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

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Pre-Reading Development (37-48 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 37 – 48 Months: Becoming "Independent" Pre-Readers

Between their third and fourth birthdays, young children become increasingly concerned with independence. This desire for independence transfers to their reading as well. Young preschoolers see themselves as readers, and as they become more aware of how adults read, they begin to want to read in that way as well. Your child is likely learning more about letters, sounds and words daily and may read simple, familiar stories. It remains important for you to read more complex, unfamiliar texts together in order to help your child's vocabulary and sense of story grow.

How Young Preschoolers Interact with Print

Near age three, children often become very concerned with the technical act and aspects of reading rather than with reading for enjoyment. Researchers have found that many young preschoolers' main desire is to learn to read and be able to associate letters with sounds in order to read books as adults do. When Avery was three, her mom found that she suddenly stopped making up stories to go along with pictures in her books. Instead she would bring the book to an adult and pointing to the words, say, "What does this say?" Many young preschoolers are also beginning to track with their fingers as they attempt to read, especially if adults around them have modeled this behavior. When Max's grandma helped him get a puzzle from the shelf, she was surprised when he pointed to the words on the box and said, "This says, Farm Puzzle."

Like Max, your young preschooler will also likely come to recognize a few sight words over the course of this year. Some of the sight words will come from books that have been read to him or her while others will come from print in the environment such as your child's first name and the names of favorite restaurants and stores. Avery could recognize her first name in print before she was three. Soon after her third birthday, she became quite interested in Disney characters and quickly learned to recognize Disney's distinctive logo and later learned to recognize the word Disney in plain print

Young preschoolers typically recognize the difference between similar and different looking words, because they are now noticing letters in words much more readily. For example, they may notice the difference between "egg" and "eggs" in print, although they may not understand why the words are different in meaning.

During this year, most children also start to use the letters they know to match spoken words with written words on the page when reading. For example, Max had learned the letter M from his name and he was able to use that knowledge to help him find the word Mom in a book about a boy and his mother.

Finally, some young preschoolers are also beginning to decode (sound out) very simple words using the letters and sounds they know. Any beginning decoding ability combined with sight words they have memorized will help some young children begin to read independently in a very basic manner as they approach their fourth birthdays.

How Young Preschoolers' Interactions with Print Support Pre-Reading and Language Development

By three years of age, there are already big differences in children's reading abilities. A great deal of development continues to occur between children's third and fourth birthdays. Researchers have found that some four-year-old children are very advanced, identifying many letters and words, while other four-year-olds know little about reading, being unable to distinguish between letters and numbers and knowing very few sight words. While it is true that children develop at different rates and there is a wide range of average development, it is also true that the amount and type of modeling by parents and caregivers contributes significantly to the pre-reading and language development of young preschoolers. For example, researchers have found that reading stories with children helps them build vocabulary and oral language skills and that pointing out print or story features helped children notice and understand those features. They have also discovered specific techniques that can help maximize the benefits children receive from shared reading. For more information, see Tips for Sharing Reading with Young Children.

Young preschoolers gain information from stories and other books read to them. They may first understand new words and phrases in the context of the books and then begin to use these in their own speech. For example, Avery first heard the phrase "I'm so proud of you" in a children's book about toilet training. When she started using the toilet by herself, she would ask her mom, "Are you so proud of me?" when she had success. After a while, she began to say, "I'm so proud of you" to others who had success doing different things. Your child will also connect stories to his or her life and world. For example, a story about numbers and counting may elicit the comment, "I'm three", even if the story is not about age.

Three and four-year-old children are still very literal in their understanding of books and print. Your child may ask questions to clarify literal meaning when reading, like, "That's silly. The dish ran away with the spoon?" Young preschoolers begin to understand, with assistance from adults, the distinction between real and pretend information from stories and other print material. They come to understand that the information in stories may be pretend or "not real" information. Max was fascinated by a book about a little boy whose toy dinosaurs came to life. He would say, "That's just pretend" and then later he would pretend that his own toys came to life. The ability to draw information from stories and use it in new contexts, and to distinguish what is real from what is imaginary helps young preschoolers to understand and apply what they have read to their daily lives.

How Young Preschoolers' Experiences with Language Support Pre-Reading and Reading Development

As is the case with younger children, three- and four-year-olds continue to benefit from hearing and seeing a variety of spoken and written language. Young preschoolers are continuously learning about the vocabulary, grammar, and sound structure of their languages. Your child will likely master much of his or her language by the time he or she reaches four years of age. Your conversations with your child contribute greatly to this mastery. When young children are included in different kinds of conversations, like conversations about feelings, the past and present, or giving descriptions, they learn about how to discuss personal topics, about verb tenses, and about descriptive vocabulary. Your child's ability to use complex vocabulary and sentence types when speaking is important to his or her reading development because this vocabulary and these sentence types are commonly found in books.

