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Am I Overthinking Early Literacy?

Updated: Sep 13, 2022

Am I Overthinking Early Literacy?


Parents of young children are bombarded with content about creating the perfect environment for encouraging literacy. You may have been coming into parenthood with your own ideas about how you’ll create this environment. While you weigh different offerings and create your own plan for your family, I hope the principles I share will be informative and even a bit relaxing. In short, read books, tell your kids the things you want them to understand, and don’t quiz them.


Reading instruction starts long before you and I ever think about it. The words we use with our infants create the vocabulary that helps reading make sense. What adults don’t often understand is that while there is not a “right” way to teach a child to read, there are some habits we have that can frustrate the process, especially asking infants and toddlers to name the things they see or words on a page. Becoming aware of these habits and replacing them with new ones will help you create a trusting and inviting reading experience for your family. These new habits may help you assess the claims of different early literacy programs, making just about any program more effective.


First, understand that you may be your child’s first literacy teacher, but you are far from their only literacy teacher. Most people who interact with your child, including other children, end up passing down knowledge about reading. Second, reading is everywhere. You see it in roadsigns, social media, clothing, toys, video games, instructions and warnings, and of course, books. Children would have to be suffering from extreme neglect and isolation to not be able to see that reading is a big part of life. That’s not to say that reading is natural; however, reading develops in a rich environment with the presence of many factors. In other words, you’re not alone. Our culture is built around literacy, and your family’s whole community is there supporting your effort.


Assess – Plan – Teach Teaching doesn’t need to be complicated. In fact, you’re teaching a lot without even realizing it! You can think of teaching as a continuous cycle of three very basic phases: Assess, plan, and teach. In other words, you’re constantly mentally answering three questions: 1. What does my child know, or where is their curiosity taking them? 2. What do I want to teach them, and what resources do I need? 3. How should I give them new information?


Assess Skilled and experienced teachers know what students know without testing them. It’s because they have watched them work and interact. Teachers give out formal assessments for a grade, but they know a lot about the students already. Your observations are your primary assessment tool for understanding what your child knows. Your child is on your side too. She can’t wait to tell you what she knows the very moment she thinks of it!


Plan You may notice that your young child is drawn to certain toys or themes. You can gather resources and plan experiences that encourage them to follow their curiosity. This planning isn’t about creating elaborate lessons. But, you can decide some of the things you’ll do together based on what they like. It doesn’t have to be just books. Remember, the language you use is also helping to support their literacy development.


Teach It may not feel like it, but telling your children things is teaching too. You don’t have to, and probably shouldn’t go through “lessons.” In those early years, it’s enough to narrate the world around you and them. Toward the end of the toddler years, your child will likely start asking a ton of questions, and so you’ll have all kinds of opportunities to tell them what you know. The teaching phase is where you’ll likely do most of the reading. One thing I really like about teaching my kids is that it gives them a language with which to communicate. Here are some of the things I do:

  1. Point out words I like

  2. Point out facial expressions I think are interesting

  3. Add noises to stories

  4. Challenge the perspective of the author, (e.g. “I’m not sure if that’s true”)

  5. Retell the story

  6. Tell them why I like a story or book

You can probably think of a lot more things to do. It shouldn’t matter what curriculum you use or whether you use a curriculum at all. If you’re aware of some of what your child knows, you’re planning experiences based on their knowledge, and you’re sharing new knowledge and information with them, you are definitely supporting their literacy. There is no “right” way to develop literacy, even though much of marketing would like you to believe differently.


In the end, encouraging literacy isn’t some shift you make. Because reading is a big part of life, much of what you want to teach your child will happen without you actually needing to teach it. When adults try to make the process happen on their own timeline, that’s when they often face the most pushback from their child. And pushback is the enemy of developing literacy.

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