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Helping Young Listeners Become Successful Readers: Preschoolers
By Shelley Butler

The first installment of this two-part article, “Helping Young Listeners Become Successful Readers: Babies and Toddlers” appeared in the October issue and is currently available in our Reading Center under the "Literacy" and "Infants/Toddlers" sections at www.earlychildhoodnews.com.


“If you give a moose a muffin,” began four-year-old Leah, “you’re going to have to get him some jam, too. Then he’s going to ask for more muffins….” As Leah continued “reading” to her rapt and fascinated audience, two-year-old Joey, she turned the pages of a book that had been read to her many times before, looked at the expressive Felicia Bond illustrations, and reenacted the story with remarkable accuracy. She offered passages from the text that she remembered and filled in the rest of the story with phrases of her own that sounded much like Laura Numeroff herself. Leah’s emerging literacy was right on track. Today, at fourteen, Leah is an avid and highly competent reader. How did her experiences as a preschooler lead her to the success in reading she enjoys today?


To put it simply, the adults in her life read, talked, and played with her in positive ways. Experts agree that reading to preschoolers is the most important factor in preparing them to become successful, independent readers. Add to reading, opportunities to talk about books, ask and answer questions, hear and learn vocabulary, and extend the reading experience with play, and you have created a rich environment that supports and fosters emerging literacy development.


Developmentally Ready

Preschoolers’ literacy development is typically expeditious, and the rapid growth of skills needed for independent reading later on continues beyond this stage. Though preschoolers develop in various ways, at differing times, by age five, children typically:


·         Show interest in books and reading.

·         Label objects in pictures.

·         “Read” a picture by telling the action, emotion, or events, then “read” pictures from page to page.

·         Understand that words on a page have meaning.

·         Follow the sequence of a story.

·         Understand that events, feelings, and objects in books are connected to real life.

·         Gather information from listening to books that they use in everyday life.

·         Begin to recognize letters, numbers, and familiar words that they see often like “STOP,” and point them out.

·         Rhyme and remember familiar nursery rhymes.


Still, preschoolers may not want to sit still for long to listen to a story and may prefer listening while playing or drawing. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says not to worry. This is typical, as is the desire of preschoolers to talk during the course of listening to a book. On the other hand, if a child appears to have trouble hearing, speaking, or seeing, do seek or suggest professional help.


The ABC’s of Fostering Preschool Literacy: Read, Talk, and Play

The developing literacy of preschoolers thrives in a joyful, fun atmosphere in which a love of books and reading is part of the everyday experience. Here’s how you can best nurture that development.


A. Read Aloud

Providing positive, enjoyable reading experiences give young children opportunities to gain the knowledge, awareness, skills, and love of learning that they need to later learn to read independently. Here’s how you can best provide those experiences:

·         Choose longer books that have more words on a page than the books you read to toddlers. In addition, select many different kinds of books to read: alphabet books, non-fiction picture books, stories, fables, poems, tall tales, and books that have connections to children’s lives.

·         Remind preschoolers how books work. Show them how to read words from left to right and text from top to bottom on the page, and other book basics. Give preschoolers opportunities to practice finding the cover, turning pages, etc.

·         Move your finger along the words as you read to help children connect the text on the page to the story or information they are hearing.

·         Read books that preschoolers can participate in by joining in on repetitive phrases or familiar rhymes, answering questions, following directions, or “reading” remembered phrases from a favorite book. For active kids or to encourage quiet kids to get moving, read books that invite action like Can You Move Like an Elephant? by Judy Hindley and illustrated by Manya Stojic (Barron’s, 2003)

·         Stop reading from time to time to talk about the story or information, and ask questions; encourage preschoolers to make a prediction about what will happen next.

·         Occasionally, pull out a wordless book or a familiar story, and invite preschoolers to “read” it.

·         Allow preschoolers access to books and other print material to look at and “read” in their own time.

·         Read aloud often and regularly. Look for opportunities to read books, but also, signs, posters, letters, food labels, billboards, and more. When an adult models reading in everyday life, it shows children that reading is typical and helps them believe that they can do it, too.


