With your vacuum in hand, dinner on the stove, and mounds of laundry awaiting your attention, you probably are wondering how you would even have time to think about how to develop literacy skills with your toddler. Literacy skills don’t have to be hard and they don’t have to be time consuming. Keep reading to find out:

  • What Early Literacy Skills are
  • How to know if your toddler is ready
  • Important skills to work on with your toddler
  • Quick literacy ideas to try today
develop literacy skills in toddlers: toddler boy playing with wooden alphabet blocks.

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What are Early Literacy Skills?

There are 6 early literacy skills that need to be developed with your emerging reader. These skills work together to provide a well-balanced approach to learning to read.

Print Motivation

Print Motivation is your child’s motivation and interest in reading. When your child shows interest in a book, working with letters, or even print they may find in the car, encourage them to nurture that desire to read.

Without forcing them, try to create more moments around reading that are warm and engaging. Forcing your child to read when they don’t want to can cause frustration and negative feelings about books.

Print Awareness

Print Awareness is the understanding that print conveys meaning and is organized in a certain way. You want your child to understand that the letters on the page form words that they use when they speak. Modeling this by drawing your child’s attention to the words as well as the pictures when you read can help them begin to understand this concept.

When you are reading, you are also modeling how to hold a book, that you read from left-to-right and top-to-bottom, and that the words and marks on the page tell you how to sound when you read.

Baby boy sitting next to a stack of books. He is holding a book in his lap and developing literacy skills.

Narrative Skills

The texts that we read have a structure and a purpose. In early literacy, your child should understand that a story has a sequence of events in which it is told. They should understand that there is a beginning, middle, and end and that they can talk about the book in a logical way by sharing this sequence.

Wordless books, like this one, are perfect for practicing narrative skills. Have your child “read” the book by pointing to the pictures and describing what they see on the pages.


Vocabulary is an important skill that affects your child’s ability to comprehend text. Your child’s language skills and the amount of words they know directly affect how well they will read. It is easier for your child to read words that they already know because they have already attached meaning to the words.

Reading a variety of books is a great way to build vocabulary. You are exposing your child to a wide array of words that they may not normally hear in everyday conversation. And when you read and can provide meaningful context to those new words, the more likely they will stick and transfer to long-term memory.

Letter Knowledge

Boy stacking blocks with letters on them to develop literacy skills.

Learning letters and sounds is known as letter knowledge. This is one of the most common things we think about when teaching our children to read. The key to this skill is to make learning engaging.

I always find that working with letters is an opportunity to incorporate sensory activities. Practice letters in shaving cream, hair gel in a ziploc bag, and outside in the sand/dirt. Magnetic letters are always my go-to tool for letter learning because they can be utilized in so many ways.

Phonological Awareness

Phonological Awareness is the understanding that there are words make up sentences and sounds make up words. This lays the groundwork for being able to sound out words and decode the words in a book.

Read more about the importance of phonological awareness: The Most Important Literacy Skill Your Child Needs to Start Reading.

Playing sound games, such as rhyming games, will help your little one start hearing that sounds can be similar to one another. This will eventually help them with sounding out words as they are reading.

Your Foolproof Foundation to Toddler Reading Success…Even When You Don’t Have Time!

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    How to Know if Your Toddler is Ready to Develop Literacy Skills

    Taking your child’s lead in developing literacy skills is such an important thing to remember. Forcing your child to work with literacy before they are ready or are motivated can cause frustration and actually counteract the hard work you are doing to instill a love of reading. To know if your child is ready to develop literacy skills, take note of the following characteristics.

    • Does your child play with books, enjoy reading books with you, and/or pretend to read?
    • Does your child show an interest in letters and/or print in the environment around them? (Print could be books, papers, brand labels, their name, etc.)
    • Is your child able to tell you about things that have happened using simple sentences?

    While these are important signs that your child is ready, they don’t need to have all of these in order for you to start working with them. The main point is that they are interested and motivated to try.

    Important Skills to Work on with Your Toddler

    When thinking about how to develop literacy skills for your toddler, remember how each of the areas of early literacy are closely tied together.

    Toddler girl reading a category book and developing literacy skills.

    Vocabulary, Print Motivation, and Print Awareness

    By reading a variety of books, you are expanding your child’s vocabulary and allowing them to have an advantage when they start to read. Remember, the more words they have in their vocabulary, the easier it will be for them to decode and understand the words in the book they are reading. This is because they are more easily able to decode words that they have already attached meaning to.

    This post from Speech Blubs clearly shares the different vocabulary milestones and what you can do to support your child’s language development. Don’t forget that all children learn differently and at different paces.

