PLAYING for Early Literacy

Early literacy is what children know about reading and writing before they actually learn to read and write. Literacy is like growing; it happens slowly over time.

Here is some good news: you do not need to be a drill master to help your children get ready to read – you can play with them!  Playing is how children learn about many things, including language. Pretending helps children think symbolically and develop narrative skills.

Some books are so much fun that reading them counts as play time.  A good example is From Head to Toe by Eric Carle. A variety of animals repeat a pattern, each changing the motion required: “I am a penguin and I turn my head.  Can you do it?” The child answers, “I can do it!” Young listeners won’t be able to resist joining in.

Another title that invites participation is Jump, Frog, Jump!  by Robert Kalan.  This long-time favorite features an intrepid amphibian who escapes from a series of threatening predators when readers repeat the titular refrain, the louder the better.

Stories are even more fun when you encourage dramatic play with puppets or stuffed animals.  Try acting out well-known stories like the Little Red Hen or the Three Billy Goats Gruff.  Make your home a learning zone by having inexpensive props at hand, such as empty food containers and sock puppets.

The Gunniwolf by Wilhelmina Harper is always dramatic to act out.  (This was the first story I learned to read at a library storytime, in 1976 – I’m dating myself!)  A little girl gathering flowers goes too deep into the jungle and must sing the Gunniwolf to sleep in order to escape from him.  There’s a striking difference between the girl’s little footsteps (pit-pat, pit-pat) and the Gunniwolf’s hot pursuit (hunker-cha, hunker-cha, hunker-cha).

Encourage your children to imagine their own stories. Sometimes they can work their way through a fear or problem.

For more books that encourage movement and invite participation, try the “Getting Ready to Read at OC Public Libraries” Booklists (link above).

This is the fifth in a series of Book Talk articles about books that help parents get their children ready to read by engaging in interactive everyday activities. These recommendations are based on “Every Child Ready to Read®@Your Library®,” which is a program of the Association for Library Service to Children and the Public Library Association, divisions of the American Library Association. For more information about early literacy, go to

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