You won’t have to worry about Tommy’s mom bragging about how her two year old is reading Harry Potter anymore because inside you will learn…

  • What are the most important early literacy skills for toddlers
  • Why it is important to support your toddler’s early literacy skills
  • Ways in which you can support your child’s early literacy skills

Looking for literacy ideas geared more towards infants? Check out this post.

Toddler girl with pigtail braids laying on the floor and reading books.
toddler early literacy skills
toddler reading

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Important Early Literacy Skills

There are so many things on our minds as mamas of toddlers that it can be overwhelming to think about teaching our little ones while simultaneously chasing them around the house, tripping on toys, and cleaning crayon marks off of walls. But here is why you should…

You are your child’s first teacher and the environment you provide is your child’s first classroom. It is up to you to set the foundations for the academic road that they have ahead of them. Make it a road they are excited about taking.

Foolproof Foundation for Toddler Reading Success…Even When You Have No Time

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    I’ve broken-down the top 5 early literacy skills that you should know about to help build a strong literacy background for your little one. Take a peek below:

    1. Phonological Awareness

    This important literacy skill is the foundation of all the others. If your child doesn’t have a strong skill set in phonological awareness, learning to read will be a difficult task.

    Phonological Awareness is the ability to recognize and understand the structure of the sounds in words. So understanding syllables, words in a sentence, and the ability to rhyme all fall into this category. The trick is that it’s all done orally or with pictures. You’re never matching sounds to letters at this stage.

    Why not?

    You are ensuring that your little one is actually learning to hear a rhyme and not just matching words with pictures that have the same letters at the end of the word.

    2. Concepts of Print

    This skill encompasses the understanding that a book is read from left-to-right and the difference between a sentence, word, and letter on a page. Concepts of print also address capital letters and punctuation. There are a couple of other skills that fall under this category, but these are the ones you should definitely be aware of when reading with your toddler.

    Concepts of print are something that we, as adults, take for granted. We don’t think about them because they come naturally to us, but it takes a ton of modeling for a child to learn and understand these concepts, which is why it is important to point them out while we are reading.

    3. Print Motivation

    Boy sitting down looking at a book on the floor. Toddler early literacy skills

    Print motivation is simply the desire your toddler has to read. To build excitement around books, you need to show your excitement (even if you aren’t an avid reader). Make reading time a time that they will look forward to and beg to do with you.

    One way to do this that I mentioned earlier is to really play up your toddler’s interests. Are they having an obsession with Mickey Mouse? Hit up Barnes and Noble and find the books with Mickey Mouse to peruse. Fascination with puppies? Take a trip to the library and find some non-fiction books with real puppies or some storybooks featuring adorable puppy characters.

    4. Phonics

    Phonics is probably the one skill that you have heard the most about; however, it is so involves so much. On the basic side, it is learning your letters and sounds. The most complex skill in this area is decoding multi-syllabic words. For your toddler though, just working on letters and sounds is a great start.

    In English, phonics is a tricky business since we have many letters and combinations of letters that make more than one sounds. On top of that, there are many exceptions to these rules such as the words “said” and “of”. They clearly are not pronounced the way they are written, which can be very confusing as children are trying to navigate reading.

    Recognizing sight words and high frequency words are also an important phonics skill. As your child begins to read more independently and decode words over and over, they may come across words that they are starting to recognize instantly because they see them so frequently. Therefore, exposure is very important!

    5. Language and Vocabulary Building

    I can’t say it enough…language and vocabulary building is one of the most important factors in academic success. Here’s how to support this at the toddler stage:


    At the toddler age, you can read a variety of books to your little one on all different topics. Find children’s books that use stronger vocabulary words, teach them those words, and then use them frequently during your daily conversations.

    The more vocabulary you can help your little one acquire throughout school the better. They will be able to understand texts more easily…especially as the texts become more complicated in secondary school where students are reading to learn. Having a strong vocabulary background allows them to be able to process their comprehension quickly and will also give them strategies to help them figure out other words that they may not know.

    Narrative Skills

    Narrative skills refer to your toddler’s ability to tell stories. This could be as simple as recounting their day to actually telling you about a story their teacher read to them at daycare.

    This skill enables children to understand what they read. By being able to understand that there is a sequence to events in a story, they are able to process it more easily and recount the story as well.

    Why You Should Support Your Toddler’s Growing Early Literacy Skills

    stack of books for toddlers

    1. Foster a Love of Reading

    Exposing your little one to books at such a young age can establish a strong foundation for a love of reading. You want your child to be excited about books and engaged with them. When you are reading books with your little one, you are making cherished memories. They might not remember every detail of the book you read at the time, but they are going to remember how it felt.

