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

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Pre-Reading Development (49-60 Months)click to print Print
Research Review / Parent

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

Introduction to Reading before Kindergarten

The year before the start of kindergarten is a time of enormous growth for young children as readers. Some children will enter kindergarten at five years of age familiar with reading. They will have a positive attitude towards reading and they will know about books and print and how they are used. These children will know the letters of the alphabet and have well-developed knowledge of letter-sound relationships and they will know enough about how stories are organized to tell stories themselves. Lots of reading, listening, talking, singing, colouring, printing, and engaging in many kinds of stimulating activities make it easier for children to understand what happens at school and to succeed in early reading.

How Older Preschoolers Interact with Print

Most older preschoolers continue to be very concerned with learning to read in the conventional manner (by decoding or sounding out each letter), especially as they approach kindergarten entry. Even though they may have enjoyed reading independently in the past, or rather enjoyed reciting familiar texts from memory while looking at the book, some older preschoolers will refuse to read because they "can't read" like adults or older children do. Instead of using their memories to recite a familiar text, these children will attempt to decode (sound out) every word, even if the word could be recognized by sight, because they believe that this is how adults read. At 4½ years of age, Avery still enjoyed her Down by the Bay song book. However, instead of just singing along by memory, she now insisted on attempting to sound out each and every word in the book. She would quickly tire of this type of "reading" and demand that an adult read the book to her.

Parents and caregivers may be concerned or even frustrated when older preschoolers who used to be interested in telling stories along with books now refuse to do so or become frustrated by trying to decode (sound out) every word. In most cases, this type of behaviour is part of normal development. Parents and caregivers should continue to support their older preschooler's reading development by reading to him or her on a daily basis and helping the child learn about letters and sounds. As an older preschooler, Max refused to attempt to retell familiar stories, even though he had enjoyed doing so in the past. He would simply shove the book back at his parents or other adults saying, "I can't read it. You do it." His parents were patient with him. They reassured him that he was learning lots about reading, talking about his new knowledge of letters and sounds, and his understanding of how books worked. They tried to read the books he requested as often as they could.

Decoding every word is typical of how young children begin to read although it does result in very slow, laboured reading and children may understand less of what is read as a result. With practice, the decoding process becomes easier and children are able to focus more on understanding what they have read. This shift may not happen for quite some time however. Researchers have found that the ability to integrate decoding and comprehension skills begins at approximately eight years of age. For more information on specific skills developed by older preschoolers, see Pre-Reading and Language Skills Developed by Older Preschoolers.

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

By the time children enter kindergarten at five years of age, most of them will have been read to by parents and will enjoy reading and listening to stories. Researchers have found, however, that children's exposure to literacy experiences such as reading and writing to and speaking with adults varies both by amount and by type of experience.

Generally, five-year-old children who demonstrate more advanced pre-reading abilities at the beginning of formal schooling have more exposure to speaking with adults, observing and participating in reading with adults, and learning about letters, words, and pictures through reading and writing games than do other children their age who have less advanced reading or pre-reading abilities. In homes where parents read more frequently to children and where families have more access to reading materials, children generally have a better understanding of what reading is and often know more letters and words at the forty-nine to sixty-month-age period than other children their age.

There are also differences in the type of literacy experiences older preschoolers are exposed to. For example, researchers have found that when adults point out letters and words while reading, children learn about letter and words more easily than other children their age who have only listened to stories being read.

This research evidence suggests that caregivers can influence the pre-reading development of older preschoolers by providing frequent and focused literacy experiences. Your help in developing your child's pre-reading skills is critical. Research has shown that children who enter formal schooling with a more advanced understanding of reading and reading concepts progress further and faster in reading than those who enter formal schooling with a basic knowledge or a lack of knowledge in these areas. For specific tips on promoting pre-reading development with your older preschoolers, see Caregiver Tips: 49-60 months, Tips for Sharing Reading with Young Children, and Tips for Focusing on Print with Young Children.

Pre-Reading and Language Skills Developed by Older Preschoolers

Increased Awareness of the Unique Characteristics of Books and Print

Older preschoolers know a great deal about print and demonstrate the standard behaviours when reading. They are continuing to learn about the purposes of reading and especially about the different types of information presented in different forms of print.

Concepts of Print

By four years of age, children have often mastered book level concepts of print. That is, you will likely find that your child is able to identify the cover of a book, the title, and where the author and illustrator information is located. Although there is some variation in what children know due to their previous experiences with reading (see How Older Preschoolers' Interactions with Print Support Pre-Reading and Language Development), most older preschoolers are able to identify the parts of a book and distinguish between print and pictures. Most older preschoolers understand that print is what is read and that pictures support the meaning of the message provided by the print. When Max was 4 ½ year old, his Nan tried to shorten the story in one of his books by talking about the pictures instead of actually reading the sentences. Max immediately protested, pointing to the words and saying, "No Nan. Read this!"

