Children with speech and/or language delays/disorders
Preschoolers who seem to be having more difficulty than others their age with listening or speaking should see a Speech Pathologist as soon as possible. Speaking and listening skills are important in their own right, plus early speech-language difficulties are often related to later problems with learning to read and write. The Speech Pathology Australia website has information sheets about preschool language development.
To find your local Speech Pathologists in Australia, use the “Find a Speech Pathologist” function on the Speech Pathology Australia website. If you can’t get a publicly-funded assessment any time soon, you can self-refer to a private therapist, and private health insurance (if you have it) might help pay, or keep your receipts for tax return time. You can also ask your GP for a referral under the Enhanced Primary Care/Chronic Disease Management program, for Medicare rebates on up to five sessions per year.
If you’re outside Australia, try this site.
Also please take a look at the Read It Again Pre-K website which contains a free curriculum supplement (!!) to build preschoolers’ language and pre-literacy skills. The UK’s Communication Trust also has good information and resources, as does the Hanen Centre.
Children whose speech and language is on track
If you aren’t concerned about your preschooler’s speech-language skills, but want to give her or him a head start on literacy, the most important thing you can do is play a lot together and have a lot of conversations with him or her, making what you say just a little bit longer and more complex than what your child is saying, and where possible expanding on her or his contributions (recasting) before adding information, for example:
- Child: Teddy, up.
- Parent: Teddy, get up. Can he get up?
- Child: No, stuck.
- Parent: Oh dear, teddy’s stuck. Let me help.
- Child: You help.
- Parent: Yep, I’ll help him up. There you go, teddy. Where will you sit?
- Child: Sit here.
- Parent: Sit here, teddy. That’s it. Now, does teddy want a drink?
- Child: Yeah, juice.
- Parent: Teddy wants some juice. He’s thirsty. OK, I’ll get some juice.
Before they start school, preschoolers are usually starting to become aware that words have not only meaning but also structure.
Many children enjoy chanting things like “mum bum” and “silly billy” (ha! hilarious because of both the meaning and the sound), and show obvious enjoyment of the rhyming bits of books and songs. Or they might be able to clap, tap or stomp out syllables in words: “croc-o-dile”, “hel-i-cop-ter” etc. Or they might be able to tell you that the words “mum” and “music” both start with the same sound.
This indicates that they are starting to be aware that words not only have meaning, but they also have structure. This awareness is a key step towards getting ready to learn to read, and starting to be able to discriminate individual speech sounds in words.
The first sound in a word is the most salient, and thus easiest for little kids to discriminate. Next-easiest is the final sound, and sounds in word middles are quite hard.
Talking to kids about whether words start with the same sound is a good place to start, and if they are in print you can also point out that they start with the same letter (“Oh look, cup and cat both start with this letter “c”). Say the sound in preference to the letter name.
If you want to actively teach your child to discriminate first sounds, begin with words that start with early-developing consonants that can be stretched out for a long time (“m”, “n”, “f”, “sh”, “s”, “w” and “y”, as long as your child can say these all correctly) as well as words that start with vowel sounds, but be careful not to confuse vowel letters with vowel sounds. The words “apple”, “art”, “apron”, “August”, “aeroplane” and “asleep” all start with different sounds – you can find a list of the 44 sounds here, with links to example wordlists.
The Preschool University website also has lots of good stuff for parents.
Blending and segmenting
Sound-blending is a key skill which demonstrates phonemic awareness and is vital for reading and spelling.
Show your child how two or three different sounds (e.g. “i”…”n” or “m”…”a”…”n”) can be “shmooshed” together to make a word. Start with the early-developing, easy-to-stretch-out consonants “m”, “n”, “f”, “sh” and “s” and whatever vowels you like, unless you’re using letters, in which case you might like to use spellings from my moveable alphabet or similar alphabets, which contain things like “sh” and “ff” and “ss” and a range of vowel spellings.
Here are some two-sound words you might like to start with:
- may, me, my, moo, more, am, um, aim, I’m, arm.
- neigh, knee, no/know, in, on, earn.
- if, off, fee, foe, far, fur, four/for, fair/fare, fear
- ace, ice, say, sea/see, sigh, so/sow (seeds)/sew, sue, sir, sore/saw, sow (the pig), soy.
- ash, she, shy, show, shoe/shoo, sure/shore, share, shear.
Next, try blending three-sound words like “moon”, “fan”, “wish” and “yes”. Make sure you always say SOUNDS not letter names. It’s useful to know the names of letters, but sounds are what matter most for early literacy, and sounds and letter names can get very mixed up. This often shows up in misspellings like “lft” for “left”, “ms” for “mess” and “nam” for “name”.
Once your child can blend two or three sounds, add words with two consonants together and/or more sounds e.g. “t-r-u-ck”, “l-a-m-p”, “b-r-i-ck-s”. Don’t forget that sometimes the number of sounds and the number of letters in a word can be quite different e.g. “a…e” plus “t” makes “ate”, and so does “eigh” plus “t” (eight).
Segmenting is the reverse of blending, where a word is taken apart into its component sounds. You can demonstrate and practice this to your child, and show how once a word is taken apart into its component sounds, we write each one with letters. Sounding words out aloud while you write them (e.g. when writing the shopping list) is also a good way to show your preschooler that words are made of sounds and letters are how we write these sounds down.
Letter recognition and reading/writing words
Because letter recognition and recall has become fast and automatic for literate adults, it’s often hard for us to remember that this is extremely difficult to learn.
Imagine if I converted the alphabet into Wingdings characters and expected you to quickly be able to use them to read and write words. Agh. Linking sounds and letters is a form of paired associate learning, which takes time and repetition.
If you have a preschooler who is demanding to be taught how to read and spell, start with just a few letters and make/write little words for your child to read and copy. Make sure they form letters correctly right from the start, perhaps starting off by tracing them and showing starting point and direction with dots and arrows, plus lots of modelling the correct way to write each one.
If you use the letters in the first book or books of a set of decodable readers like the Pocket Rockets, Pip and Tim books (available affordably as apps), Dandelion Launchers (available as talking iBooks) or free SA Speld Phonic Books, and you’ve taught your child how to blend sounds into words, she or he should be able to soon start successfully reading these little books.
There are also some cute and fun computer activities which your child might like to use to help them learn about sounds and letters, such as the app/internet game Phonics Hero which has a free 7-day trial period, and the apps listed under the first heading “Learning sounds and letter recognition/formation” on this page. Bob Books Reading Magic 1, Reading Raven, Hairy Letters and ABC Pocket Phonics are IMHO also among the best apps for young beginners.
You can also use my free First Phonics Picture Book to introduce your child to 42 of the 44 the sounds of English and the main/one major spelling pattern for each.
There is an excellent free online linguistic phonics course intended for parents of 4-6 year-olds here. Highly recommended.
Parents of preschoolers often put a lot of effort into checking out their local schools and trying to find the one that best fits their child, but sometimes without a lot of well-researched knowledge about what questions to ask about literacy programs. For some ideas of what to look for in a literacy program, see this page for parents of 5-6 year olds.