The process of unlocking the written word

You might not know it, but learning to read is a process that starts well before your child even picks up a book. As you talk to your kids (even if they can't 'talk' back) you're giving them a language-rich environment that helps them make meaning out of sounds and then words.

It's never too early to read

"Teach your kids early the love of reading and in this way you will nourish their imaginations. This is the greatest gift, after love, that a parent can bestow upon a growing mind." Australian author Bryce Courtenay said these words, to sum up the gift we give a child when we help them read in their early years.

From a development point of view, literacy is about making sense of the world by using words, pictures, sounds and experiences with people and things. Your child will need to use their skills of reading and writing, and an understanding of context and critical awareness. Babies are already becoming literate when they use gesture and tone of voice to interpret speech, and can tell you what they need through body language and eye contact.

The connection of literacy and communication.

Communicating is sharing our thoughts, ideas, needs and feelings through talking, facial expression, and body language or artistic and creative methods. The skills of literacy and communicating are actually related and develop together.

In order to read, children need to understand the spoken language. Learning to read depends on many factors, especially the early experiences a child has before going to school. Have they been spoken to, listened to, read to? If your child has the ability to understand and use more words at school age, their reading skills are far more likely to excel.

Find the road to reading that is best for you

You might hear reports that some children are failing to learn to read and write. The education system and teachers are a key factor in literacy creation, but the important role of parents helping out at home is often overlooked.

From research into the reading process, it seems that the important elements of reading are oral language, vocabulary, phonemic awareness (awareness that spoken words can be broken into individual sounds or phonemes), phonics (a coding system of letter-sound knowledge that enables children to work out the pronunciation of words using letters and letter combinations), comprehension and fluency. These also include concepts of print, sight words, alphabet knowledge, writing and handwriting. For a child to be a successful reader – they really need to be able to grasp all of these things.

Research also tells us that there's no "right" way to teach reading. Many different ways of teaching reading can be blended successfully to teach children to read.

What can I expect for my child?

It's important to remember that every child develops at their own rate

From 0 to 3 years, you can expect your child to:

  • Make sounds copying adults talking.
  • Respond to facial expressions and gestures.
  • Understand frequently used words.
  • Play simple games e.g. "Peekaboo".
  • Handle books and blocks.
  • Recognise a book by its cover.
  • Pretend to read books.
  • Recognise pictures of objects and name them.
  • Listen to stories and recognise a few repeated words.
  • Make marks and scribbles that look a bit like letters or pictures.

By 5, you can expect your child to:

  • Recognise some letters of the alphabet.
  • Know some of the sounds that letters make.
  • Write their name and some other letters.
  • Re-tell a story they have heard.
  • Repeat simple sentences.
  • Know and recite some popular rhymes or songs.
  • Have a sustained conversation with an adult.
  • Hold a pencil correctly.
  • Know the concepts of print.

Signs to look out for

While every child does develop at their own pace, it's still best to be aware of the warning signs that your child's language isn't developing normally. If by 5 years you notice:

  • Delayed speech. Trouble pronouncing words. Persistent "baby talk".
  • Trouble learning nursery rhymes.
  • Trouble with hearing different sounds in words.
  • Trouble naming letters.
  • Difficulty following simple instructions.
  • Confusion with letters and numbers that look similar.

Then it's time to get your child's eyesight, hearing and speech checked if you feel there's a delay in their language development. There's expert help out there if problems persist.

How can you help your child read?

"Confident readers are not born, but they can be made – naturally, lovingly and joyfully – by a child's first reading teacher: You." (Educationist and author, Richard Gentry)

Literacy learning starts from birth. Parents and family can be the first and most dedicated teachers a child will have. From birth, families are communicating with their child by nurturing, cuddling, talking, singing, making noises and making eye contact. As a child grows, families and educators can help with literacy development by talking, listening, playing, reading aloud, and by providing a wide range of experiences for a child.

All these activities encourage closeness and bonding, especially the happiness that comes with reading books together aloud and interactive conversations.

Here's what we suggest when reading with your child.

  • Follow your child's lead.
  • Find out what your child is most excited about, e.g. dinosaurs, and find ways to read and talk about this topic of interest.
  • Create fun things to do with your child.
  • Give your child many different experiences.
  • Talk about everything.
  • Ask questions.
  • Tell stories.
  • Be a good role model. Let them see you reading. This seems to be especially important for boys and their dads.
  • Ask if you can join in your child's play. Have fun!

