. When you read with your child, he or she may be able to respond with missing words or phrases and may enjoy discussing the stories you read. Older toddlers show preferences for certain stories and will request that these stories be reread again and again. For example, twenty-six-month-old Max very much enjoyed Pyjama Time by Sandra Boynton and would ask his mom and dad to read this frequently, regardless of whether or not it was time for bed. Your child may ask for the same story to be reread two or three times during the same reading session.

Older toddlers can also be found reading independently at times. When Avery was around 30 months old, her parents often found her sitting on the floor in her room looking through storybooks after she got up from her nap. If her parents encouraged her to read a book to one of her stuffed animals, Avery would attempt to do so, reciting some phrases by memory, relying on the pictures to help her recreate the story, and asking for help when necessary. Using these strategies, her reading was similar to the book, such as saying "Barney is sleeping" instead of "It's time to wake up Barney!" When your child "reads" in this way, he or she is not likely to actually be reading words. Older toddlers often appear to be reading in the conventional manner because they are so adept at imitating adults behaviors and relying on memory.

While older toddlers have the most exposure to the storybook form of print, they will usually have observed adults reading others kinds of books or newspapers. Your child may start to imitate your reading behavior with these types of materials. A familiar newspaper or magazine may be "read" by an older toddler in imitation of a parent or caregiver. On a visit to the doctor's office when Max was 32 months old, his mother was surprised to see him move immediately to the magazine rack upon entering the office. He selected a magazine, sat down in a chair, and proceeded to look through it. When she asked him if he was reading a book, he pronounced, "No, I'm looking through a magazine!" Max's mom had to wonder how many times she had said the same thing herself – obviously Max had been watching and listening.

How Older Toddlers' Interactions with Print Support Pre-Reading and Language Development

Older toddlers can and do learn new letters and words, especially when they are read to and engage in reading independently from familiar stories. Their first sight words (words recognized by sight rather than sounded out) are often related to pictures in storybooks. Older toddlers come to recognize some common words they see and some letters within these words, such as the title words or nouns that label objects from a story. For example, as an older toddler Avery had many items featuring "Dora the Explorer", including toys, games, and books. She soon learned to recognize the word "Dora" in print. Older toddlers add to the number of print words they recognize by sight by visual cues or letter/sound cues. Avery seemed to focus primarily on "D" the first letter and the length of the word "Dora", a strategy that caused her to occasionally mistake other words such as "Dina" and "Down" for "Dora". Older toddlers' word and letter recognition abilities rely heavily on memory, so the number of sight words they can actually recognize continues to be limited to a handful of words. They do not, as yet, have the knowledge of all letters, the associated sounds and the concept of directionality (left-to-right order of print), which would allow them to sound out (decode) words in the traditional sense. Rather than simply rereading stories to your child, try to point to the words and comment on the print. This will help increase your child's print knowledge.

Reading books together continues to provide an important way for older toddlers to learn language. The stories older toddlers hear serve to increase their vocabulary development and knowledge of language structures. You may observe your child relating information from stories to other situations. Older toddlers will use phrases from favorite stories to create their own stories and will also include these phrases in their daily speech. At 30 months, Max was learning to go to the potty. One of his books about toilet training included the phrase "Mom and Dad are proud of me." He seemed to really like this idea and was heard saying to a young friend who was just learning to walk, "I'm so proud of you Jacob!" Older toddlers will also use information from stories or other books to learn the names of objects around them. For example, at 32 months Avery learned many Halloween words such as "jack-o-lantern" and "costume" from sharing books about this holiday with the caregivers at her daycare.

You can encourage your child's active participation in reading and gathering of information from what is read by asking him or her questions while reading. A question and answer or dialogue style of reading is flexible and helps older toddlers learn about why certain types of language are used in speaking and writing and encourages them to think about and understand what they hear. Conversations about books also provide an important opportunity for older toddlers to practice their turn-taking and conversational skills.