B. Talk and Listen

Talking and listening helps children build vocabulary, learn about a wide variety of topics, and gain important language skills. “Use your words” is often said to preschoolers, but it is talking and being heard that shows children the reason why. Words are powerful, have great meaning, and can help you get what you want. You can foster children’s vocabulary development with the following suggestions:

·         Find undivided time to talk and listen to a child individually every day. More important than accuracy are the opportunities to practice using words and experiment with expression.

·         Talk about most everything you do in a day. Help children name objects, feelings, and describe events. Point out letters, numbers, or familiar words, and invite children to point them out to you when they see them.

·         Watch for opportunities to draw a child into a conversation. Some children may be more open to talking at a particular time or day, during a snack or mealtime, or while playing, etc. Avoid forcing a child to have a conversation.

·         Ask specific questions like, “Did you read a story today? What was it about?” instead of more general questions like, “How was your day?” Then, show that you have listened by expanding on what has been said.

·         Help children understand the sounds and meanings of spoken words (phonological awareness) and that words are made up of parts (phonemic awareness) that can be taken apart and put back together. For example, bat begins with the same sound as ball, and “bat” contains three distinct sound parts.


C. Play

Preschoolers learn and practice new skills through play and subsequently find joy in learning. In general, watch for opportunities to sing, rhyme, play with words and letters, and help children practice listening and speaking. Use dramatic play to help children practice and experiment with language in a variety of ways. Add maps, catalogs, brochures, food containers, and other print materials to the play area to offer more exposure to print and its uses.            

To extend the reading experience, follow up reading with one or two activities related to the book. Make up your own play ideas from your favorite books, or start here with a great new book for preschoolers and an activity to go with it.



Even though preschoolers just have fun with it all, these experiences are treasures that hold the key to becoming successful learners for years to come. Take every opportunity to read, talk, and play with preschoolers about moose, muffins, avalanches, elephants, and more. Enjoy being part of these special times in a child’s life. When children become good readers, there’s no limit to what they can achieve and you’ll know that your job, whether as a parent, teacher, caregiver, or friend, was well done.



Avalanche Annie: A Not-So-Tall Tale

By Lisa Wheeler and illustrated by Kurt Cyrus (Harcourt, 2003).


In this wonderful new tale about a four-foot-three hero, children learn about Annie Halfpint, who lives “in northern Michisota, where the wooly mooskins roam” and becomes famous for roping “an awesome icy beast” of an avalanche. The rich language and rhyme, and the excitement of the tall tale all make this a thundering good read-aloud, talk-about, and play-with choice.

Since tall tales assume few boundaries in terms of reality, they offer the perfect opportunity to expand a child’s thinking and humor in delightful ways through conversation and play. After reading Avalanche Annie, ask children what they would do with an avalanche if they were Annie, and offer some ideas of your own. Opportunities to discuss what is real (an avalanche) vs. what’s not (a person roping one) abound. You might ask if there really is a place called “Michisota” and if a real person could have a redwood tree for a pa. Invite children to think about what may have happened to Annie after the story ends, if she ever managed any other super-human feats, and what they might be.


What If?

An Activity for Preschoolers


What You Need:

·         Imagination and art supplies


Let’s Begin:

1.       Start by asking children a series of questions that start with “What If?”

·         “What if you could ride on a cloud?”

·         “What if you woke up one morning and had a tail?”

·         “What if candy grew underground in the backyard?”

·         “What if your mother was a mouse?”

2.       Help children expand on ideas, learn new words, and think outside the box.

3.       Then, ask the children to think up their own “what if?” questions.

4.       Finally, have each child pick one tall tale from the game and create an illustration for it by drawing, coloring, painting, or collage.

What Children Like in Books*



·         Books about children that look and live like them.

·         Counting books or other “concept” books about things like size or time

·         Simple “science” books about things and how they work – like garbage trucks, flowers or tools.

·         Books about things in which they have a special interest in such as trains, animals or cooking.

·         Books about making friends.

·         Books about going to school or to the doctor.

·         Books about having brothers or sisters.

·         Books with simple text that they can memorize or read.


*Copyright 2003. Reproduced from www.zerotothree.org with permission of Boston University School of Medicine, Erikson Institute, and ZERO TO THREE. No further reproduction is permitted without express permission of the copyright holder.



Shelley Butler is co-author with Deb Kratz of The Field Guide to Parenting. To contact the author or learn more about her work, please visit: www.fieldguidetoparenting.info.