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How environmental print can help build early reading skills

How Environmental Print Can Help Build Early Reading Skills - Parents Canada

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It’s a common question from parents of preschoolers: “Does my child need to be able to print his or her name before starting kindergarten?”

Not necessarily, says Laura Govanis, a kindergarten teacher in Waterloo, Ont., who welcomes three- and four-year-olds to Ontario’s province-wide Junior Kindergarten program every September. “Some children are interested in learning things like that before they go to school, but there is no need to panic if it is not happening yet,” Laura says. “However, it is helpful if children can at least recognize some of the letters in their name.”

One of the first steps of early literacy, letter recognition occurs when children can identify the different letters (both upper and lower case) and start to make the connection between the letters and their sounds. Rather than reaching for flash cards or repetitive “See Spot Run” books to build this skill, Laura suggests pointing out letters and talking about them with your child during regular outings.

“Environmental print, or the print of everyday life, is how our children first start reading and recognizing words,” Laura says, adding with a smile that her two kids knew the Tim Hortons sign from an early age. “That experience holds a lot of meaning and pride for children, because they feel they can ‘read’ something.”

The Ontario Ministry of Education’s curriculum guide echoes the value of environmental print for emerging readers. In the parent resource “Reading and Writing With Your Child”, it suggests sharing early reading experiences by pointing out text on traffic signs, food packages, menus, maps, advertisements, billboards, calendars, greeting cards, and recipes. The Ontario kindergarten curriculum notes: “a trip to the grocery store can help develop literacy by reading signs and labels.”

In keeping with that theme, Laura describes the ways that she engages her own kids on a typical shopping day.

“At home, we spread out all the flyers, and I invite them to play ‘letter detective’ and colour or circle letters that appear in their name,” she explains, noting that props like a magnifying glass or sunglasses add to the fun. At the store, they choose a specific letter or word to find on signs and product packaging. Finally, during the car ride home, they play rhyming games. “It’s okay if the answers aren’t actual words,” she says, “because the point is simply to understand what sound we’re listening for.”

The mini learning opportunities are endless. Some toys have the character’s name printed on them. Sports cards and team logos appeal to little sports fans. When you’re out for a walk, encourage your child to announce the letters on licence plates and street signs.

Basic letter recognition will help your child navigate through the kindergarten classroom, but there will be visual cues as well. To assist students who may not yet know how to read their full name, hooks and cubbies are often decorated with the child’s photo or a label of a specific colour. This is especially helpful when there is more than one Emily in the class, or if Emma’s hook is next to Emmett’s.

When it comes to printing, Laura says that simply putting pencil to paper is the first step. Kindergarten classrooms are well stocked with traditional writing tools like crayons and markers, as well as a range of innovative activities where students trace letters – for example, on a tray filled with sand or salt. Students then work at their own pace to start grouping letters into words. “They will often put down just the beginning or ending sound of a word – and that’s okay,” Laura says. “It’s also fine to print the ‘wrong’ letter or even just a squiggle. All these efforts are a worthwhile part of the process.”

Easy as A-B-C

Here are some enjoyable early literacy ideas and resources to try with your preschooler:

Hands-on: Who can resist magnetic letters? Scatter them on the fridge or use a metal baking sheet as a blank slate. Play around with EVA foam letters that cling to the side of the bathtub or pull out some classic wooden ABC blocks. Snack time will be extra educational if you serve alphabet-themed pretzels, crackers, cereal, or pasta.

On TV: When it comes to longevity, creativity and proven results in early literacy, Sesame Street (and its spin-off shows and videos) is number one. An honourable mention goes to Super Why and its charming team of reading superheroes.

Online: Click on the “Age 2 to 5” tab at, and you’ll have access to free learning games such as “Alphabet Goop” and “Letterella”. Educational website has large graphics and friendly kids’ voices narrating simple alphabet activities.

Game on: Consider a subscription to Ooka Island, a Canadian-made foundational reading skills program presented in an on-screen game format. For guidance with proper printing techniques, check out the TeachMe series of apps (for iOS devices only).

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April/May 2016.

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