    Reading with you and allowing your child to be an active part of your reading time creates a cherished bonding experience, allowing your child to attach positive emotions around the act of reading. This can increase their print motivation and create a lifelong love of literacy.

    When you are reading, you are innately modeling all of the things that readers do without thinking. For example, holding a book properly, reading from left-to-right, noticing print and pictures.

    Now that you are aware that these skills actually need to be learned by your little one, take note of how you can point them out to your child as you are reading. Maybe you have them turn the pages or you take their finger to point to the words as you read. By doing this, you are showing them what a reader naturally does with books.

    Narrative Skills

    As your toddler is just beginning to get more of a grasp on language by speaking in phrases and simple sentences, now is the time that you can truly begin to expand on their narrative skills. The best part is that you can do this anywhere at any time.

    When your child speaks a simple phrase or sentence, take the opportunity to expand that sentence. Here’s an example: Your child says, “cup” or “Give me cup.” You can respond by saying, “Would you like the green cup? Here it is! Are you going to drink from the green cup? I bet it tastes so delicious!”

    Notice how much more language you can use as opposed to just saying, “Sure” or “Here it is.” Always take the opportunity to expand and converse.

    Letter Knowledge

    At the toddler stage, it is not necessarily developmentally appropriate for your child to be memorizing letters and sounds. If they are, all the more power to them. What counts at this age is that you are exposing them to letters and introducing them to the letters in their name.

    Give them plenty of opportunities to notice that letters come in different shapes and sizes and that each of these symbols has their very own name.

    Phonological Awareness

    The focus of phonological awareness as a toddler is exposure to plenty of rhymes and being aware of the number of words in a sentence. Aside from actually counting words, you could have your child put up objects for each word in a sentence, clap for each word, or even jump around for each word.

    Quick Ways to Boost Literacy Skills with Your Toddler

    These quick activities require little effort on your part, but provide valuable and meaningful opportunities to develop literacy skills for your child.

    Toddler boy playing with a pop-up book.

    Stating the Obvious: Read. Every. Day.

    I am sure you have heard this over and over and I hate to be a broken record, but I just can’t talk about how to develop early literacy skills without talking about establishing a reading routine. This means reading every single day, not just when you have time for it.

    I know life is hectic and gets in the way, but one of the easiest ways to incorporate this into your day is to add it to your bedtime or morning routine. These sleepy, cuddly times are perfect for snuggling up with a book. Take advantage of your toddler’s dip in energy at these times to read a quick book. It doesn’t matter if it is one that is read over and over again or it is a shorter book. The important thing is that you are reading!

    Get some tips on how to read to your toddler.

    Talk, Talk, Talk

    As your toddler is starting to explore with their words, now is the perfect time for you to keep them conversing. What is great about this practical tip is that it can be done anytime and anywhere. The more you chat with your little one, the more you are expanding their vocabulary and giving them a head start to reading success. Keep them talking, label their environment, and share your days with each other.

    Car Rides are no longer for just getting from Point A to Point B

    Take advantage of any downtime in the car. This is a great time to expand on conversations, sing rhyming songs or chants (which develops that phonological awareness), or even have your child point out letters or signs that they notice along the way. This is the perfect opportunity to practice these skills when it seems like there aren’t enough hours in the day.

    Tell me a Story…

    There are so many ways you can get your child talking, but one way that improves vocabulary and narrative skills simultaneously is to have your child tell you stories. There are a couple of ways you can do this…and don’t forget to encourage the use of sequence words such as first, then, next, and last:

    • Have your child tell you about their day or a familiar routine
    • Have your child make up a story or tell you a familiar story that they have read over and over
    • Use wordless books, like this one, to encourage your child to tell stories from the pictures

    Book/Letter Play

    To encourage motivation, allow your child to use books and magnetic letters to explore during free/independent play. Maybe they like to put or stack books on shelves (or more likely take them off shelves…) or maybe they can sort them into hard and soft books or by color. Same thing with letters.

    Let them explore books in their own way and avoid the urge to make them play the way you want them to. This actually will help them to be more ready when it is time to actually sit down and read.

    What’s Next for Your Toddler?

    After gaining an understanding for what your toddler needs to kickstart and develop early literacy skills, you now know how important it is to address all areas when playing and learning. When your toddler seems to have an interest in books and letters and is speaking in simple sentences, keep growing their abilities through exploration. Learning letters will be the next big leap so the more exposure to letters the better. Magnetic letters and these letters are the perfect way to up that exposure in an engaging, playful way.

    What quick activities have you tried to boost your toddler’s literacy skills? Share below!