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Early Childhood Education

Play-Based Activities That Build Reading Readiness

Preschool teachers can use these activities to promote six early reading skills even as the kids enjoy themselves.

January 26, 2021
Preschooler plays with letter shapes
cheangchai4575 / iStock

Preschool students work hard at playing. They incorporate what they see in everyday life into their play, and they incorporate the skills and knowledge gained during play into their everyday lives.

This is certainly true when it comes to reading readiness. Even though some students look as though they go through a magical and seamless transition from non-reader to reader, research shows that it’s not that simple.

Students start getting ready to read years before they do it, using a set of six critical reading readiness skills. This skill set, also known as pre-reading or early reading, is often built through play, and teachers can use the following play-based activities to build each of the skills.

1. Vocabulary

What it is: The words students know and use to make sense of the world around them, including receptive and expressive vocabulary In the preschool years, vocabulary tends to grow from about 200 words to closer to 2,000 words.

How it supports reading: Students use oral vocabulary to contextualize the words they see in print. It’s easier to decode a word that is already recognizable and holds meaning.

Activity—What am I?/What am I describing? Teachers can link this activity to a current unit of study, or pretend they’re preparing for an activity, like making breakfast. It can also be limited to what’s in the room.

Think of an item and describe it, using as much detail as possible. Each detail adds additional vocabulary for students to learn. For example, in describing an egg, you might say, “We eat it. It needs to be refrigerated. It usually comes as one of a dozen. It could be white or brown and fits in the palm of my hand.” Once a student guesses correctly, it’s their turn to describe something.

2. Print Motivation

What it is: Students’ active interest in and enjoyment of books and being read to.

How it supports reading: Students with high print motivation look through books on their own and may even recite memorized books, looking closely at the words to match them to the words they’re speaking. They’re less likely to give up trying to learn to read, even if it’s difficult for them.

Activity—Retell, or Your Favorite Book: Pick five to 10 books you’ve read together as a class and display them. Ask for a volunteer to retell one of the stories—they should not say out loud which book they have picked. Remind the volunteer to use details and to include the beginning, middle, and ending of the story, and set a timer for five minutes. During the retelling, other students can ask questions about the plot, characters, and setting to get more information. When the timer goes off, whichever student can guess the correct book takes the next turn.

3. Print Awareness

What it is: Understanding that print has meaning and is organized in a certain way, such as that letters form words, that words form sentences, and that the spaces in between matter.

How it supports reading: Students learn that books start at the front cover, that English print is read from left to right and top to bottom, and that the words they point to match the words being said. Students with strong print awareness skills tend to practice the act of reading books even before they can read.

Activity—My “I Can Read…” Environmental Print Book: Students recognize environmental print—the words found all around them, such as the logo of a favorite cereal, restaurant, or toy brand, or the exit sign in the classroom—long before they can read the words. Environmental print books create an artifact of all the words students recognize through everyday life.

Provide each student with a notebook. Write an A on the first page and continue the rest of the alphabet on additional pages. Throughout the year, give students food labels, flyers, and other print materials. Words they’re able to recognize and “read” for each letter can be glued to the correct page all year long.

For a digital version, create a Google Slide deck for each student, with one slide for each letter of the alphabet. With your help, or the support of a caregiver at home, they can add photos or digital logos to each slide.

4. Narrative Skills

What they are: Being able to understand and tell stories in a sequenced manner.

How they support reading: Narrative skills help students understand meaning and sequence in stories, which ladders up to reading comprehension skills as they begin reading.

Activity—What’s My Story? You may already have sequencing cards in your classroom. If you don’t, print some to have on hand. Put a set of cards in an envelope and provide one to each student, and ask them to put the cards in a line and tell you the story in their own words. Students may not put the pictures in an order you expect, but if they can tell you a coherent story for the sequenced pictures, there’s no need to correct the order.

5. Letter Knowledge

What it is: Recognizing and understanding that letters are different from each other and that they have names, and that certain sounds are associated with each letter.

How it supports reading: Letter knowledge provides students with a symbol imagery schema, which, when combined with phonological awareness skills, helps them decode words more easily.

Activity—Hanging Up the Letter Laundry: This activity requires a little setup but can be played independently. Use a permanent marker to put one letter of the alphabet on each of 26 clothespins. Then find pictures—magazine images, photos, or clipart—of common, recognizable items to glue to index cards; find at least one for each letter. Turn each index card over and write the name of the object on the back.

Put the index cards and clothespins in a bin or ziplock bag. Students can then “hang up the laundry” by taking a card, naming the picture, and clipping the card to the clothespin whose letter matches the sound their word begins with. Once all the laundry is “drying,” students can check their work by turning the cards over to see if the first letter in the name of the object matches the letter on the clothespin.

6. Phonological Awareness

What it is: The ability to hear and work with the sounds in spoken words.

How it supports reading: The ability to hear rhymes, alliteration, and word family chunks (such as -at, -it, or -up) helps students move from noticing to doing. Once they can play with oral language, they combine this with letter knowledge to build a comparable skill in reading: phonemic awareness.

Activity—Sounding off to the beat: This is a chant-clap-knee tap game during which your students need to sit in a circle, in chairs or on the floor in criss-cross applesauce position. Start a rhythm that your students can follow. It’s best to start with something slow, like clap-tap, clap-tap, clap-tap, clap-tap.

Once the students can keep the rhythm going, decide if you want them to manipulate the beginning sound of a word or come up with a rhyming word. Here’s how a round might go if you choose rhyming words:

(clap-tap, clap-tap, clap-tap, clap-tap)
Teacher: “Let’s start with a rhyme. It’s time, let’s rhyme!”

(clap-tap, clap-tap, clap-tap, clap-tap)
Teacher: “Jog”

(clap-tap, clap-tap, clap-tap, clap-tap)
First student: “Dog”

(clap-tap, clap-tap, clap-tap, clap-tap)
Second student: “Clog!”

(clap-tap, clap-tap, clap-tap, clap-tap)
Third student: “Frog!”

A round ends when nobody can produce another rhyming word.

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