Home For Teachers Questions to Ask When Developing a Pre-Literacy Curriculum:
Questions to Ask When Developing a Pre-Literacy Curriculum: PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Rachel Betzen   

Excellent teachers are worth their weight in gold. While there are many factors that go into the creation of excellence in education, good teachers have a feel for where their students are developmentally, and a plan for moving each one towards completion of their educational goals. This is also certainly true for pre-school teachers who are planning literacy activities into their daily routines. Our students are in an important stage of development, and what they learn in the last year of pre-school will be their foundation for Kindergarten, particularly when it comes to pre-literacy instruction. We all want our students to be ready before taking that leap.


Questions to Ask When Developing a Pre-Literacy Curriculum:

1. What pre-literacy skills do we need our preschool children to have before leaving us for Kindergarten?

2. How do we make sure our class will be ready for Kindergarten, including those who may be very behind?

3. Why do some children with speech/language problems seem to have more difficulty learning pre-literacy skills, and what can be done to help them?


In creating a high-quality pre-literacy curriculum, we will want to answer these questions and look more closely at how to give all our students a strong learning foundation for Kindergarten.



1. What pre-reading skills do my pre-school students need before entering Kindergarten?

While reading researchers have a good understanding of the skills children need to develop as they begin to read, there are different ideas about when these skills should be in place. Based on both my understanding of this research and clinical experiences as a speech-language pathologist working with literacy, I believe that ideally before entering Kindergarten every child should:

  • recognize all the letters of the alphabet
  • know what sounds consonant letters make
  • begin to understand some vowel sounds and letters
  • be able to recognize their name
  • be able to write their name (as fine motor skills allow)
  • start to identify beginning sounds in words
  • begin to associate letter sounds with real objects
  • (ex: pig and pot start with a /p/ sound)
  • begin copying or writing some letters
  • be able to talk about about his or her everyday experiences
  • understand two-step verbal directions
  • understand and remember simple stories
  • understand 2-3 steps involved in sequences of events or stories
  • be able to answer simple questions about stories and routine experiences

Now that we have a clear idea of the skills we need to help our preschoolers develop, we can begin to design a program that will strive to meet the above needs for all the children in our classes. Many early literacy programs emphasize learning letter sounds and identifying them in words. While this is certainly important, reading is a language skill, and we want our children to understand the meaning behind all those letter sounds they are putting together to form words as they do begin to read.


Reading comprehension is about more than just understanding what you read, to lay the foundation we need to help children develop strong language skills and begin to understand how things go together. We want them to understand simple sequencing, and begin to think about another's perspective. All of these specific language skills are important for later reading comprehension.


To design a high quality program we need to think about the two main components of pre-literacy skills our children need to acquire, phonological awareness and print knowledge, and language processing and comprehension. Phonological awareness refers to the child's knowledge and awareness of sounds, and includes sounds in all word positions, rhyming, syllables, segmenting or breaking apart sounds in words and also blending or putting together sounds in words. Most of the areas in the first part of our list above address improvements in the child's phonological awareness skills.


Language processing refers to how well a child understands what she hears (or reads) and how well she assimilates or uses that information in a meaningful way. The last several items from the list above address language skills important not only for functioning well in a Kindergarten classroom, but also for working with narratives. In a child's everyday life there are opportunities for sharing narratives, or stories about their experiences. Older pre-school children may be able to provide narratives about how to do something, called an expository narrative (ex: Telling all the steps involved with washing your hands). Telling and listening to stories are both important opportunities for children to build their language processing skills.


Now that we know where we are headed with our pre-schoolers, we need to figure out how to help them get there. Our next question:


2. How do we make sure all our children will be ready for Kindergarten when some may be very behind?

This is the charge we face in our classrooms everyday, and a question that I gave a lot of thought to as I was developing and using a pre-literacy curriculum through my private practice. Here are some guidelines for helping every student to shine.


Keep Track of Their Development

As a teacher you will have a general idea of where your students are in their developmental process, however it is very helpful to screen children near the beginning of the year to document their specific strengths and weaknesses. You can use a standardized assessment tool to get the best information, or if this is not available there are free checklists for reading readiness (visit our links for these). Even an informal checklist based on the above skills would be helpful. Once you have a good idea where all your students are in the learning process and get a feel for what you can do with speech cues, you can come up with a plan that will best fit the needs of your class.