Older toddlers are very inquisitive and enjoy learning about the world around them. Many of these children enjoy non-fiction books as well. As they do with storybooks or fiction, they may relate what is read in non-fiction to what they encounter in their daily lives. Both fiction and non-fiction books expose children to vocabulary and language structures that may not be a part of their everyday experiences and allow knowledge of these words and structures to grow and become part of their own language. For example, children may learn descriptive language and how to better use language to describe things (descriptive language) and to explain things (expository language structures). At 30 months of age, Avery enjoyed sharing a simple book about gardening with her parents. By hearing how the book's author used words like "first", "next", and "then" to explain the process of planting and growing carrots, Avery started to learn about how special language could be used to help explain things.

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

Older toddlers' vocabulary and language growth continues to be fostered through talking and interacting with the adults around them. The amount of talking that these children are exposed to is important. The more opportunities older toddlers have to hear language used and to interact with adults, the more vocabulary and complex language structures they learn. Ultimately though, the quality and variety of language which your child hears and in which he or she participates is much more important to his or her language growth than simply how much talk is heard.

Researchers have found that although all families engage in similar amounts of parent-child talk about behavior management and child socialization, large differences occur in how much families engage in other talk, such as that about past events and future plans, cause-effect and time relationships, emotions, and explanations. The more varied the language topics in the home and care setting, the better the language skills children developed.

Older toddlers whose parents and caregivers engaged them in conversation, rather than simply speaking to them about behavior and socialization, were able to use and understand more complex language structures. This greater language ability, in turn, helped these children benefit more from shared reading experiences. For example, most young children have some understanding of the emotions of happy, sad, angry, etc. but older toddlers whose parents engaged in discussions about emotions were able to understand a wider range of emotions and character motivations when listening to stories being read. In addition, older toddlers first learn language concepts such as "same" and "different" through conversations with adults. They are then able to use these concepts when discovering pre-reading skills. It is important to note that although they may understand and use complex vocabulary, conventions, phrases and sentences to convey a complete message in oral language, most older toddlers are unable to notice how words are presented separately on a written page and understand why this is done. The concept of a "sentence" in the written language is unknown to most children until they reach at least four years of age.

Pre-Reading and Language Skills Developed by Older Toddlers

Increased Awareness of the Unique Characteristics of Books and Print

By twenty-five months of age, most children already have a good understanding of how to handle books properly. Your child has likely started to imitate the reading behaviors of adults and other children, such as how they sit with, hold and touch books and what their eyes focus on and follow. Researchers have found that most older toddlers are able to recognize favourite books by their covers and that they are typically able to understand title, author, and beginning and ending of stories. They usually orient books that they are holding correctly and show a top to bottom and left to right orientation when reading. These book-related skills are particularly apparent when older toddlers have had frequent experiences reading with adults. Your efforts at sharing books with your child are making an obvious difference in how he or she interacts with books!

Older toddlers are very interested in exploring the print world around them. They read (recite from memory) books, but they also read other print like logos and labels that they see in their environment. Environmental print, or all the instances of print outside of books, is everywhere in our modern society. This type of print serve to direct human behaviour, like street signs that tell drivers and pedestrians how, where, and when to drive or walk, to capture human interest, like labels on food products, or to give other kinds of information. Environmental print is read in its own way, usually with just a glance. Researchers have noted that adults do not need a specific setting in order to read, but that with print all around us, we read while sitting or standing, driving, shopping, at all times of the day, and at home, work, and elsewhere.

