Laying the foundations for reading

Last month I wrote about strategies that parents and carers can use to help their children towards a love of books and reading. This month my focus is on those who work with pre-school children.

Some of you may recall that famous pre-school child, Roald Dahl’s Matilda. ‘By the time she was three, Matilda had taught herself to read by studying newspapers and magazines that lay around the house. At the age of four, she could read fast and well and she naturally began hankering after books.’1 Matilda’s experience of course is far from typical. Very few children learn to read so early, and virtually none with so little intervention.

Hopefully none of the children in your care will meet with the response that Matilda got from her father: ‘A book?’ he said. ‘What do you want a flaming book for?’ Matilda developed a love of books without any encouragement. Most children need adults to demonstrate to them that books are worth spending time on. Those with the good fortune to have parents and carers who read to them associate books with pleasure from a very early age. Lots of children entering pre-school do not have this advantage, and it is a vital task for pre-school practitioners to help these children also see that books and reading provide both fun and information.

Learning to read, whether in the pre-school years or, as with most children, at school, is much easier if children have been helped early on to gain an understanding of the importance and pleasure of reading, and an awareness of the written word. These are the foundations that you are laying. It is because of you that by the time they leave pre-school or nursery, so many children can read their own names and recognise letters of the alphabet and some familiar words. Because of you many of them can re-tell familiar stories, browse through books and make choices, talk about books and handle them correctly.

Story time

Reading to children is by far the most important aid to their reading development. What can you do to make story-times as beneficial and as enjoyable as possible? The best tip is to choose books that you enjoy. Your enthusiasm will be transmitted to the children. Rehearse, so that you can practise appropriate voices and intonations. Once you know the book well you can decide whether it is a suitable one for bringing to life with props. Puppets and soft toys are great for this, and so are small world toys like Playmobil, Lego and Duplo. Children never seem to mind if the toys representing the characters are not in scale with each other. When you use props of any sort it is always good to read the story first, then to tell it again while you bring out the props one by one. Leave the book and the book and the props around for the next few days so that the children can use them to act out the story in their own way. This small world play will aid their enjoyment and understanding of the book as well as their communication, language and literacy development and lots of other skills.

Certain features in books make them particularly suitable for sharing with groups of children. Funny books are always successful. So are books with characters or situations that everyone can identify with - books about pre-school, for example, or books that link to favourite television programmes or DVDs. Books with lots of scope for discussion are especially valuable. Speaking and listening skills are vital precursors to reading, and books provide lots of opportunities to develop them.

Children should if possible hear stories in a variety of languages. If no-one who works in the setting speaks other languages, perhaps a parent or someone from the community could come in and tell stories or read in their first language. If that is too daunting, maybe they could record themselves. If a dual language book is used, the children can see and hear both languages. I routinely use dual language books when reading to young children, even when I can only read the English version.

Incidentally, it is very valuable for children to hear men as well as women reading - it’s all to easy for them to get the impression that reading is a female activity. If all the practitioners where you work are women, perhaps you could ask some fathers or other male visitors to read to the children.


Try to find books that encourage involvement. Young children love hearing the same books lots of times, and the more times they hear it, the more they will be able to join in. Rhyming books are very useful, as the rhythm and rhymes make the words memorable. (As I mentioned in my previous article, young children with a sense of rhyme learn to read more easily, so the more ways you can use rhyme the better, through books, action rhymes and so on.) Books where the children can find things in the pictures are always popular, and if you have big versions the children will be able to participate more easily.

Linking several books by theme during a story session is a very successful strategy. It also gives you a chance to introduce non-fiction books, which for some children are more interesting than stories. Boys in particular can be put off books by an over-emphasis on stories. An old favourite like Dear Zoo2 by Rod Campbell is lovely to use on its own, with a different animal underneath each flap. With other books on an animal theme, both fiction and non-fiction, it can provide a highly enjoyable and informative session.

Books like this can be used as the basis for a wide range of activities. The everlastingly popular Handa’s Surprise3, is wonderful in its own right, and an ideal way into discussion of food, animals, life in Africa and more besides. It can also lead into all sorts of craft and other activities, not least delicious fruit-tasting.

Books are a fantastic way to build up children’s knowledge and understanding of the world. Rattle and Rap4 is a wonderful evocation of a train journey. Peas5 is a funny and clever exploration of vegetables and individual taste. Eddie’s Toolbox6 is a lovely story about making things, complete with construction projects. All offer brilliant starting points for topic work and lots of potential follow-up activities.

Books are also excellent for exploring issues to do with social and emotional development. In Catherine Rayner’s beautiful book Augustus and his Smile7, Augustus the tiger gradually learns about happiness.

DIY books

I promised in my last article that I would say more about making books. This is an activity that really helps children to know about how books work, and to feel a sense of involvement them. Children can make story or information books. In some settings each child makes a book in the last week or two of their time there as a record they can keep. Often these books contain photographs, sometimes also writing, and pictures drawn by the child.

Children can also be helped to make books jointly. Again these can be stories: encourage the children to make up a story, perhaps based on a book you have read; you can write down the words according to the children’s instructions and they can each contribute illustrations. Collaborative information books also work very well. Help the children to choose an interesting subject to write about and draw, or they can make a scrapbook about an outing or activity they have shared. How about making letter scrapbooks? Label each page with one letter of the alphabet. The children can find pictures of things beginning with each letter in old magazines and catalogues, then cut them out and paste them in. Think of all the opportunities this provides for developing children’s phonological skills.

Embedding reading in your setting

There are so many ways to heighten children’s awareness and appreciation of the written word:

  • Try labelling the areas in your setting. It does not matter that many children will not be able to read the labels. They can always ask what they say.
  • Many pre-school children are fascinated by letters and words. Capitalise on this by making letters with playdough, playing letter and word games, making letter collages.
  • The role play area is an ideal place to encourage literacy development. You could hang a calendar up, have paper, cards and envelopes for writing, get children taking turns delivering post and newspapers. Make the area into a café, shop or railway station, and create appropriate notices with the children.
  • Talking of role play, don’t forget the value of acting books out. Children love it, and it really helps their understanding.
  • Use websites and DVDs based on books and discuss the similarities and differences with the printed versions.
  • Books and other reading materials should not only be used at story times. Share them with individuals and small groups any time it feels right.
  • Involve children with the written word - printed and computer-based - as much as possible. Always use recipes when you cook with them, for example.
  • Don’t restrict books to the books corner. How about having appropriate books in each area? There are some lovely books about building that would be great in the construction area, and you could have stories like The Three Little Pigs as well.
  • Arrange a visit to the local library. There’s nowhere better for children to develop a love of books.

Poor Matilda! She never got the chance to do any of these lovely things. Most of the children you care for will not be reading as early as she did, but they will have had a far more enjoyable introduction to the world of books and reading, one that will sustain them throughout their lives.


1 Roald Dahl, Matilda, Puffin, 2007, ISBN 978-0141322667
2 Rod Campbell, Dear Zoo, Campbell Books Limited, 2007, ISBN 978-0230015258
3 Eileen Browne, Handa’s Surprise, Walker Books, 2006, ISBN 978-0744536348
4 Susan Steggall, Rattle and Rap, Frances Lincoln, 2010, ISBN 978-1847801272
5 Peas: It’s Not Easy Being Peasy, Puffin, ISBN 978-0141502588
6 Sarah Garland, Eddie’s Toolbox, Frances Lincoln, 2010, ISBN 978-1847800534
7 Catherine Rayner, Augustus and his Smile, Little Tiger Press, 2007, ISBN 978-1845062835