Use Small Group Instruction

I found that it was easier and the children learned faster when I was able to work with them in small groups. The pre-literacy curriculum is best suited for small groups or a combination of some class activities and others done in smaller groups. While it may be tempting to group children according to ability level, also consider having mixed level groups. The speech cue program is adaptable enough for some children to work on beginning sound identification while others are sequencing sounds in the same group.


I feel that it was helpful for children to be in mixed groups also when working on language skills, as the ones who were not as advanced learned skills from the other children. For the children that are already ahead, there are often roles in stories or activities that are more suited to highly verbal children.


Maintain a Language and Print-Rich Classroom Environment

These classrooms are colorful, purposeful, and full of fun experiences labeled in both print and through spoken words. Label your centers, and don't be afraid to go beyond by placing labels on the everyday things children see in their classroom. “Clock”, “table”, “bear”, or “glue” are some examples of objects we can stick the written word onto. Point out the words and letters they contain in different areas of your room throughout the day. Even if your children don't seem to pay much attention to the words around them, they benefit from this exposure to multiple learning opportunities, and those letters and words will be in place as they are becoming ready.


Engage your children in conversations, wonderings about stories and natural processes, and encourage them to share from their own experiences. We sometimes forget that children are fully alive individuals with a need to create their own knowledge. We help them create this knowledge by combining the presentation of information, related materials for manipulation, encouraging hands-on discovery, and listening to their experiences. As they work through this process, describe what your students are doing, how it feels, what people think about it, or why it is important. Encourage them to do this kind of talking as well about what they are doing, how it feels, what it reminds them of, and what they think about it. Talk with your students everyday, not just to them but with them, and they will grow strong language skills.


Involve the Parents

As you complete screening for readiness skills with your children, share that information with their parents in an honest and gentle way. You may have that one parent every year that never seems to care enough. Remember not to criticize or judge, you cannot change parents through your judgment anyway, and this blocks you to partnerships you will need to build on behalf of that child. Give lots of constructive ideas for ways the parent can help the child to be ready for Kindergarten. Send home child-created booklets, crafts and artwork with speech cue words, and encourage parents to keep these in a special, safe place at home where they can be read and shared often.


3. Why do some children with speech/language problems seem to have more difficulty learning pre-literacy skills, and what can be done to help them?

Children are everyday building and climbing their own language and literacy ladder. This is one continuous process where listening, speaking, reading, and writing are all steps along the way. While this process is mostly linear, there are many places to side-step or jump ahead and back. Sometimes there are places on the way up where the steps are not secure, there are holes in the process of building that foundation.


For children that have a speech-language delay or disorder there are gaps in their steps up this developmental ladder. They have a more difficult time learning literacy skills because they are starting from further behind. They may not hear the differences between sounds, they may not comprehend two-step directions, or they may not be able to tell you what happened on the playground in a way that makes sense. These children need both language support to fill in their gaps, along with explicit pre-literacy instruction and experiences. Luckily for them, by using the guidelines and examples along with our preliteracy curriculum you can help to provide them with both.


Here are some ideas for further helping your students who have speech, language and literacy challenges:


Create an Organized, Categorized Environment

Children with speech and language delays may have trouble understanding how items are related or why they go together. To help them make these associations we can create centers in our classrooms and organize the materials in a way that makes sense. All the art materials in one place, books in another, cars and trains have their special shelf. Clean up time becomes more than just a chore they must learn, your students are beginning to make their own mental categories as they sort through toys and materials to find the place for each item.


Use Grouping and Seating Advantages

Sometimes a change in seating may be all it takes to bring a change in attitude or eliminate an undesirable behavior. I have found it useful to pair more advanced students with those who had special needs, and incorporate these pairs into my groups. Many times these kinds of pairs (or trios) would form naturally in a classroom where all children are encouraged to interact and include each other.


Place children who have difficulty maintaining attention or with language comprehension closer to the teacher. Sometimes a gentle pat on the back will be all it takes to re-direct that child's attention. Some children who are more hyper will benefit from squishing a small squoosh ball or holding a beanbag during group time.


Give Clear Directions with Follow-Ups

As teachers we can not always be sure how well our students comprehend our directions, but this should be the first thing to check when they are not following them. As children with speech and language delays have gaps in their development, they may have a very hard time processing two or three directions given at one time. Helping them learn this will be invaluable for when they start Kindergarten. Repeat the directions as needed, using pictures or gestures to make each step more clear. Follow up with the child to see if your directions were followed, where did that process break down? After three steps? Try giving two step directions with gestures for meaning, and break down the steps until the child can complete the entire task.


