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How do Preschoolers Learn?

Ready Set Read for Families

3-5 years old

Gina bounces out of bed and hurries to the kitchen. She opens the cabinet, takes out a box of cereal, and then puts it back. She takes out another box and says, "Grandpa, this is my cereal. It has a big 'P' and lots of stars."

Grandpa says, "That's good thinking." Gina points to a letter on the box, "That's a 'P'." She traces the letter in the air and says, "'P' as in Peter. Peter's name starts with a 'P'. It's on his cubby."

Grandpa makes an offer. "Today, we can have our regular story time and then write together. I need to write a letter to a friend. You can write, too."

Gina puts her empty bowl in the sink and runs to find her mother. "Mom, I'm gonna read and write with Grandpa." Her mother says, "That sounds like fun. When I take you to family childcare, I'll tell Ms. Jenkins that you like to write. You can write at her house and at home."

Like many preschoolers, Gina is learning language:

  • She knows that letters (the P) and pictures (the stars) have meaning.
  • She knows there is a 'P' on her cereal box and at the beginning of Peter's name.
  • She knows that people take turns when talking to each other.

Gina's family helps her learn about language:

  • They have a regular story time every day.
  • Grandpa encourages her thinking, so Gina continues exploring the letters on the box.
  • Grandpa offers to write with Gina.
  • Mom talks to Ms. Jenkins, so that Gina can write at family child care and at home

Listening and Talking

Preschoolers learn about language by listening and talking.

  • Start a conversation with your child by asking a question that has no right or wrong answer:
"What did you think when you saw the tall tower you built?"
  • Help your child become a creative thinker by asking, "Suppose that..." "What do you think..." "What if..."
  • Encourage your child to talk with older and younger family members. A child who has lots of opportunities to talk will learn how to put ideas into words.
  • Help your child choose a few special television shows that are just right for children of the same age and interests. Watch with your child and talk about what you see and hear. "Are those lions like the ones at the zoo?" Ask questions to find out what the child is learning. "Does our family do things like the family in the show? How are we different?"
  • Use television wisely. At family mealtimes, talk and enjoy each other's company. Make a list of things your child can do instead of watching television, such as looking at books, playing with brothers and sisters, or drawing pictures.

How to help your child's caregiver:

Tell the caregiver about the things your child does at home. Doing this will help the caregiver start conversations with your child and encourage your child to talk.

Preschoolers learn about language by watching and listening to you.

  • Think and plan out loud so that your child can see and hear you using language to solve problems or make plans.
"Hi Elliott. Are we still on for basketball?" "Great! I'll meet you at the park."
  • Visit and talk about interesting places. Go to the library, the park, or a museum. Talk with your child about what you see during the visit. Ask questions about what the child sees. When you return, suggest that the child tell a relative or friend about the trip.
"Grandpa might like to hear about the giant insects we saw at the museum."
  • Ask your child to help you do a chore--replace a battery in a toy, wash the car, or pull weeds. Talk to the child about what you are doing. The child will have fun and learn some new words.
  • Take your child along when you do errands. The child will enjoy talking and learning with you at the supermarket, the laundromat, or wherever else you need to go. Children also like to look at what's happening in the neighbourhoods along the way to and from these trips.


Preschoolers like many different kinds of books.

  • Look for paperback versions of your child's favourite books, in English and in your family's home language. Encourage family and friends to swap books and give them as gifts. And remember that yard sales and neighbourhood bazaars often have very inexpensive secondhand children's books.
  • Make regular trips to the library to borrow books, tapes, and other materials. If possible, have your child get his or her own library card.
  • Let your child see him or herself in books. Choose books about families like yours and people from your culture and ethnic group.
  • Ask the children's librarian at your local library to suggest books for your child. Get ideas from other families, caregivers, and people who know your child well.
  • Look for books that match your child's experiences:
    • a special interest
    • bugssomething familiar
    • going to childcarea new event
    • going to the dentist
    • a change in the family--the birth of a baby.

How to help your child's caregiver:

Ask the caregiver about book clubs for young children and programs that offer inexpensive children's books.

Preschoolers are more likely to learn to love books if they are read to.

  • Set aside a time each day when you and your child can relax and read together. Make these special times when you enjoy each other's company and explore the new worlds and ideas found in books. Children who are read to are more likely to love books and to be strong readers.
  • Read with lots of enthusiasm. Change your voice to fit different characters and feelings such as sad, excited, or happy.
  • Expect and encourage interruptions. Stop to talk about the pictures and the story in each book, and the ways they relate to your child's life. Ask and answer questions. Add information to help the child understand the story.
"Blueberries are easy to pick because they grow on low bushes. Remember when we saw blueberries in the supermarket?"

Preschoolers learn about reading when they look at books by themselves and when they see adults reading.

  • Set up a reading shelf, basket, or corner where your child can reach books without help. Store books upright so that the child can easily find the one he or she is looking for. Almost any room in the home--kitchen, bathroom, living room, or bedroom--is a good place to keep books.
  • Bring along a bag of books when you leave home. Your child can read on the bus or subway, in a car, at the laundromat, and at the doctor's office.
  • Show your child that reading is an important and useful skill. Children love to imitate adults. A child who sees you enjoying a book or magazine will want to do the same.
  • Show your child how you use books, newspapers, and other written materials to find out what time a store opens, what the weather will be like, or what you need for a recipe.


Preschoolers need to practice using the small muscles in their fingers and hands.

  • Encourage your child to do things such as brushing teeth, buttoning and zipping clothes, and using forks and spoons without help.
  • Ask your child to help you do real jobs, such as sorting and folding laundry, sweeping the porch, and making the beds.
  • Play with your child. Together you can thread beads on laces, do puzzles, and roll or pound homemade play dough.
  • Ask your child's caregiver for ideas she or he may have.

How to help your child's caregiver:

Tell the caregiver about the real jobs your child does at home. Exchange samples of your child's writing with the caregiver so that you will both know what the child is doing and learning.

Preschoolers learn about writing when they see how people use writing every day.

  • Let your child see you write every day. When you make a note on the calendar, write a shopping list, sign in at the doctor's office, or take down a telephone message, talk to your child about what you're writing: "I'm writing a letter to Aunt Alice. Would you like to tell her about our walk to the library?"
  • Show your child the words around us--cookbooks, shampoo, coupons, buses, street signs, and buildings--and illustrate their purpose. Hold up two cans of soup and say: "What kind of soup should we have--chicken noodle or vegetable?"

Preschoolers like to do their own writing.

  • Make sure your child has writing materials and places to write. Look around the house for items your child can use for writing--any kind of paper, crayons, markers, pencils. Put the writing materials in an open box on a low shelf or in a bottom drawer in the kitchen so that the child can reach them without your help.
  • Set up a place for writing in the room where your family spends the most time. For example, you can shorten the legs on an old chair and table to make them the right height for your child, or you can often find secondhand, child-size furniture at thrift shops and yard sales. Keep catalogues and other writing materials in shoeboxes on the table.
  • Talk with your child about how to write. If your child asks you how to make a letter, spell a name, or write a word, show the child how to do it. Otherwise, let your child write in his or her own way. You may not be able to read the writing, but the child can read it to you. Over time, the child will learn how to write words that others can read.