Labels on packaging for consumer goods, toys, medication, and logos on clothing, business signs, or sports memorabilia are all examples of environmental print that children encounter daily. In addition, children encounter signs to advertise goods and services and give information about events, or signs to warn about danger and regulate behaviour. All of these various labels, logos and signs provide information that can be "read" by older toddlers when adults provide the model for this kind of "reading" activity. For example, you may draw your child's attention to the features of the logo for a favourite store or restaurant, commenting on the pictures and typeface used, and noting the instances of the logo on such items as the store sign, cups, bags, etc. When Max was an older toddler, his mom would often take him with her when she met a friend for coffee at the local Starbucks location. Part of the Starbucks logo is a "goddess" type of character, which Max was quite fascinated with. When he first pointed it out, his mom told him that it was like a princess. From that moment on, Max pointed out instances of "the princess" wherever and whenever he saw them, including storefront signs and cups. He very much enjoyed being asked to "watch out for the coffee shop" when traveling, yelling "There it is!" when he saw the "princess" logo.

Researchers have found that after observing adults reading environmental print, children imitate these behaviors in their play and become aware of the useful information-providing function of environmental print. As they approach their third birthdays, children begin to point out and recognize logos and labels based on text features (colour, shape or size) or pictures like the distinctive backwards ‘R' in the Toys ‘R' Us labels, the yellow ‘M' in the Macdonald's sign, or the octagonal STOP sign. This awareness continues to grow. Before her third birthday, Avery was able to select a container of her favourite yogourt from the grocery store freezer shelf independently based on the colour, shape and logo on the container, demonstrating her ability to recognize and "read" environmental text.

Knowledge of Story

Researchers have found that older toddlers are able to recognize and comment upon storylines, conflicts and characters from the books read to them. They respond to the overall emotional tone of the story as it is read, the characters or the action. For example, when her mom was reading her a Halloween story, thirty-two-month-old Avery commented, "Oh it's spooky! Watch out Dora!" The elements of emotional tone, characters, and action become part of older toddlers' retellings of stories as when Avery later retold part of the Halloween story as:"Look at that ghost! Boo! Dora might be worried."

While they do memorize familiar texts word for word, older toddlers are also able to retell stories in their own words. They can sequence events within simple stories while retelling them, with the aid of pictures. For example, thirty-four-month-old Max was able to retell a story about building a giant snowman by following the pictures to tell about all the steps in building the snowman in the correct order. Older toddlers are also able to finish existing stories or invent new stories of their own following the narrative structures that they are familiar with reading, that is, they base their own stories on stories they have heard. At thirty-two months of age, Avery told a story about a picture of a train she had painted. From some of the language she used, her dad could tell she was basing the story on one of her Thomas the Tank Engine storybooks.

Although they understand more of the sequence and action of stories, older toddlers' understanding of sequencing may not transfer completely to their ability to retell what they have read since they are still quite dependent on pictures for ordered retellings of stories. This continued dependence on the pictures means that when your child retells a story, he or she will generally flip through the pages of the book and discuss what happens in the pictures. "She is sleeping… She is having toast" is an example of how toddlers sequence simple sentences to retell stories. In this example, there are no connecting details between the sentences; there are only discrete statements that follow in sequential order based on the pictures in a book.

By the time they are three years old, children are typically better able to discuss character actions and recognize that story events and pictures represent ongoing, connected activities within the storyline. Around this same time, they may begin to understand that print is not simply labels for text but rather that print and pictures tell stories that flow, although full realization of the complementary nature of pictures and print may continue to take some time.

Words and Pictures

Between two and three years of age, your child will likely begin to separate pictures from text in a more meaningful way; that is, he or she will be able to identify where the text and print are on a page, despite continuing to rely heavily on pictures for supporting meaning and retelling.

Children this age are also beginning to understand that text stands for words that can be spoken or read, although this realization is not in the adult sense of viewing print as a representation of speech sounds. Instead, especially early in this period, children believe that nouns or labels are written in support of the meaning found in the pictures. Even when they have memorized certain words on a page, these words are connected to the page or the pictures, not to an understanding of the print words as words decodable by using letter-sound relationships. For example, at thirty-two months of age, Max became fascinated with a library book called Hello Lulu by Caroline Uff. The front cover of the book featured a simple illustration of the main character, Lulu with the title of the book printed plainly above the picture. Max enjoyed saying "Hello Lulu" while pointing to the words in the title. Although each word he spoke corresponded to one word he pointed to on the page, he was not able to read that phrase in another place in the book or point to words in another book title with the same ability to separate and read words.