Use Speech Cues in Everyday Interactions

The pre-school teachers I was working with began using the speech cues in class because it was so natural for the children to extend this into their school day. It was a challenging game for the kids to figure out what hand cues and sounds matched the different items in their classrooms. Using the hand cue with the first sound of each word made a big difference in improving the students phonological awareness, and it is great fun!


Encourage the Sharing of Personal Narratives

Narratives are the social stories that connect us as people in a community, narratives are a natural way that we share our experiences and thoughts with those around us. More importantly for your children, the use of narratives is a practical way to help them build language skills. Allow sharing time for oral narratives as they relate to the theme or concepts you are teaching your class. Show your children the importance of their stories by writing down those they dictate to you as teacher and pair these with their own illustrations for a special book your students will treasure.


Talk about Other's Perspectives and Feelings

Preschoolers are using language on a very literal level. When we incorporate the perspectives of others and how they feel into our stories and conversations, this stretches the way they understand and use language. They are naturally beginning to understand how they are expected to treat other children in the classroom, and we can expand on this to include how treating others in certain ways affects their feelings.


As you read stories, stop and ask the children how the characters feel, let them make “feeling faces” and gestures as the mood changes throughout the story. Ask what the characters may be thinking about what is taking place. Talking and thinking about stories in this way adds a rich layer of language comprehension that will make it easier for students to connect how people's actions result in different consequences.


Provide lots of Multi-Sensory, Language-Rich Activities/Centers

The “job” of a child is to play, and this is a very natural way for them to learn new skills and increase vocabulary knowledge. Play is comprised of a series of actions, both spontaneous free-flowing actions and scripted actions in a sequence. Play is multi-sensory, involving touch, sight, sound, movement and interaction.


We want our activities to be multi-sensory as well, and we want to give our children all those word labels to help describe their experiences. The children that are further ahead in your class often become natural peer models in fun multi-sensory activities. Think about what materials your children can manipulate to experiment with concepts related to your theme.


Advocate for Outside Help if Needed

Sometimes there are children in our classrooms who are very behind in language skills, or who are difficult to understand with their limited speech skills. These children need more help than can be given in a classroom setting, and would benefit from the professional opinion of a speech-language pathologist. If you continue to have concerns about a child, share those with your administrators and parents in a caring way. There are signs that a pre-school age child may benefit from speech-language therapy.

Does the Pre-Schooler have trouble...

  • Listening or paying attention to speech
  • Understanding directions
  • Using developmentally appropriate speech sounds
  • Speaking clearly or understandably
  • Combining words into sentences
  • Using pretend play, playing with and attending to other children
  • Understanding beginning academic concepts


Introduce Letters and Sounds with Activities that use all the Senses

Hand speech cues are an effective way to introduce sounds and letters to young children; they are multi-sensory in nature and combine touch, movement, sound, and visual cues all together at once. There are many more fun ways to bring all the senses into your early literacy activities for teaching sounds and letters. Here are some ideas to get you started:


  • spread sand, sugar or flour onto large trays, children can use their fingers or a paintbrush to form letters, and a block to smooth out the material and “erase” them
  • spread finger-paints over large pieces of butcher paper, the children can write letters in the paint, and smooth them over with a large paintbrush
  • use chalk to write on fine sandpaper
  • roll out playdough “snakes” and bend them to form letters (or do this with clay and bake them)
  • Write out a letter or word and cover the lines with glue- children can glue on different items to form “sensory letters”, such as glitter, beans, macaroni, popsicle sticks (be aware of choking hazards with small children during this activity- not for children who still put things in their mouths)
  • Spread shaving cream over a flat surface with a spatula and form letters using a paintbrush


Teach the Child to Read and Write his Name

Children in your class will be learning speech sounds and matching them with letters. While they may not yet be ready to begin reading or writing words, we can help the children to practically use this information for reading and writing their names. Often a child's name will be the first word he or she recognizes (aside from that fast food sign and other "environmental print"-  sigh).


For an example of how to use speech cue cards to teach children to read and spell their names, refer to our Name Recognition Article.


For further insight into developing a high quality Pre-Literacy Curriculum see our History.






Dallas Reading and Language Services

Rachel Betzen MA, CCC/SLP


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(214) 274-7455


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