As a parent, you're their first teacher.

You can shape your child's future success as a reader and writer through language, one of the greatest gifts you can give them. Hearing the sound of language is the only way your child will learn to talk.

Take every opportunity to talk, listen and interact verbally with your child. Reading to your child is the single most important activity you can do to promote later independent reading success. According to educator and author Jim Trelease, whenever an adult reads to a child, three important things are happening:

  • A pleasure connection is being made between the adult, the child and the book.
  • Adult and child are both learning something from the book they are sharing.
  • The adult is pouring sounds and syllables into the child's ear.

Children love listening to and making lots of different sounds. Later these sounds will be associated with letters and will help your child learn to read.

Children will come to understand that writing is 'talking written down'. Writing and reading support each other. Give your child opportunities to make marks on paper, scribble, draw and paint. Talk about things you have done, and write down what your child says. When your child starts to write letters of the alphabet there are many fun ways you can encourage them to form them correctly, for example writing letters in the sand, on the palm of their hand so they can 'feel' the letters, in gloop on a table, on concrete with chalk. Letters are written so they will flow from one to another, making writing easier.

Summing it up

  • The journey to becoming a reader starts early, well before children have even learned to talk.
  • Children who have been talked to, read to and listened to from birth are more likely to become successful readers. The number of words a child has in their vocabulary when they start school can determine their eventual success in reading.
  • Helping your child master the spoken word is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child in their journey to reading and writing. Take every opportunity to talk, listen and interact verbally with your child. Hearing the sound of language is the only way your child will learn to talk.
  • Reading to your child is the single most important activity you can do to promote later independent reading success.
  • There are many things you can do to help your child on their way to reading (see strategies). Enjoy these activities with your child, but never force them to participate. Remember, learning is most effective when it's fun.