Young preschoolers continue to learn about the reading process by observing and imitating adult readers. Between three and four years of age, children imitate adult reading behaviours by holding books as adults do, and modeling their eye movements and tone of voice. They may even try to read different forms of print independently, such as newspapers, letters, and computer screens, for example. When Avery was three she began to imitate her parents' behavior when at their computers. She would climb up on the office chair and sit looking at the screen. Once when her dad called her to supper, she said, "I've got to check my email!"

When your child hears different kinds of stories being read, or listens to and looks at non-fiction books, alphabet books, magazines, and other forms of print, he or she will learn about the different kinds of information that can be gained from reading as well as new vocabulary words. When children enter school, they will encounter fiction and non-fiction books and they must learn that written language has different conventions from spoken language. For example, the language skills needed to read a story are different from the language skills needed to gather information from a non-fiction reference book, and both are written much differently than how a conversation would be written down. These differences are very difficult for some children to understand. Researchers have found, however, that some four-year-old children are able to distinguish between the types of language and topics that are found in fiction, non-fiction, and conversations. These children have tended to be from families who read to and discussed topics with the children, and shared a variety of fiction and non-fiction works with them. Therefore, you can give your child a head start in language and reading development by reading and discussing a variety of books and other print forms (computer, letters, signs, etc.) with him or her.

At three years of age, children are still dependent on adults to read unfamiliar print to them but they use their memories of familiar books to read those stories. By four years of age, however, some children will start to read very simple unfamiliar books independently. These books will typically have only a few short words on each page and pictures that heavily support the meaning of the print. Researchers have found that the children who do begin reading independently at four years of age often have experienced numerous, rich language and reading opportunities with parents or caregivers. In these experiences adults have read to the children, talked with them about the print and the books, and discussed a wide range of topics. In summary, research has continually demonstrated the benefits of adults reading and talking with young children. Reading and discussing a variety of books and other print materials with your child is one of the most important things you can do to promote your child's language and reading development.

Pre-Reading and Language Skills Developed by Young Preschoolers

Increased Awareness of the Unique Characteristics of Books and Print

Young preschoolers learn more about the purposes of reading and conventions of print. They also demonstrate some knowledge of the directionality of print and about the different uses for print and pictures.

Purposes of Reading

Between three and four years of age, children may come to understand more about the purposes of reading. In addition to reading for entertainment, adults also read for information: for directions on how to do things, for learning new knowledge or skills, for finding out what is happening in the world around them, and for communicating with others. As they observe different purposes for reading, young children also see adults read different print forms. For example, as a young preschooler Max saw his parents and other adults read signs, labels, brochures, coupons, email and websites, maps, newspapers, and reference books, to name a few forms of print. As your child is exposed to different forms of print, he or she will begin to see that these things can be read, albeit in a different way from stories. In the same way that adults gain information from these sources, children can gain information as well. For example, children can gain information from reference books that include pictures. As a young preschooler, Avery was fascinated with horses. She very much enjoyed looking through a picture reference book on different types of horses that her mom obtained from the local library. Young preschoolers may even talk about the different purposes for various forms of print. For example, during a long family car trip, Max quickly learned and talked about how a map and road atlas were two forms of print used to help plan where to drive. Other children may be able to tell others that the home computer is a place where one can read information about favorite places to visit or messages sent by friends and family. This kind of interest in print should be encouraged.

Conventions of Print

By four years of age, your child will likely be able to identify the cover of a book, understand something about the concepts of title, author, and illustrator, and follow simple plotlines and make predictions. By the time she was four years old, Avery had developed a keen interest in drawing and painting and when she saw book illustrations she particularly liked, she would ask an adult about who had drawn them.


In addition, young preschoolers are also developing directionality, or the ability to track from left to right and top to bottom while reading. Directionality is important when sounding out words because, in English and many other languages, sounds are presented from left to right in words. Between three and four years of age, children often begin tracking the text with their finger while reading, and some children understand that words are separated with spaces on the written page. Max was able to point to each word in the title of his favorite book, Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss.

Print Versus Pictures

Some young preschoolers also understand that print, and not pictures, is read, that pictures may support what is read, and they can distinguish between drawings and print when reading and writing. When Avery was three-and-a-half years old, she began to add "writing" to her pictures. While it was often difficult for adults to tell the difference between the picture and the "writing", Avery would point and tell what she had drawn (for example, "This is a cat") and then tell what she had written (for example, "This says cat.")

Knowledge of Story

Young preschoolers are rapidly expanding their knowledge of story. They often respond emotionally to the content of stories, relating those stories to their own life experiences. They are learning more about the plot of stories, noticing cause and effect and making predictions about what will happen. They typically still require the support of pictures to clearly retell stories.