    The bonding experience you create for your baby when you read with them every day is just as important when building a strong academic foundation as is the act of reading itself. Children who feel more secure, safe, and emotionally balanced from the bonding they do with their parents have higher potential for doing well in school (Stamm, 2007, p. 133)

    So snuggle up and pick out a favorite!

    Want my ultimate list of amazing books for your little one’s library? Check it out here.

    2. Build Vocabulary

    Reading is the number one way to increase vocabulary. The more books you read, the more specific vocabulary you are sharing with your little one. So if you are reading a book about dinosaurs, the vocabulary exposure on that specific topic alone could be carnivores, omnivores, herbivores, oviparous, predator, prey, etc. Imagine your 3 year old walking around using those words!

    If your toddler has an interest in a specific topic, capitalize on that fascination and read more books about it. They will absorb even more of that vocabulary if they are highly engaged.

    It’s not every day that you are going to be using the wide variety of language you can find inside of a book. When you open up a book, the language exposure can’t be beat.

    3. Increase their Chance for Success in School

    The one statistic that always stands out in my mind is how a child who reads 20 minutes at home every day is exposed to 1.8 million words per year and scores in the 90% on standardized tests. Another child who reads 1 minute at home per day is exposed to 8,000 words per year and scores in the 10% on standardized tests (source).

    Just the stark difference in the amount of vocabulary and language that these two children are exposed to can be alarming. Despite your busy day, the most important thing you can do for your little one is spend that 20 minutes with them engaged in a book.

    4. Equip them with the Tools they Need to Learn

    So we all have done it: we accidentally slip up and say a cuss word in front of our toddlers and then act shocked when they come out and say “Oh, crap!”. They are watching and copying every little thing we do. They are sponges who imitate things we didn’t even realize they saw or heard.

    So…make the most of this! The more you model your reading habits, the more your toddler will pick up on those skills and try to copy you.

    Now’s the time to model how you read a book. From the way you hold the book to the expression you use when reading aloud to you talking about things you see in the illustrations, all of these things are habits that your child will copy. And you will be glad they did because these are important skills that they will need when they are ready for Kindergarten.

    How to Support Your Toddler’s Early Literacy Skills

    So…that’s a lot of information! Here are some simple ways that you can ensure a healthy and strong start to literacy:

    Toddler girl leaning over an ottoman looking through the pages of a book.
early literacy skills

    1. Read Every Day

    I say this one a lot…but it bares repeating. There is nothing more important for your child’s academic future than reading every single day. And this can start in the womb!

    It is especially important for your toddler though. This is a magical time in their life where they are exploring their world and also mesmerized by every single thing that you do. Make reading a special time where they can explore their interests and feed off of your excitement for reading.

    20 minutes a day…you can do it!

    2. Exposure to the ABCs

    Get your little one familiar with their letters. Do they have to know all of their letters as a two year old? Of course not!

    However, play with them on the fridge and get some for the bath tub. Play games with them where you name them and talk about them. Sing songs and do some arts and crafts involving them.

    From 12-36 months, your job is exposure and introducing letters in your mini-me’s name. Upwards of three years, you can start getting more serious about your child learning letter names and sounds.

    3. Keep on Talking

    The purpose of talking as much as you can to your toddler is twofold: it will build vocabulary and it will support those narrative skills.

    You can talk about your day and encourage your toddler to do the same. This will help your child build those narrative skills and understand the sequence behind daily tasks.

    Your talking will also help build vocabulary, especially when you use words that you wouldn’t normally use in your everyday conversation. Don’t be afraid to use bigger words when talking to your toddler.

    It is a natural instinct to use simpler, basic language with young children. There’s nothing wrong with doing that especially if you are trying to get your point across or trying to explain something. But it doesn’t hurt, actually it helps, when you use bigger and more complex words as part of your everyday vocabulary. Your child will get used to hearing those words, will add them to their vocabulary bank, and will begin to speak using them too.

    4. Point Out Concepts of Print

    Every time you pick up a book is a perfect opportunity to practice the concepts of print. First, just by modeling how you read a book (like how you hold it and flip the pages), you are providing a great foundation for these concepts.

    As your toddler gets older, point to the words on the page as you read to model the left-to-right directionality of print. This makes the invisible task of what your eyes are doing as you read visible to them. It also helps them notice what words look like on a page as you point to them.

    Keep on Reading, Mama!

    toddler boy sitting at a library table reading books.
toddler early literacy skills
toddler reading

    There are so many things you can do to help your toddler develop their literacy skills. Of course, the number one thing you should make sure you do is to set aside time for your reading routine. Through your read aloud, you can cover all of the important literacy skills. So if you don’t have time for anything else, make your reading routine a priority. Your child will be forever grateful.


    Stamm, J. (2007). Bright from the Start. New York, NY: Penguin.