Reading Behaviours

If they have observed adults and other children reading, most older preschoolers will have already imitated reading behaviours. Your child will likely hold the book properly, turn the pages, move his or her eyes along the print, and may use his or her fingers to follow or track the print while reading.

Pre-Reading and Language Skills Developed by Older Toddlers

Purposes of Reading

Very young children typically think of reading as reading storybooks for fun. As children experience and observe others reading, they learn more about the uses of reading. In addition to reading for entertainment, adults read to obtain different kinds of information. For example, four-year-old Avery came to understand, through experience, that letters and emails are read to learn news about friends and family, a menu is read to decide what to eat at a restaurant, a map is read to find directions to a store where the sign is read to confirm that it is the correct store, and price tags are read to determine how much money is required to purchase the item.

Avery enjoyed helping to select her own food off the children's menu at restaurants and had her dad help her make price tags for some of her toys when playing store. By four years of age, many children understand that reading can be done for entertainment or for information, although their understanding of more specific entertainment or informational uses varies.

Types of Information in Print

Researchers have worked to discover what children know about the types of information presented in different forms of print. They have found that, at four years of age, some children can confidently distinguish the types of information gathered from a storybook from the types of information gathered from a newspaper. When these children enter kindergarten, they will have a broader understanding of reading and what reading is used for than children who do not have this understanding.

Researchers have found that older preschoolers who show more understanding of different forms of print and the information they provide have often had a great deal of exposure to the different forms and to observing adults reading them. Parents and caregivers can help older preschoolers learn about different forms of print by talking with them about these forms and how they are used. For example, Avery enjoyed getting the mail with her dad. He talked to her about the different types of mail received, from letters to flyer to bills, and what they were used for.

Although young children observe adults reading in a variety of ways in daily life, often adults do not indicate that they are reading. Some children are therefore unable to understand that silent reading or reading different forms of print is reading. Because most children experience being read to aloud from storybooks, some older preschoolers do not think that looking at the book or other written material is "reading" unless they can hear the material being read aloud. For example, if your child observes you reading a newspaper silently, he or she may not understand that you are actually reading unless you talk about it. Talking about what you are reading will help your child learn about different forms of print.

Knowledge of Story

Between forty-nine and sixty months of age, most children are not yet reading in the conventional sense, but their memory for stories and knowledge of story structure and conventions helps to guide them toward being able to read in a more conventional manner and will make the process of reading easier for them. Their increasing knowledge of story structure and conventions is seen in their understanding of plot sequence, observation of story dialogue, and more structure retellings.

Demonstrating Understanding of Plot Sequence

Most older preschoolers can follow a series of events in stories and will know when parts are missed or skipped from stories when adults read to them. Max immediately noticed that something was wrong when his dad accidentally skipped a page while reading from a new library book. These types of behaviours demonstrate older preschoolers' increasing knowledge of story.

Learning about Story Dialogue

Once they are able to distinguish punctuation from letters and numbers (see Identifying Letters) or notice features such as dialogue bubbles, then children are also able to understand story dialogue as separate from the rest of the story text.

Children's ability to notice text features is dependent on the amount of exposure they have had to literature and with reading models. Consequently, if a child has never viewed comic books or storybooks with dialogue bubbles, he or she will not understand that dialogue bubbles serve to highlight conversation. In contrast, Avery started to notice story dialogue quite young. It was likely because one of her favourite books was Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems, in which the speech of the little girl, Trixie, was represented by dialogue bubbles.

Retellings Become More Structured

Around his or her fourth birthday, your child will likely still focus very much on pictures while reading, although he or she is starting to make the transition to a more print-focused approach. Most older preschoolers already have a good understanding of story structure, will have memorized well-known stories, and can retell or "read" parts of familiar stories from memory using their knowledge of story structure and conventions. For example, Max would start a fairytale story retelling with "Once upon a time."

When retelling stories or creating their own stories, older preschoolers gradually move towards more structured stories. Their retellings will come to match or be very similar to the words on the page and will include language that refers to happenings at different times and places. For example, they will begin to use future tense. Avery began to retell the Knuffle Bunny story by saying, "Now they are going to go the laundromat. First, they will walk through the park."