Responding Emotionally

Young preschoolers enjoy reading and listening to a variety of books and when they are being read to, they respond emotionally to the characters and action that takes place. For example, Max would often get very excited when his dad read him a Spiderman adventure, sometimes even jumping up and yelling, "Yay!" Your child will also likely memorize favourite stories and be able to retell those stories and relate them to his or her own life. Avery did this when, after reading an Angelina Ballerina book, she went to a wedding dance, and told her mom, "We can dance like Angelina!"

Understanding More about the Plot

Young preschoolers develop a more complex understanding of story structures and conventions. For example, they notice cause and effect and can make predictions and anticipate events that will happen in the story. Max showed that he could do this when reading a Curious George book with his aunt. Noticing that George only had one more chance to do something, Max said, "I think he'll do it this time!" You will likely find that your young preschooler will comment on stories and respond to character actions and the events that happen in them.

Retelling Stories

Your young preschooler will likely be able to "read" the pictures in a storybook and make up a story to match based on the kinds of stories he or she has heard in the past. Sometimes, young preschoolers will go through a period where they are reluctant to attempt to "read" stories in this way because they are also becoming increasingly concerned with reading "correctly" in the adult way. When encouraged to do so, however, most three-year-olds are able to remember large parts of the stories they hear and can use the story structure to retell it when pointing to the pictures.

The story retellings of young preschoolers are still tied to the pictures. This means that although your three-year-old is likely able to talk about simple stories he or she has read or heard, if the listener has not also read the story or if there are no pictures to share, what your child says may be difficult to understand. Without having the pictures in the book to guide them, young preschoolers will try to describe the actions and events of a story but their retelling will not follow the structure of the story closely. They will often recall the beginning of the story, the theme, and a collection of events that happened. For example, three-year-old Avery was able to talk about the story You Can Do It, Sam by Amy Hest without looking at the book but her retelling started with "Sam baked cakes" and ended with "Go Sam go. Go Sam go. He did it all by himself!" omitting a description of how "Go Sam go" was how Sam's mother encouraged him to deliver the cakes to his friends and neighbors.

As they approach their fourth birthdays, most children are able to retell the main character and story sequence in detail. Children this age are also likely to create their own stories as well and these stories start to follow a sequential (step-by-step) story structure (see also Narrative Development). Young children learn to retell or create stories that follow a conventional story structure based on their understanding of stories that adults have read to them. This fact once again emphasizes the importance of reading to young children.

Words and Pictures

Young preschoolers are aware that print conveys meaning when reading. Although some still use pictures and print interchangeably for creating meaning while reading, many young preschoolers will begin to use the pictures only to support the print.

Although they like to attempt to read independently, young preschoolers still enjoy being read to by adults. Both Avery and Max would bring favourite books to adults and request reading time and both enjoyed nightly reading times before going to bed. When your child is listening to a story, you will likely find that he or she is beginning to show greater in interest in the print. Your child may contribute words or phrases from memory and point to words he or she knows.

Letters and Words

Young preschoolers must learn a great deal about how words are represented in print and about the use of punctuation, letters, and numbers as part of learning to decode (sound out) words in print.

Identifying Words

Researchers have found that adults and children have very different understandings about what words are. Young preschoolers generally identify written "words" as words by the number and variety of letters within what is written. Therefore to a young preschooler, A11C can be the word bear, while shorter words like on, of, and I are not considered to be real words when written. In contrast, A11C could not be a word to an adult because it has no meaning, mixes letters and numbers together and cannot be read phonetically (sounded out) while on, of, and I have meaning in English and are readable. The difficulties young preschoolers have in understanding what a word is in print are related to the fact that between three and four years of age, most children are still largely unable to separate spoken words meaningfully (see Awareness of Sounds in Spoken and Written Words for more information).

Typically, young preschoolers need four letters present for them to consider what is written to be a word, although some will permit three letters. For example, because of limiting words to three or four letters, both Max and Avery refused to accept most articles, prepositions, and conjunctions (such as a, the, of, to, and, or) as words, even though these are some of the most common words in the English language. Young preschoolers who make this rule also often consider one or two written characters, whether containing letters or numbers, to be numbers, as they may not yet fully differentiate between number symbols and letter characters, even though they understand the different roles numbers and letters serve.

If only one or two types of letters are found in a word, young children will often consider the "word" unreadable. This assumption can cause problems. For example, mmm and mnm are not words but mom is a word. A young preschooler might view all of these strings of letters in the same way and not accept that mom is a word.

While young preschoolers are beginning to recognize more letters and letter sounds and are starting to gain the sense of the left to right directionality of words, researchers have found that many four-year-old (and even five-year-old) children do not understand that changing the order of letters in a word changes that word. If children saw the word bear and then the letters were rearranged to spell arbe, the children continued to believe that the word was bear.

