Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

5 Science-Based Tips for Promoting Literacy in Preschool

The science of reading can make you a better homeschool or preschool teacher.

No matter if you are sequestered at home struggling to homeschool your preschooler or if you are a veteran preschool teacher, here are five science-based tips for promoting the preschooler's reading brain development.

1. Science says to build your child's oral language.

Building a large preschool vocabulary is an important early step on the pathway to literacy—even before the child begins reading words. While no child is born with brain circuitry for reading (reading has to be taught), all children are born with circuitry for learning to speak naturally. As children develop the reading circuitry and learn to read and comprehend (typically by the end of first grade in English), the developing neural networks of reading circuitry must connect to the child's already existing neural networks for spoken language. This process enables the child to use neurological representations of spelling to automatically connect to the child's already existing oral language knowledge of the sound and meaning of each word that is read (Ehri, 2014; Gentry & Ouellette, 2019).

According to science at two or three years and beyond, preschoolers have a surge in word learning—as many as 200 a month. Parents and caregivers greatly enhance word learning by reading aloud to preschoolers. Read aloud and engage in fun activities to build language as a daily routine. Preschool skills learned during reading aloud include social and emotional bonding, all language skills, vocabulary, speech sounds, visual and hearing development, and intelligence (Gentry, 2010).

A delightful activity, such as teaching a preschooler to sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" with actions, is full of oral language-building opportunities.

Start by teaching the song and the actions:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star, (Twinkle fingers.)

What a wonderful child you are! (Point to the child with both pointer fingers.)

With big round eyes and rosy cheeks, (Point to own eyes and cheeks.)

Won-der-ful from head to feet. (Touch head and feet.)

Twinkle, twinkle, little star, (Twinkle fingers.)

What a wonderful child you are! (Point to the child with both pointer fingers.)

Words learned may include twinkle, star, body parts such as eyes, cheeks, head, feet, and experience with sound features, such as hearing rhyming words and alliteration, as in hearing the same beginning sound occurring in round and rosy.

After memorizing the song with the oral language learning and vocabulary meaning established, display the print version of the "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" song on a chart.

Now sing the song with the child and point to the words as they are sung, making the voice to print match. Important pre-reading learning is happening, such as the concept of what a word is, that print goes from left to right, that words are made of letters with small spaces between letters and larger spaces between words, and the like.

2. Science says to use the "Own Name Effect."

Science has shown that teaching preschoolers to read and write their own first name is a research-based learning activity for promoting literacy (Hoorens & Todorova, 1988; Treiman & Broderick, 1998; Treiman, Levin, & Kessler, 2007). Children have a proclivity for learning to read and write their own names. They also enjoy learning high-frequency words, such as Mom and Dad, which offer the advantage of having a clear sound-to-letter match (three sounds for three letters).

Children with pencil and paper drawing and scribbling experience can learn to write their names around 3 years of age. It's a huge confidence builder correlated to many later literacy accomplishments. Use the preschooler's first name to teach the following:

  • Concept of a word
  • Left-to-right orientation
  • Recognizing letters
  • Names of letters
  • Beginning sounds
  • Sounds of letters

3. Science says to teach the alphabet early.

All readers and writers of English have to learn the alphabet in order to learn to read and write (Ehri, 2014; Gentry & Ouellette, 2019). There are a number of alphabetic learning effects based on science. For example, it's easier for preschoolers to learn letters that sound like the letter name (the sound /b/ and the letter name for b as opposed to the sound /h/ and the letter name for h) or that the beginning or end of the alphabet are generally learned more quickly and easily than middle-of-the-alphabet letters (McBride-Chang, 1999). Use the following for wordplay and word study focusing on the alphabet:

  • Alphabet songs
  • Alphabet books
  • Picture charts with kids' or family members' names in alphabetical order
  • Fun ways to use beginning sounds or letters (e.g., "How many things in this room begin with the same sound as your name?")

4. Science says to engage preschoolers with the sounds in words.

The ability to manipulate the sounds in words is known as phonological awareness, which is proven by science to be important for building the reading brain. Phonological awareness activities appropriate for preschool include the following wordplay and word study activities:

  • Engaging with rhyming words—rat, cat, fat, sat, hat, pat, and the like
  • Hearing alliteration—The big brown bear; chin, cheek, cheeseburger
  • Segmenting words into syllables. (An easy way to help preschoolers become aware of syllables is to have them use the chin drop procedure; the child makes a fist and puts it under the chin to feel the chin drop for each syllable in a word. Use picture cards to say the names of words with a different number of syllables, such as rat [1], giraffe [2], elephant [3], hippopotamus [5].)
  • Identifying first sounds in words
  • (More advanced…) Manipulating sounds such as: "Say rat without the beginning /r/ sound."

5. Science says to start early.

Many pre-reading skills are easier to learn in the preschool years. For example, a study on the "Consonant Phoneme Acquisition Order" effect demonstrated that young children learn the letter names and sounds of consonants easier when they are mastered earlier in the children's oral language development (Justice et al. 2006).

So whether you are a parent, grandparent, or caregiver working at home with a child or a preschool teacher, use these science-based strategies to put preschoolers on the pathway to literacy.


For more: How the young child’s brain learns to read is discussed at length in Brain Words: How the Science of Reading Informs Teaching (Gentry & Ouellette, 2019). Practical teaching activities such as the ones above are found in Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write—from Baby to Age 7 (Gentry, 2010).

Linnea C. Ehri (2014) Orthographic Mapping in the Acquisition of Sight Word Reading, Spelling Memory, and Vocabulary Learning, Scientific Studies of Reading, 18:1, 5-21, DOI: 10.1080/10888438.2013.819356

Gentry, J. R. (2010). Raising confident readers: How to teach you child to reading and write from baby to age 7. Boston, MA: Da Capo Press.

Gentry, J. R. & Ouellette, G. P. (2019) Brain words: How the science of reading informs teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.

Hoorens, V., & Todorova , E. (1988). The name letter effect: Attachment to self or primacy of own name writing? European Journal of Social Psychology, 18 (4), 365 – 368.

Justice, L.M., Pence, K., Bowles, R.B., & Wiggins, A. (2006). An investigation of four hypotheses concerning the order by which 4- year- old children learn the alphabet letters . Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 21 (3), 374 – 389.

McBride-Chang, C. (1999). The ABCs of the ABCs: The development of letter- name and letter- sound knowledge. Merrill- Palmer Quarterly, 45 (2), 285 – 308.

Treiman, R., & Broderick , V. (1998). What’s in a name: Children’s knowledge about the letters in their own names. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 70 (2), 97 – 116.

Treiman, R., Levin, I. , & Kessler, B. (2007). Learning of letter names follows similar principles across languages: Evidence from Hebrew. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 96 (2), 87– 106.