Words and Pictures

Older preschoolers typically understand that print is what is read, not the pictures. There is, however, considerable variability in the completeness of understanding among children of the same age. Researchers have described three different stages of print and picture awareness for children between four and five years of age. You may notice these behaviours in your own child.

  1. In the earliest stage of awareness, children do not differentiate between print and pictures. Some of these children say that both print and pictures are for reading, while others just generally point to a page and cannot visually distinguish between print and pictures. At this stage, children move back and forth between print and pictures for the meaning of the story.

  2. In the second stage of print and picture awareness, children are able to distinguish print from pictures, but they believe the print labels the picture, even if an entire sentence is written beneath the picture. These children understand that print is independent of the pictures and can separate the words on a page but they would assign a syllable of their spoken word to an entire word on the page. For example, if the print said The boy plays, the child might read it as follows:

    • Child: "Ba by play"
    • Print: The boy plays.

  3. In the final stage of print and picture awareness, children use the print to confirm their predictions about its meaning. They will say a word for each word on the page even if what they say does not match what is in print.

    • Child: "Baby boy plays"
    • Print: The boy plays.

    Even if they are not reading in the conventional manner, these children are showing increased sensitivity to the print, which will make learning to read much easier for them.
  4. These three stages help to explain some of the differences in children's abilities to separate print and pictures and to understand what is read when they enter kindergarten at five years of age. In yet another example of the power of caregiver interactions with children, the researchers also noted that children with more exposure to reading and to watching reading behaviours had more advanced understanding of reading. It is thus, important to read to and with your children and to have them see you reading.

    Letters and Words

    Older preschoolers continue to hold a different understanding of what a word is than what adults do. There are thousands of words in the English language, many of which are new to young children, and many of which they have yet to encounter. Before formal schooling, children's knowledge of how letters can be arranged into units of meaning is very limited so anything they see printed could be a word they have not yet encountered. Researchers have found that most older preschoolers think that only words of four letters are words (although some will accept three letters) and that there must be a variety of characters present for what is written to be considered a word. Even though many shorter words are articles (e.g., a, the), prepositions (e.g., in, on), and conjunctions (e.g., and, but), children may not consider them words and thus causes confusion when they start to read. They will not be sure what to do with these little bits of print.

    Identifying Words in Sentences

    Between four and five years of age, some children begin to notice and read individual sentences. Although they may rely upon memory of familiar phrases from stories they have heard for some of their ability to separate sentences, some older preschoolers are also able to decode simple words and recognize some printed words by sight. If they have developed a good concept of how words are separated by spaces and of the differences between punctuation and letters, then they will start to recognize punctuation in writing and develop the concept of a sentence.

    The ability to identify words in sentences takes time to develop. Studies have shown that most four-year-olds are just starting to develop the concept of a word. Their emerging understanding of the concept of words leads to many interesting behaviours with print. To begin with, not all children understand that everything that is said during reading comes from a word on the page.

    Children may also not be able to separate the spoken words into individual words that can be seen on the page. When an adult reads a sentence aloud, the individual words tend to run together. For example, "Tommy went shopping" may sound more like, "Tommywenshoppin."

    In addition, some four-year-old children think that only pictured nouns are represented in print. Children who believe that only nouns are present on a page still think that print simply labels pictures. To demonstrate the types of behaviours that this type of misunderstanding leads to, we can imagine a page in a children's book that features a picture of a duck swimming in a river near the bottom of a waterfall and the printed sentence The duck swims. One child who believes that only pictured nouns are represented in print might say, "The little duck" when asked what the sentence says. Another child at this stage might point to the words and name a pictured noun for each one, saying "duck water sun" while pointing to the sentence The duck swims. Finally, a third child at this stage might break a pictured noun into syllables and appoint one syllable to each part (word) written on the page, saying "wa-ter-fall" while pointing to the sentence The duck swims. Each of these behaviours suggests that the children are beginning to understand the concept of words but that they continue to think that only pictured nouns are presented in print.

    Other four-year-old children think of the print on a page as one unit of meaning. These children understand that a spoken sentence is represented by the print on the page, but they cannot segment the sentence into words that correspond to written words on the page. For example, once when Max saw the sentence Tommy rows his boat on the river he responded, "A boy is rowing." When his mom asked him where it said that, Max pointed to the whole sentence.

    Finally, some four-year-olds make a one-to-one correspondence between printed and spoken words but think that each word is a separate idea. For example, Avery's mom watched and heard her say, "Dora", "birthday", "cake", "balloons", "presents" for the sentence, Dora is having a party.

