Nurturing Learning in Three- and Four-Year-Olds: Language and Literacy

The ages of three and four are busy times for language and literacy learning, including developing the ability to comprehend and tell narratives, becoming much more skilled at conversation, and beginning to understand the mechanics of written language.

Preschoolers are eager to learn early reading and writing skills when they are clearly connected to a task that’s important to them.

The ages of three and four are busy times for language and literacy learning! During this relatively short time, children develop their ability to comprehend and tell narratives (i.e. stories), become much more skilled conversationalists, and begin to understand the mechanics of written language. All of these literacy skills are best nurtured when they are embedded in activities and play that reflect children’s interests and respect their initiative and curiosity.

Building Oral Language Skills

What children are doing:

Preschoolers spend lots of time practicing their storytelling and conversation skills. When they describe and explain, they use more and more complex vocabulary and sentence structure. They refine their communication skills during play, when being understood by friends really matters. All of these verbal skills not only help children feel successful in the moment; they also provide a foundation of grammar, vocabulary, and story comprehension that will help later as they learn to read.

What caregivers can provide:

  • Wordless books: books with illustrations that depict stories children can narrate.
  • Photo sequences (in a photo album or displayed on poster board) depicting a class event (field trip), experiment, or project that encourages children to narrate the events from their memories.

What caregivers can say and do:

  • Encourage conversation between children, especially younger or less talkative children who may tend to only converse with adults. Meal and snack times are excellent opportunities to encourage conversational skills such as listening and responding to each other.
  • After reading a familiar story, ask children to imagine a different ending and encourage them to tell their version. “Telling” can be oral storytelling, dictation that adults record, or illustrations that children draw and use to tell the story aloud.
  • Ask children to describe things they’ve drawn or built (“You’ve been working on this a long time. Would you tell me about it?”). Ask children to explain how they solved a problem or why they think something happened a certain way. Ask questions that encourage children to elaborate.

Understanding Symbols


What children are doing:

One of the biggest accomplishments during the preschool years is to recognize the connection between words that are spoken and words that are written. It’s really quite an amazing leap: recognizing that a word that we say out loud can be represented by symbols on a page. One of the first ways that young preschoolers grasp this type of symbolic thinking is by recognizing familiar brand logos (food packages, restaurants, stores) and signs that include print (stop sign). Although they aren’t reading the actual word on the sign or logo, they do recognize that it’s a label for a particular thing, and that’s the beginning of understanding that printed words have meaning.


What caregivers can provide:


  • Empty /clean food packages from brands familiar to children for dramatic play; donated materials with a brand logo from a local restaurant, store, or business to set up a pretend version for dramatic play; traffic signs for use with the trikes or toy cars.

  • Labels on storage containers for toys and materials that children use frequently. Include both a photo/ picture of the object that goes inside and the written word so children make the connection between object and symbolic label.


What caregivers can say and do:


  • Point out relevant written labels/symbols that children encounter during the day: the exit sign in the room, the symbol and word that mean play on the CD or DVD player, the stop sign on the nearby street corner.


Learning about Words and Letters

What children are doing:

 An even bigger leap is to figure out that individual letters stand for the individual sounds that make up words (called the alphabetic principle). That understanding usually isn’t grasped until late in the preschool years. But there are many experiences and teaching strategies that can help threes and fours make connections between language sounds and printed words and letters. And the best place to start is with words that are the most relevant to children – their names.


What caregivers can provide:

  • Lots of opportunities for children to see their own written name (labels on their cubbies, on a classroom jobs/chores chart, on a check in/out list by the door).

  • Sets of letters that children can manipulate: magnet letters, alphabet puzzles, letter stamps, games that involve spelling words with letter pieces, etc.

  • Books that make connecting oral and written words easier: books with predictable or repeating text, books that label objects, “First Reader” books with simple plots and vocabulary.

  • Books that focus on the sounds of language: rhyming books, books that “play” with language sounds, etc.


What caregivers can say and do:


  • Incorporate children’s written names into activities and routines. Encourage them to notice the differences between how one another’s names are written and how they sound. Help children learn the names of each letter in their name.

  • Write down things that children say aloud. For example, adults can record on large paper or whiteboard individual children’s responses to a question. Children can also describe pictures they’ve drawn and an adult can record their words below the picture. Adults can reinforce the idea that each written word represents a verbal word by reading aloud what is written.


Recognizing the Uses of Writing


What children are doing:

Threes and fours are not only beginning to recognize print in their world but they are also becoming more and more aware of all of the ways that writing can be used to communicate. Writing can be used to give a command, label or describe, tell a story, jog memories, make a request, or give instructions. As children see more uses of writing, they are more motivated to learn how to write for themselves. Initially they use “mock” writing – scribbles that resemble writing – but gradually over the preschool years, their writing attempts incorporate actual letters, then words.


What caregivers can provide:


  • Writing materials accessible to children throughout the day and throughout the room. For example, small containers with a pad of paper and a few pencils or markers can be placed in key locations around the room.

  • Clipboards and attached pencils for use in recording information for specific activities (a survey of children’s favorite food; a tally of shapes observed during a shape hunt).

  • (For older preschoolers) Printed words that are currently relevant to children that they can refer to when writing. These words can be written on cards and placed in a container at a writing center, written on a large piece of paper that children can easily see, or written on cards and taped to a “word wall.”


What caregivers can say and do:


  • The most important things adults can say and do are: 1) model everyday writing (write notes, lists, instructions, reminders, etc.) and 2) talk about what is being written and why.

  • Encourage children to communicate in writing themselves. Their messages can be dictated to an adult to write initially but it won’t take long before they become more independent.

  • Encourage children to write their names on their work, even if it’s only the first letter.

  • Once a few children begin showing an interest in writing, create a writing center – an area that is designated and equipped for writing. Keep it organized and well-stocked. Observe children’s interactions with the materials and talk to them about their work; then make modifications to further nurture their developing skills.


Recognizing the Uses of Reading


What children are doing:

Threes and fours are also becoming aware of many different reasons for reading. When children are surrounded by many different kinds of text that are embedded in the activities they care about, they will naturally develop a desire to read for themselves.


What caregivers can provide:


  • Different types of books that serve different purposes: storybooks for entertainment, informational books to answer questions, rhyming and alphabet books to learn about letters and words, concept books (Bread Bread Bread by Ann Morris) to explore a topic.

  • Games, puzzles, and toys that include words (as labels, instructions, etc.). Playing with them shouldn’t depend on being able to read, but enough words should be present that children see their purpose.

  • Print-based props in pretend play, block play, and outdoor play.

  • Printed step-by-step instructions for activities (simple cooking recipes; planting a flower) that combine pictures and words so children can independently “read” them.


What caregivers can say and do:


  • As with writing, the most important things adults can say and do are to model reading in many situations and intentionally talk about what is being read and why.

  • When children are curious about a topic and ask fact-based questions, suggest finding the answers together in a book, online, or from some other written source, rather than simply answering with the facts.


Keep in mind


The process of learning to read and write is actually quite complex, involving many different but related skills, far more than could be described here. Most of these skills will not be learned by children during the preschool years but it is helpful to understand the whole continuum as caregivers provide materials and experiences to support their emergence. There are several books and resources that describe these emerging skills and offer suggestions for supporting them, such as the book So Much More than the ABCs: The Early Phases of Reading and Writing, by Judith Schickedanz and Molly Collins (available from National Association for the Education of Young Children).

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Nurturing Learning in Three- and Four-Year-Olds: Language and Literacy

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