The ability to understand the relationship between words and pictures continues to develop over time. Researchers have found that even young preschoolers continue to believe that pictures and print are close in meaning but different in form. They move back and forth between pictures and print when discussing story meaning. Researchers have even heard some children commenting that both print and pictures are for reading. This is representative of what children believe before they are able to fully separate the function of print and pictures, an ability which normally starts to develop between four and five years of age.

Letters and Words

Between two and three years of age, children either start or continue to learn more about letters. Their learning usually begins with the letters of their own name or the names of their family members, then progresses to other common words. You may notice that your child is very interested in identifying instances of his or her "favorite" letters. At thirty-two months Avery was fascinated with instances of the letter A. These early letters may become associated with the name they represent. For example, to Avery the letter A was tied to her own name. All instances of the letter A then became recognized as instances of her own name, leading her to confuse her friend Abby's locker with her own at daycare. These known letters, or close approximations of them will appear eventually in older toddlers' writing (see Writing), although the orientations of the letter may not be correct.

If older toddlers develop a beginning knowledge of letter sounds (see Awareness of Sounds in Spoken and Written Words), they will begin to use this knowledge as they explore printed words. They may pass from the pre-alphabetic stage to the partial alphabetic recognition stage if they begin to recognize sight words by making connections between some of the letters in the words. For example, early education researcher Robin Campbell's granddaughter was able to write and then read "too" based on the "t" and "o". While these children have some knowledge of and limited use of the alphabetic system, they still typically lack the full knowledge of the letter-sound relationships and how to sound out words using letter sounds that is necessary for true reading. Their ability to recognize words therefore remains limited.

Although older toddlers who have been exposed to letters and sounds through reading or alphabet games will typically have a greater understanding of letters and sounds than those who have not been exposed, it is important to note that knowledge of letter-sound relationships emerges slowly. Researchers have found that the average number of letters and letter sounds known when a child enters kindergarten is around 8 letters.

Awareness of Sounds in Spoken and Written Words

Older toddlers continue to be fascinated with rhymes. They enjoy rhymes in songs and stories. Your child may be able to supply more of the missing rhymes from familiar stories. At thirty months of age, one of Max's favourite reading activities was to "fill-in-the-blanks" when his parents left out the last rhyming word from sections of familiar books such as "Hurry, hurry! Go get dressed! Put on the clothes that you like _____" (best) from Hey! Wake Up! by Sandra Boynton.

Two- to three-year-olds also experiment with words and sounds. They enjoy playing games with sounds and putting sounds together to create different words. Alphabet books, alphabet displays, magnetic letters, and letter blocks are excellent tools for playing games with letters, sounds, and pictured objects. While older toddlers may not yet be ready to play with these materials in traditional game or drill formats, they will often enjoy short and simple explorations, such as using magnetic letters kept on the fridge to spell the name of a friend who is coming to visit or looking through an alphabet book to find the letters corresponding to names of family and friends.

In this time period, a major development in pre-reading skills occurs for children when they begin to show interest in learning and manipulating letter sounds, as opposed to just naming letters. Although the timing of this phase is variable for all children, it typically occurs approximately six months after a child shows interest in naming letters and can read a few familiar words by sight. It is important to note that older toddlers' emerging knowledge of letters and sounds is not yet connected to reading. For example, an older toddler may know the name and sound of the letter ‘m', particularly if there is an ‘m' in his or her name, but the child will not yet use this understanding of ‘m' to sound out a word when reading.

Lovell, M., & Sample Gosse, H. (2008). Caregiver Narrative: Pre-Reading Development (25 – 36 Months). In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 7. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development