    Many four-year-old children recognize their names and a few other words, whether from favourite stories or environmental print on signs and labels around them. At four years of age , Max could recognize his own name, the words Mom and Dad, the word Spot from his favorite books about Spot the Dog, and the words Toys R Us from the sign in front of the toy store. Young preschoolers typically recognize these words by their beginning and/or ending letters and the general shape of the words, not on a letter-by-letter basis. For example, when Avery was four years old, she saw the word Achy in print and thought that it said Avery.

    Older preschoolers continue to use these and other sight words up to a point, but as they are preparing to begin formal schooling, many of them will attempt to read by sounding out words, even if they know them as sight words, because they do not understand that adults use memorized sight words to make the reading process much faster. For more information on the development of decoding skills between four and five years of age, see Decoding Words.

    Identifying Punctuation

    Punctuation seems to be one of the last types of characters to be noticed by children. Perhaps, this is because there is no indication of punctuation in speech. Punctuation marks are conventions of written language that help cue readers and organize print on the page. Quotation marks, for example, are not marked in spoken language. To most adults, periods and commas indicate when to pause while reading aloud and take a breath before continuing, but this may not be apparent to children who are only beginning to separate words on a page or to distinguish between what is a letter and what is not.

    Researchers have found that the first types of punctuation that children will distinguish contain dots or single straight lines because they look less similar to letters. For example, Avery first began to recognize exclamation points (!). Young children typically have no idea of the function of the first punctuation they notice, only that it is not letters. Once they are able to distinguish some punctuation from letters, children will then begin to notice and distinguish other punctuation that look less similar to letters, but they will still confuse characters that look similar. For example, a question mark might be confused with the numeral 2, or a semicolon (;) may be confused with an i. Even when they understand that punctuation marks are not letters, children are often unable to understand the function of these marks except that they accompany words.

    Identifying Letters

    In the year leading to kindergarten entry at age five, children continue to learn more letter names and sounds but decoding (sounding out) words is made more difficult for most children because they still will not know all of the letters in the English language. Children from a variety of backgrounds have been reported to know between 8 and 10 letter names on average when entering kindergarten but the actual number of letter names known varies significantly among children.

    Most older preschoolers will learn to distinguish text from pictures but some will continue to have difficulty, making the distinction between letters, other characters and nonsense characters harder to achieve. Some older preschoolers may also continue to have difficulty distinguishing letters from numbers and punctuation marks, resulting in additional confusion. Parents and caregivers can help children by pointing to the print while reading to them. Children having difficulty distinguishing letters from other symbols may benefit from focusing on learning only a few letter shapes at a time.

    Decoding Words

    Between four and five years of age, many children begin to look more closely at the letters within words and rely less on their memories of how certain words look. Paying more attention to letters within words helps older preschoolers learn about letters and corresponding sounds and ultimately improves their ability to decode (sound out) words. Older preschoolers may begin to recognize patterns that occur across words that they read. For example, Avery began to notice the ing pattern in the sing, ring, and bring words found in one of her Dora the Explorer stories. In addition to helping them recognize more words when attempting to read, recognizing word patterns may also help children develop their spelling abilities.

    It is important to note that mature use of the alphabetic system begins between four and five years of age, but continues for some time afterwards as children develop a greater understanding of letters, sounds, and patterns within words. By five years of age, only some children are able to read (decode) a few words in the conventional manner. At the early stages, reading is a very slow and laborious process as children proceed to decode (sound out) letter-by-letter and word-by-word. For more information on older preschoolers' increasing focus on decoding, see How Older Preschoolers Interact with Print.

    Awareness of Sounds in Spoken and Written Words

    By four years of age, most children have developed an awareness of rhyme. Some older preschoolers are able to play games where they name rhyming words and are also able to segment the beginning sounds (onsets) from the remainder of words (rimes). Being able to separate onsets and rimes and produce rhyme makes learning about word patterns easier for children which in turn lead to the ability to identify words using a knowledge of word families instead of having to sound out each word letter by letter.

    Many older preschoolers are also able to separate words they hear into syllables, although some think that each syllable in a spoken word corresponds to a whole word on the page. For example, at four years of age, Max saw the sentence The baby plays and, touching each word, read "Ba (the) by (baby) toy (plays)." The ability to break spoken words into increasingly smaller parts helps children to notice and focus on smaller divisions in printed words, such as letters, rather than the whole word, when reading. For example, children who can attend to beginning and ending sounds of words can begin to match the letters they see with the sounds they hear. This matching of letters and their sounds is the start of beginning to use the letters and sounds to read words effectively.

    Sample Gosse, H., & Lovell, M., (2008). Caregiver Narrative: Prereading Development 49 - 60 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