Identifying Punctuation

Over the course of this year, you will likely find that your child becomes better able to understand how words are broken up on a written page. He or she may also begin to notice the punctuation that accompanies words in sentences as well as other print features such as capitalization. Punctuation, capitalization, and other print features such as italicization that are not found in spoken language can be tricky for children to learn about as they have no sound when the print is read aloud.

Punctuation is an abstract concept that is used to format written language and provide cues to readers. While proficient readers know to "pause and take a breath" at the period when reading, for example, this cue is neither spoken nor indicated in any other way. When children begin to notice punctuation, the first types of punctuation marks they identify are composed of dots and straight lines, although they do not understand the names or functions of these punctuation marks. Children may begin to identify punctuation before four years of age, or this development may occur much later. Avery began to notice exclamation points when she was three-and-a-half years old likely because her mom had pointed them out to her, telling her "This means that they are excited."

Researchers believe that at the early stage of punctuation identification, children do not have a meaningful understanding of what punctuation is or what it is used for and are simply able to distinguish letters and numbers from punctuation marks because punctuation marks do not look like the letters or numbers they know. These young children do not identify some types of punctuation at this stage because they look similar to letters or numbers. A question mark, for example, may be confused with a 2, because they are similar in appearance. Being able to identify punctuation does influence how children read when beginning formal schooling at five years of age. Children who are able to remember, and tell the difference between, more letters, numbers, and other characters and symbols have an advantage when learning to read and write.

Identifying Letters

By four years of age, your child will likely be able to recognize the different functions of numbers and letters, although he or she may not be able to visually distinguish between and among all of the letter characters and number symbols, especially if they look similar. For example, "B" and "13" are easily and often confused by young children. In addition, although young preschoolers know that letters are parts of words and numbers are for counting, many identify one or two letters together as a number instead of letters or words.

Decoding (Sounding Out) Words

By their fourth birthdays, some children are able to decode (sound out) a few short words. Most young preschoolers are understandably challenged in decoding by their continuing confusion about what is a word, the significance of the order of letters in words, and the visual differences between letters and numbers along with the fact that most know only a few letter/sound relationships. For more information about the decoding skills of young preschoolers, see Awareness of Sounds in Spoken and Written Words.

Awareness of Sounds in Spoken and Written Words

Young preschoolers are learning about what a word is in print. They are becoming more attentive to the sounds of words and often enjoy rhyme. Some young preschoolers even become able to use their new knowledge of sounds in words to start to decode (sound out) short words, the beginning of more adult-like reading.

Breaking Sentences into Words

Research evidence suggests that what a young child understands a word to be is very different from what an adult understands a word to be (See Letters and Words for additional information). The difficulties young preschoolers have in understanding what a word is in print are related to the fact that between three and four years of age, most children are still largely unable to separate spoken words meaningfully into individual units of meaning and sound.

Understanding what a word is in spoken language is troublesome because adults do not generally take breaths or otherwise indicate where the breaks are between words when they speak in normal conversation and sometimes sounds from one word carry over into another word. For example, the sentence which would be printed as I didn't have breakfast this morning may sound like, "Ididnhavbreakfasthismornin" when quickly spoken. Because children use adults' oral language to learn about sounds and words, this blurring of word boundaries may contribute to children's difficulties determining the sound to letter correspondence between spoken and written words and with separating words into sounds when reading. As young preschoolers gain greater exposure to print and see adults pointing to each word while reading aloud, they come to understand more about words. For example, Max's parents made an effort to occasionally point to each word when reading aloud to him. He noticed how they did this and became interested in doing it himself. With practice and help from his parents, he became able to read by memory some of his shorter storybooks, pointing to each word as he did so.

Attending to the Sound of Words

When listening to adults talking and reading, young preschoolers begin to attend to the beginning sounds of words and to rhyming words. For example, Avery began to notice when words started with the same ae sound as her first name. She would comment on words such as apple, "That's a word like Avery." Max enjoyed making up silly rhymes with people's names such as "Uncle Buncle" and "Amanda Panda."

Using Sounds Knowledge to Read

The abilities to break spoken words apart and identify their beginning and ending sounds and to combine sounds together into words provide a basis for conventional reading by decoding or sounding out words. At first, children look at visual cues in words to identify them, such as the g in dog resembling a tail. However, between three and four years of age, many children's ability to memorize words as sight words increases past where basic visual memory allows and they become able to visually discriminate between similar words like book and look. Looking more closely at the letters in words and matching letters and sounds results in some children beginning to decode (sound out) very simple words. However because these young preschoolers have not yet completely mastered letter/sound relationships or segmenting and blending of sounds, they will often encounter letters or letters combinations they do not know. When your child starts to decode words, he or she will likely frequently ask for your help with unfamiliar letters or sounds in words.

Sample Gosse, H. & Lovell, M. (2008). Caregiver Narrative: Prereading Development 37-48 Months. In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 9. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development