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How to build your child's literacy skills from birth to Grade 2

This page includes tips on how to help build your child's skills in speaking, listening, reading and writing.

General tips

Families play a key role in developing a child’s language and literacy skills from birth.

A child’s understanding of the world and their capacity to learn is greatly influenced by how much their family values their literacy skills.

Some important information for parents and carers to consider:

  • Children who start school with greater literacy skills perform better in school, and not just in language-based subjects like English.
  • Literacy in the early years is a range of different activities and forms of communication, including music, movement, dance, storytelling, visual arts and drama, as well as talking, viewing, reading, drawing and writing. It is never too early to read to your child.
  • Oral language skills are an important predictor of reading and writing skills, so the better your child can speak, the better their overall literacy skills will develop. Talk as much as you can with your child and engage them in conversation often.
  • Literacy in children’s early years can always be fun. Excursions and playtime are great activities in which to engage and talk with your child. Fun activities are also the best opportunities to teach children new vocabulary and new ways of saying things.

Helping your child to speak and listen

Talking with your child

Regularly talking and interacting with your child extends their language and listening skills and helps grow their confidence with language. You may be their only source of language so the more you speak and engage with them, the faster they will learn new vocabulary and speak with greater fluency.

Include your child when discussing everyday activities such as grocery shopping, gardening, cooking dinner, collecting mail from the mailbox, doing housework, and travelling in the car or bus.

Outings can also provide a world of new vocabulary. Discussion during outings can enrich your child’s understanding of the world. Outings might include going to the local farmers market, park, zoo, shopping centre, museums, libraries and art galleries.

Other fun activities can include:

  • Sharing rhymes, poems and songs. Encourage your child to join in.
  • Sharing and talking about family histories and family photos.
  • Looking at a range of picture books, for example, craft books, DIY books, decorative coffee table books and advertising catalogues. Ask your child to describe what is happening in the pictures and make up stories together.
  • Collecting cardboard and other household items for your child to build with. Ask your child to describe what they are building.
  • Listening to simple radio programs or podcasts developed for children together and discussing the content.
  • Taking virtual tours of various zoos, aquariums, castles, galleries and museums both locally and around the world.
  • Playing vocabulary games with your child such as, 'what’s the opposite of ….?' (for example, 'what’s the opposite of big?'), 'what’s another word for….?' (for example, 'what’s another word for angry?') and 'which word sounds different to the others: bat, hat, or door?'.

Oral storytelling

Storytelling extends your child’s speaking and listening skills, as well as expanding their memory and imagination. Either you can tell the story, or you can encourage your child to tell the story.

Storytelling might be about:

  • your child’s favourite toy
  • another family member
  • a pet
  • a favourite fictional character from a book or television program
  • a famous person
  • different work professions, such as astronauts, firefighters, nurses and teachers
  • an imaginary world with imaginary characters
  • an imaginary animal that can speak.

Here are some tips to start your storytelling:

  • Make it exciting, with different voices, puppets, or a finger play.
  • Have a dress-up box for your child to use for storytelling and imaginative play.
  • Start with what interests your child.
  • Start by creating a character and a setting.

Helping your child to read

Reading together

Reading should start in the first few months after birth. Even if as an adult you don’t read often, or don’t particularly like reading, it is important that you spend this valuable time with your child to stimulate their language development, and to encourage their love of reading. Reading together is a valuable thing to do. Reading increases your child’s vocabulary, expands your child’s understanding of the world, and gives them confidence when using language. Reading is also an important way to make the link between spoken words and written words.

Here are some general tips:

  • Visit your local library to select and read books together, and to attend story time sessions. Library story time sessions are a great way to share the joy of reading with your child in a group setting.
  • Encourage your child to select books, magazines, catalogues, or multimedia stories according to their interests.
  • Set aside time for reading every day. Reading before bedtime is a good habit to get into.
  • Position yourself so your child can see the words and the pictures.
  • Run your finger across the page with each word to help your child identify and remember words and sounds.
  • Share wordless picture books to develop imagination, ideas and vocabulary by naming and describing things in pictures.
  • Look for rhyme, rhythm or repetition in books. This will help develop your child’s love of language.
  • When reading to your child, read stories with expression, or try putting on the voices of characters. This will help make reading fun.
  • Point out important features about a book – for example, the words and pictures, the front cover, the spine, the contents page, or the title.
  • Discuss the meaning of unknown words that children hear and read. Explore words using a dictionary. Have a discussion and ask questions about interesting words you find, for example, 'It says here she "tumbled" down the hill. How do you think she went down the hill?' It says here 'He read a "good" book. What is another word we could use besides good?'
  • Encourage your child to take over some or all of the reading if they feel confident.
  • If your child is confident with their reading, allow them to read without interruption. Fluency is gained with confidence. Mistakes can be discussed after a block of reading, or in subsequent readings.
  • Allow your child to read at their own pace. Model good pace when you read to them.
  • Give your child the opportunity to re-read books.
  • Read and talk to your child in family languages and encourage others who speak different languages to use these with your child.
  • Let your child see you and other family members read for pleasure. It is especially important for boys to see the men they care about reading.
  • Encourage your child to join the Victorian Premiers’ Reading Challenge, which runs each year from March to September. Participating early childhood services and schools will register your child – otherwise you can register your child at the Premiers Reading Challenge.

Helping your child work out difficult words

When your child begins to read to you, they will often have difficulty with long or tricky words. The following strategies will help them develop self-correcting skills and assist with their understanding of the text.

It is important to give your child time to work out difficult words themselves because children can often self-correct if given the time. They read more slowly than we do and need the time to work it out.

Let the child persist a little, prompt by giving a hint such as 'what is the first sound in that word?'

Questions to help prompt may include:

  • Let’s look at the word. What letter (or letters) does the word start with? What sound does that letter (or letters) make?
  • What letters are in the middle of the word? What sound do these letters make?
  • What letter (or letters) does the word end with? What sound does that letter (or letters) make?
  • Can we put those sounds together to work out a word?
  • Look at the picture. What object can you see in the picture that might start with that letter?
  • What do you think this word might mean? What is another way of saying that?

If the above prompts are not working, you simply say: 'The word is…'.

An important aspect of learning to read is praising children’s repeated attempts. Praise can be specific, for example, 'Well done on re-reading that sentence, you worked out that word by yourself' or general praise such as 'You are trying really hard, well done.'

Another good strategy is to ask your child how they worked out the word. This helps reinforce reading strategies they learn from you and from school.

Book chat

Discussing the content and meaning of books is an important part of reading. Chat about the book before, during and after reading, and encourage your child to share their ideas and to ask questions about the book. Making links across the text by asking guiding questions encourages children to think about what they are reading.

Here are some questions you can ask before, during and after reading the book:

  • Look at the cover. What do you think this book might be about?
  • How does the place the book is set in make you feel?
  • How would you describe the character at the beginning of the story?
  • What is happening in the pictures?
  • What do you think is going to happen next?
  • Why might a character have done this? What would you do in the same situation?
  • Who was your favourite character in the story? Why did you like that character?
  • What was your favourite part of the book?
  • Can you try to retell the story to me in your own words?

Making the most of screen time

You can use the same questions you might ask your child during Book Chat (see above) to discuss TV and other screen programs and games that you watch or play together. Understanding visual media is a key element of your child’s literacy.

There are also a number of great games on the internet to help engage your child in reading. These games include:

  • Phonics games that improve reading and letter sound awareness. Phonics involves sounding out individual sounds in a word, and then putting these sounds together to make the word.
  • Grammar, punctuation and spelling games.
  • Vocabulary games.

Here is a short list of good websites to help begin your online search for games and other resources:

Taking Small Bytes is also an excellent resource. It contains 100 digital technology activities for you to do and discuss with your child. It also contains tips about using digital technologies wisely and safely.

Reading the world together

The world is full of letters and words you and your child can read together.

Activities could include the following:

  • Name your child’s belongings and talk about the letter and sounds in their name.
  • It is important to show children the value of reading for everyday purposes. Include your child when you read recipes, greeting cards, calendars, shopping lists, food labels, instructions, maps, newspapers, emails, signs, weather forecasts and websites. For example, you could read a recipe together and follow the steps to make your child’s favourite meal. Or you could ask your child to read and tick off each grocery item on a shopping list as you buy, order online, or unpack them.
  • Cook alphabet soup and say letters together as you eat them.
  • Play a word hunt. Write random words on bits of paper and place them around a room. Say one of the words and ask your child to find the right word.
  • Put post-it notes on objects around the house so your child can read and learn new words every day.