How you can help

  1. Give your baby lots of attention, approval and affection in response to the sounds they make. Hug or pat them, make silly noises, sing, shake rattles and listen to musical mobiles. Sing songs and play clapping and bouncy coordination games every day. e.g. 'This is the way the ladies ride' or 'Here we go round the mulberry bush'.
  2. Find every opportunity to talk to your baby. Speak slowly and clearly in a loving tone, using simple words, as if they understand everything you say. Talk to your baby using words you would like them to learn.
  3. Encourage your child to talk, and listen to their answer. If your child mispronounces a word, rather than correcting them, use the word correctly in your answer.
  4. Play with your children. Get excited about it. Ask what is happening. Listen. Have fun together. Laugh a lot!
  5. Read to your child from birth. The best way to get your child to fall in love with books is to read stories aloud to them. Love the book before you read it to your child.
  6. Start with board and cloth books that are interactive, with wheels to spin, things to touch and flaps to lift. Choose books with big colourful pictures of animals and other exciting things that jump out of the pages.
  7. Include different kinds of books when you read aloud to your child: Stories, ABC books, rhyming, repetitive, poems, nursery rhymes, and books about real things. Include books that have strong connections between the illustrations & pictures, as well as rhythm, rhyme, alliteration and onomatopoeia – like Dr. Suess's Green Eggs and Ham, and The Cat in the Hat
  8. Be excited about the story you are reading. Use lots of expression, laugh or cry with the characters. You can even dress up and become an actor while you read to your child!
  9. Interact with the story while you are reading. Point to the pictures and ask: What? Where? Who? Why? Become involved with the story. Be excited about what's happening – and relate the story to your child's experience.
  10. Encourage your child to 'read' a favourite book by themselves. This doesn't mean reading in the true sense of the word, but they can look at the pictures and make up their own version of the story. This reading will be a combination of what they've memorised and their made-up version.
  11. Try running your finger along under the words while you read. As your child gets closer to starting school they can help you do this.
  12. Never use story time as a threat or punishment. The benefits are too important.
  13. Have a dress up box full of colourful clothes, shoes and handbags. Turn stories into plays with real characters performing. Large pieces of material or old sheets in the dress up box can be sails, tents or maybe a bride's train. Add puppets, soft toys or real objects as props
  14. Explore different sounds by listening to and identifying: animals, motor vehicles, loud and quiet, high and low sounds. Have fun making these sounds. Dance and clap to music, and make music together with pots and wooden spoons, or musical instruments.
  15. Play with words! Make up games with rhyming words, and make up silly words that rhyme.
  16. Change the last letter of a word e.g. cat/can. Find words that begin or end the same. What sounds can you hear in d-o-g or b-a-t? Everyday learning is good too - make shopping lists together, read maps and instructions etc.
  17. Use a poster. Why not try putting a colourful alphabet poster on the wall above your child's cot? You can talk to them about the pictures and letters as a fun part of your 'going to bed' routine.
  18. Look for letters in everyday Stop, Go, Cold, Hot, Open, Closed, Fish and Chips
  19. Let your child play with lower-case magnetic letters on the fridge. If they put a letter up the right way be excited about it and explain why. Ask your child to find magnetic letters on the fridge that are the same colour or shape, or tall and short letters. Show them how to make their name. Introduce upper case letters when your child knows most of the lower case letters.
  20. Get creative. Provide an activity table or area with large crayons, large pencils, large pieces of paper, scissors, magazines, play dough, paint or fingerpaint, where your child can cut out, model, draw or paint. An old plastic tablecloth works well underneath.
  21. Get scribbling. Using paint or fingerpaint make repeated patterns on large pieces of paper-wavy lines, zigzag lines, spirals etc. Invent your own patterns. Scribbling is a fun activity. Find animals and other objects in scribble patterns.
  22. Make an alphabetical book of feely letters one to a page. Cut out large letters using a different feely fabric for each. Draw or find a picture for each letter. Introduce letters one at a time. Using the feely letter book help your child to trace each letter correctly while saying the letter name.
  23. Play an easy version of "I Spy". "I spy with my little eye something beginning with B." (letter name). Point to the object you have chosen and say, "b-b-b" (letter sound).
  24. Help to build your child's vocabulary. For example, after a trip to the zoo your child may be interested in penguins. Follow this up by going to the library to find books about penguins (fiction and non–fiction). Search the net for information or find a video.
  25. Write a story or picture book together. Put a big picture and one sentence on each page. Let your child dictate, and you write it down. Make up a quiz and test each other. Let your imagination run wild and have fun!
  26. Draw, and write letters with chalk on the driveway. At the beach, write words in the sand. Write letters on their back or on the palm of their hand.
  27. Go on a writer's walk together. Investigate everything. At the park find birds, coloured leaves, animals, plants, bugs - all sorts of things. Talk about what you saw on the writer's walk. Write down one of the things your child tells you. Write your own sentence too. Illustrate your stories.
  28. Get the family involved. During the evening meal ask each family member to talk about the best part of his or her day or they can tell a story instead.
  29. When your child is 5-6, listen positively to their reading. Ask your child's teacher how to do this if you don't feel confident. Discuss the pictures and what might happen next, ask them to think of alternative endings and to compare plots and the feelings of characters with their own experiences. After listening to your child read, talk about exciting new words. Ask which part of the story they liked best. Be excited about the story!
  30. Be a good role model Let them see you reading. This seems to be especially important for boys and their dads.


Some books to enjoy with your child are:

0-3 years

Are you my mother? P.D. Eastman

Baby touch & feel: Bedtime. Dorling Kindersley

Baby's world cot book, Terry Fitzgibbon

Bears in the night, Stan and Jan Berenstain

Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? Bill Martin Jnr.

Buster's day, Rod Campbell

Dear zoo, Rod Campbell

Fuzzy yellow ducklings, Matthew van Fleet

Goldilocks and the three bears, Valeri Gorbachev

Hairy Maclary & Friends: A touch & feel book, Lynley Dodd

Harold and the purple crayon, Crockett Johnson

Hide & Seek.  Lynley Dodd

It's mine, Rod Campbell

It's the bear, Jez Alborough

Kiwi play with me. Helen Taylor

Mr. Gumpy's outing, John Burmingham

My cat likes to hide in boxes, Eve Sutton

Oh dear, Rod Campbell

One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. Dr Seuss

Owl babies, Martin Waddell

Pants, Giles Andreae

Peepo. Janet and Allan Ahlberg

Pip the penguin, Leslie McGuirk

Say cheese please, Leslie McGuirk

Quick as a cricket, Audrey Wood

Rosie's Walk, Pat Hutchins

Titch, Pat Hutchins

Ten in the bed, Penny Dale  

Ten little fingers and ten little toes. Mem Fox & Helen Oxenbury

The giant jam sandwich. John Vernon Lord.

