The building blocks of literacy

Learning to read and write is an important step for children. Literacy skills provide the key to their future, opening the doors to education and employment, as well as the pure enjoyment we can get from reading and writing.

Although toddlers and preschoolers generally aren’t ready to learn to read and write, there are skills they can start building that will help them in the future. But this doesn’t have to mean taking on the role of a teacher - these building blocks can be gathered in your day-to-day family life.

Much research has pointed to understanding the importance of play and family time in learning, and many experts recommend that parents focus on fun during a child’s early years. That’s not to say your child isn’t learning if she’s having fun - quite the opposite, in fact! If your little one is enjoying an activity it’s likely she’s gaining from it educationally and/or developmentally, too.

Little bookworms ... Just spending time looking through a book can help build your child's literacy skills.
Little bookworms ... Just spending time looking through a book can help build your child's literacy skills. 

It might actually be easier than you think to foster these important skills during your child’s toddler and preschool years. Here are a number of everyday activities you can do to help kids stack the building blocks to their literacy development.

The Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development highlights the importance of talking, listening and interpreting language in day-to-day home life in your child’s early years.

Literacy should be about fun and play and awareness, not rote learning and repetition

The Raising Children Network adds to this, suggesting that conversation, reading, listening, singing and drawing with your child, in addition to every day activities and outings, can provide endless opportunities for literacy development.

Early childhood learning consultant and blogger at, Christie Burnett, believes that play is the key to literacy.

“For children who are prior to formal school age, literacy should be about fun and play and awareness, not rote learning and repetition,” she says.

Play ideas for developing writing skills revolve around strengthening and training the muscles in the hands and fingers. Burnett suggests the following activities for toddlers and preschoolers:

  • creating with plasticine, clay or playdough
  • hanging out at the playground – climbing play equipment is great for building strong hand muscles
  • improving coordination by getting crafty with scribbling, drawing, or cutting with scissors
  • heading out into the garden to dig, or pouring, scooping, pinching and spooning, which all require fine motor control
  • involving your child in age-appropriate everyday tasks such as pouring drinks, cutting with a child-safe knife or spraying with a spray bottle to dust surfaces
  • threading beads, completing jigsaw puzzles and building with blocks, which all require precision in fine motor control and hand-eye coordination.

Top children’s authors and literacy experts, Paul Jennings and Mem Fox, are two of Australia’s fiercest advocates of reading to children. Both have published books on the subject, and their websites provide more information on their beliefs that reading aloud with children every day. They say that getting into the habit of reading to children, starting as soon as possible after birth, encourages a love of reading, an understanding of life and a feeling of contentment and love.

Fox says on her website, “Never ever teach reading, or get tense around books.” Instead, reading aloud should be about dedicated time focused on your child, and finding the joy in reading a fun story they love … even if it’s the thousandth time you’ve read it!

Christie Burnett’s top tips for encouraging a love of reading
1. Read together with interest and enthusiasm throughout the day, every day. Do it as part of your daily routine (a book before bedtime), and at other times, just because. Choose fiction and non-fiction books on topics or themes your child loves.

2. Read together with a purpose. Whether it’s a recipe you’re cooking, a catalogue you’re looking at while making a shopping list, or the instructions for putting together an Ikea cupboard, let your child see that reading is useful.

3. Integrate ‘reading’ into your play. Add takeaway menus or a special’s board to your play café, or an open/closed sign to your fruit & vegie store. Train timetables, road maps, telephone directories, letters to post and magazines in the doctor’s waiting room are all simple ways to playfully ‘read.’

4. Scatter reading material throughout your house, in every room, and visit the library and/or bookshops regularly to make new reading discoveries.

5. Make sure your child sees you regularly reading for pleasure and relaxation, as well as for information purposes. This will help him appreciate the importance of reading in his everyday lives.