Helping your child to write

General writing advice

Learning to write begins with scribbling and drawing. This is an important first step and should be encouraged. The next step is to encourage your child to write letter-like shapes, before moving on to practise writing the alphabet – both capitals and lower-case letters. After this, encourage your child to write sentences containing short words.

If your child cannot write yet, you could write for them. Here is a strategy:

  • Ask your child to talk about an experience or something that interests them.
  • Ask your child what part of the conversation they would like you to write down.
  • As your child is talking, write down their ideas. Use their language.
  • Ask your child to describe back to you what you wrote down, or ask them to read back the writing.
  • Your child may want to draw a picture or create something to match the writing.

Encourage your child to take over some or all of the writing when they feel confident. When your child starts writing, try the following:

  • Discuss the topic to give your child some ideas to explore. This gives them confidence to begin writing.
  • Teach your child any vocabulary they might need.
  • You can encourage your child by writing on a similar topic alongside them. Then you can share your writing with each other and discuss the differences.

Here are some general tips to help your child when writing:

  • Offer your child useful resources, such as pens, pencils, chalk, whiteboards, paper or notebook, and a place to write such as a table, tray, bench or floor space. Creating a special ‘writing box’ to store your child’s pens and pencils helps them see writing as an important activity.
  • Experiment with different ways to write such as using a mini whiteboard, chalk on concrete, glass-writing pens, sticks in sand or fingers in paint or shaving cream.
  • Support your child to read their writing aloud.
  • Encourage your child to create a picture, drawing or collage that visually represents their ideas.
  • Always proudly display your child’s work in a prominent position in your house. This will give them confidence and demonstrates the importance of writing.
  • Create an ‘ideas bag’ or ‘ideas folder’ to use as a writing prompt. To inspire writing ideas, collect objects such as photographs, pictures cut from magazines, brochures, movie tickets, or any other found item.

Writing about experiences and interests

You can use your child’s experiences and interests as a springboard into writing.

Topics might include:

  • A piece of writing about a recent experience, such as a wedding or birthday party, or an excursion. For example, a trip to the museum could result in recounting the day’s activities, a report about dinosaurs, a report about 'The Best Thing I Learnt Today,' a short story about a family of dinosaurs, or a written list of exhibitions.
  • Time on a trampoline or walking could result in recounting the activity, a report on types of jumps/steps, a report on ‘my best trampoline/walking skill’, a story about a trampoline/walking disaster, or list of trampoline/walking terms and language.
  • Something that interests them. Your child could create a poster or a short article on a hobby or other interest.
  • A dream or memory they have discussed recently.

Writing creatively

Because creative writing is fun, it is an excellent way to foster a love of writing. It also helps develop your child’s imagination, which has been proven to be important in critical thinking and problem-solving. You can use a book you have recently read together as a source of inspiration or create something new.

Some ideas for writing creatively include:

  • Create a short story in cartoon form.
  • Cut out pictures of people from magazines and create speech bubbles and dialogue.
  • Create your own superhero and have them go on a short adventure.
  • Use artworks found on the web, such as paintings and photographs, as inspiration for a story.
  • Write a story or create a cartoon together by taking turns at writing sentences or cartoon cells.
  • A simple story structure involves a character who has a goal (for example: to win the football match; to find a lost dog; to save the world), faces problems in achieving that goal but finds a solution. This structure can be the basis for a short story you write together.
  • Select stock images from a search engine, or use photos you have taken, and paste them in a slide show or Word document then add labels or sentence text.

Opportunities to write every day at home

Like reading, writing with your child should become an everyday activity at home.

Try some of these writing ideas:

  • Write a shopping list or add items to a list.
  • Keep a board to write and read family messages.
  • Give your child a pad of sticky notes to write reminders for themselves.
  • Plan and write your weekly menu together.
  • Write captions for photographs in your family photo album.
  • Write labels for your child’s artworks and creations.
  • Make words using magnetic letters and stick them on the fridge or magnetic display board
  • Make and write greeting cards, birthday cards, and thank you notes.
  • Write messages and greetings on the footpath in chalk for the neighbours to enjoy.
  • Keep a family calendar on display and write down family events.