The very hungry caterpillar's touch & feel Playbook. Eric Carle

The wheels on the bus. Donovan Bixley

3-6 years

Alexander and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, Judith Viorst

A lion in the meadow. Margaret Mahy

Bears on wheels, Stan and Jan Berenstain

Best picture dictionary ever, Richard Scarry

Charlie & Lola. Lauren Child

Cinderella. J Grimm

Dinosaurs galore, Giles Andrae

Dogger, Shirley Hughes

Doctor Grundy's undies, Dawn McMillan &Ross Kinnaird

Fix it duck, Jez Alborough

Giraffes can't dance, Giles Andrae

Golden Books – There are many titles including, The Tawny

Scrawny Lion, Little red caboose, Sailor dog.

Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown

Green eggs and ham, Dr Suess

Guess how much I love you, Sam McBratney

Grandpa's slippers, Joy Watson & Wendy Hodder

Hairy Maclary from Donaldson's dairy, Lynley Dodd

Harry the dirty dog, Gene Zion

Hester's blister, Chris Gurney

Highway rat. Judith Donaldson

I will never not eat a tomato (Charlie & Lola books), Lauren Child

Just me and my dad, Mercer Mayer

Kiss, kiss, yuck, yuck. Kyle Mewburn

Manukura: the white kiwi, Joy Cowley & Bruce Potter

Mouse, look out, Judy Waite

My Daddy ate an apple. Craig Smith

Old Huhu, Kyle Mewburn

Oh, the places you'll go. Dr Seuss

Over in the clover, Jan Ormerod

Peace at last. Jill Murphy

Perky the Pukeko, Michell Osment

Pigs might fly. Brett Avison

Roadworks. Sally Sutton & Brian Lovelock

Room on the broom, Julia Donaldson

Six dinner Sid, Inga Moore

Slinky Malinki early bird. Lynley Dodd

Sniff-snuff-snap, Lynley Dodd

Summery Saturday morning. Margaret Mahy & Selina Young

The fidgety itch. Lucy Davey& Katz Cowley

The Gruffalo. Judith Donaldson

The Gruffalo's child. Judith Donaldson

The little mouse, the red ripe strawberry, and the hungry bear. Don & Audrey Wood

The Looky Book, Donovan Bixley

The Lorax. Dr Seuss

The Lighthouse keeper's lunch. Ronda & David Armitage

The Magic hat. Mem Fox

The Paper bag Princess. Robert Munsch

The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Beatrix Potter

The tiger who came to tea. Judith Kerr

The three little pigs. Gavin Bishop.

There's a hole in my bucket. Topp Twins & Jenny Cooper

The very cranky Bear. Nick Bland

Time for bed little Kiwi. Bob Darroch

We're going on a bear hunt. Michael Rosen

Where is the green sheep? Mem Fox & Judy Horacek

Where the wild things are. Maurice Sendak

Willbee the Bumblebee. Craig Smith

Wishy Washy World, Joy Cowley & Philip Webb

A great collection can also be found at the New Zealand Picture Book Collection, He Kohinga Pukapuka Pikitia o Aotearoa,

Further reading for parents

Featherstone, S. & P., (2010) 50 fantastic things to do with Pre-schoolers, A&C Black Publishers, London.

Fox, M., (2001) Reading Magic, How your child can learn to read before school – and other read-aloud miracles. Pan Macmillan, Australia.

Jennings, P. (2008) The reading bug and how to help your child catch it, Penguin Books, Australia.

Morris, B., (2011) Leading to Reading the easy way, Fun ways to get your child ready for reading. Graphic Press, Levin, NZ.

Schiller, P. & Hastings, K., (1998) the Complete Resource Book for Preschoolers, Gryphon House, Maryland.

Smoldon, E. & Howell, M., (2014) Ideas for play: Literacy. Playful ways to grow children's communication, Ako Books, Auckland, NZ.

Trelease, J., (6thed.2013) The read-aloud handbook, Penguin Books, New York.


NZ website, Kiwi Families:

Early Literacy Learning:

Get Ready to Read:

"Leading to Reading the easy way"

Zero toThree:

A parents' little guide to helping children read:

Julia Donaldson's Top Tips: