30 pre-reading activities for young children

Encouraging your child in their love of letters?  Wanting to make sure your child has the tools they’ll need to learn to read?  These activities are a great way to start!  I’ve divided them into four main categories: Initial Letter Recognition, Capital/Lower Case Matching, Alphabetical Order, and Beginning Phonics.

Initial Letter Recognition: Whether you teach letter names initially or introduce your child to each letter’s primary sound, helping your child to recognize the shape of each letter is one of the first hurdles to overcome in the journey to reading.

  1. ABC coloring pages – A quick internet search will turn up dozens of these free printables.
  2. Alphabet crafts – Whole Pinterest boards have been devoted to this topic.  Find your favorites and go to it!
  3. Alphabet tracing pages –  I’m partial to Getty-Dubay Italic, which isn’t something you can find lots of freebies for, but if you’re not quite so picky, there are lots of free tracing pages for early learners to work on the sound and shape of the letter in tandem.
  4. Sandpaper letters – Purchase some pre-made letters or make your own.  You can use sandpaper, glitter glue, glue sprinkled with sand…  Look for tutorials for this tactile learning tool, and you’ll find plenty of options.
  5. Playdoh letter mats – These consist of a laminated letter outline for your children to cover with PlayDoh.  Look for free printables online.
  6. Cuisenaire rod letter patterns – Somewhere out there on the interweb is an entire book of Cuisenaire patterns for each letter (including pictures that go with the letter).  I did find it once after seeing it mentioned, but I don’t have the link for it at the moment.
  7. Letter building with straight lines and curves, HWOT style – Have you seen the Handwriting Without Tears letter building supplies?  They consist of short and long lines and big and small curves.  You can purchase theirs, look for a template (I printed a template and traced it onto foam sheets), or design your own.
  8. Letter magnets – The Leap Frog variety come with a magnetic holder that sings each letter’s sound, but plain ol’ letters abound and can be used with equal success.
  9. Alphabet puzzles (also useful for learning alphabetical order) – Take your pick.  We own the Melissa and Doug Alphabet Train one and a small cardboard-frame one that my mom purchased long ago, but there are tons available.
  10. Adding a toy car or truck to the letter hunt can keep the activity fun and playful.

    Adding a toy car or truck to the letter hunt can keep the activity fun and playful.

    Letter hunt – Neatly print letters on index cards (I used half-cards, since I wanted something compact.) or use a deck of pre-printed letter cards.  Spread them across the floor and have your child hunt for a particular letter.  This can be made more fun by driving a dump truck around the room to collect the desired letter or handing your kid a shopping bag and asking them to “shop” for a certain letter for Alphabet Soup.  For beginners, printing only a few letters several times each can make this game more fulfilling and less frustrating.

  11. Letter Wall – A little like a Word Wall used in schools, this is simply a place on the wall where you post the letters you’re learning. Some kids are very visual, and having the letters visible during their day-to-day activities will cause the letters to stick in their minds more.  My kids seem to stand and ponder anything I post in their line of sight.
  12. Spontaneous Letter ID – Using your posted letters above to reinforce letter learning throughout the day. At random points when walking past the letters on the wall, shout, “Child-of-Mine, quick!  Can you tell me what this is?”whilst pointing to a letter at random.  Hamming it up for dramatic effect will make this fun rather than tedious.
  13. Alphabet booksDr. Seuss’s ABC and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom are two of the most popular, but there are dozens—perhaps hundreds—of other options.
  14. Starfall.com – This website has animations for each letter, reinforcing the letter sound and emphasizing the lower case version of each letter. Many of the letters have a quick game at the end—a matching game, letter sorting, etc.  (The learn-to-read content of this site is free; there is a great deal of other content available—colors, numbers, math games—for a nominal fee.)
  15. Leapfrog Letter Factory video – Many people love this video as a way to get the letter sounds to stick in their children’s minds. Cute animated letters demonstrate their sounds multiple times in this musical adventure story.  Appealing for kids from 2-5ish.
  16. Letter matching – Help your child work on visually distinguishing between letters by providing a collection of letter cards for them to sort. This can be done before your child even learns letter names or sounds, simply allowing the child to become familiar with the shapes of various letters.  Use ONLY one type of letter—capital or lower case—and one font, to avoid confusion.
  17. Letter roadmaps – create your own little roadmap. (I made one using Paint.) Add a letter road name to each block of each road, and see if your kiddo can follow directions to drive their car around town.  (“Start by the green house and drive down “a” street.  Turn onto “g” and stop when you get to “d”.  What building are you near?”  Or, if you are working on one or two letters, use only those letters to name the blocks, and ask your child to get from one point to another using only roads with a certain sound.)

Capital/Lower Case Letter Matching – Our language forces your child to learn each letter not once, but twice!  (Well, with the exception of a few easy ones like O and C…)  Here are some ways to help your child make those connections.

  1. Big and Little Matching – As your child learns the pesky fact that each letter has both a large and a small version, they can familiarize themselves with both versions by matching. School Zone makes a deck of letter cards with matching adult/baby animals to help those children who are just learning to match large and small letters.  (This also adds a storyline to your game, if your child is one for whom “Help each Mommy letter find its lost baby” would make the activity more appealing.)
  2. Letter Go Fish! – The deck of cards from School Zone mentioned above is actually intended to be used as a Go Fish! Style matching game. Try using the cards as intended.
  3. Big and Little Memory – Need to spice things up or focus on just a few difficult large/small letter pairs? Try using letter cards memory-style.  Select several large/small letter pairs , turn them upside-down, and arrange them in rows.  Have your child turn over two at a time to try to find a match.

Alphabetical Order – This is a surprisingly useful skill in education (need to use the library?  look for a topic in an index?  find your name on a roster?), but one that’s often taught later or not at all.  An early familiarity with ABC order can make later usage a breeze.

  1. Alphabet Maze – Print out an alphabet maze for your child. They can continue working on recognition of letters while also reinforcing alphabetical order.
  2. Alphabet Cards – Use your alphabet cards from one of the matching games above and have your children put them in ABC order. This can be done with only one set of letters or with both the large and small ones together—though that many cards can be overwhelming initially, forcing a child to balance letter matching with remembering alphabetical order and thus making the activity twice as hard.  It’s best to start with one set of alphabet cards and add the other later if extra challenge is desired.
  3. ABC Dot-to-Dots –For some reason, my kids never liked these as well as their numerical counterparts, but they are a wonderful way to reinforce both letter recognition and alphabetical order.

Beginning Phonics – Did you know that phonics work starts before reading?  Early phonics is merely an understanding that words are made of sounds and the ability to distinguish what those sounds are.  These activities will help prepare your child for blending sounds into words as they learn to read and for breaking words into sounds as they begin to write and spell.

Make sure your child can easily identify each picture, or this game will quickly become frustrating.

Make sure your child can easily identify each picture, or this game will quickly become frustrating.

  1. Sound Matching – Collect a variety of objects, either real or in pictures. Ask your child to name each object.  If you are focusing on a specific sound, have them label only objects with that sound.  (For example, when you work on /a/, an apple, an abacus, and an ant would each receive an “a” label.)  Alternately, you can provide phoneme cards that match the first sound of each object and ask your child to match each card to its appropriate object.
  2. Match My Sound – Great for those sitting-around-waiting sorts of times—like car rides, restaurant visits, and checkout lines—this game consists entirely of picking a sound and seeing how many words you can think of that start with that sound.  If your child suggests “watermelon” as a /s/ word, simply repeat the word slowly, emphasizing the sounds, and say, “That was a good guess, but wwww-atermelon starts with a /w/ sound.  We’re trying to think of things that start with /s/.  Can you think of any?”  It may take a long time listening to your modeling, but eventually your child will get the hang of this pre-reading/spelling skill.
  3. Phonogram Bingo – Create a simple bingo card with one letter in each square, and prepare a matching set of letter cards. For a straightforward game, make the sound that corresponds with the card you draw, and have your child cover the correct letter.  To add challenge, you can say a word that begins with the appropriate sound and see if your child can determine the correct letter to cover.
  4. Rhyme Time—Another verbal sitting-around-waiting activity, this game is played like Match My Sound except with rhyming words. Start with short and simple words with common endings (-at, -ad, -ip).  Again, if your child suggests a word that doesn’t rhyme, try to emphasize the sounds in the word to help them hear the difference between its ending and the target ending.
  5. Modified Rhyme Time – For an alternate version (or if your child struggles to generate their own rhymes), try this: Think of two or three rhyming words and one that does not rhyme.  Say the words in any order and see if your child can identify which word is not like the others.  This will help them train their ears to hear the sounds in words.
  6. Mr. Fast and Mr. Slow – Tell your child that you are Mr. (or Miss) Slow. Mr. Slow speaks very slowly.  Your child will be Mr. (or Miss) Fast.  Their job is to say the same word quickly.  You as Mr. Slow will slow a word down to emphasize its individual sounds.  Your child will blend those sounds together to say the word at regular (fast) speed.  So, for example, if you said, “/m/-/a/-/d/,” your child should respond, “Mad!”  (Do you recognize this skill?  It’s what a child does as they learn to sound out words!)  If your child seems to grasp this concept, they may derive even more glee from the game if you pretend that Mr. Slow is trying to think of words they’ll never figure out, lamenting exaggeratedly every time they succeed.  My children were in fits of giggles over my silly over-acting and their success at thwarting Mr. Slow.
  7. Mr. Fast and Mr. Slow Reboot – Switch roles. Now instead of you saying the word slowly and your child blending it together and saying it at regular speed, see if they can be Mr. Slow, breaking the word into its individual sounds for you to reassemble and say speedily.  (Guess who’s working on foundational spelling skills!)

If your child is solid on these pre-reading skills, he might be ready to move on.  Check out some next-step activity options in my post 12 DIY activities for emerging readers (plus three free online resources!)

You may also want to check out my posts on fine motor development and math activities for young kids.

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One thought on “30 pre-reading activities for young children

  1. Pingback: 12 DIY activities for emerging readers (plus three free online resources!) | butmostlymommy

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