Better Beginnings was inspired by the UK’s Book Start program, the world’s first national book gifting program. The program aims to provide free books to every child in England and Wales and inspire families to build their child’s love of books and reading from birth. 

The Better Beginnings program continues to learn from best practice early literacy models from around the world and has incorporated the Every Child Ready to Read initiative into our approach to supporting families develop their child’s early literacy skills. This program was developed by the American Library Association and introduced to U.S. public libraries in 2004.  A revised edition of that program was released in 2011 and it is this model that Better Beginnings draws on as a guide to best practice in the development of high-quality early literacy programs for libraries.

A central element to this approach is the acknowledgement that it is not the library, but the parent or caregiver who has the most influence on a child’s early literacy development.  Saroj Nadkarni Ghoting and Pamela Martin-Diaz wrote in their book Early Literacy Storytimes @ Your Library:  

“Library programs for young children have neither the duration nor consistency of contact to have a permanent influence on their early literacy development. The library's important role is to promote early literacy, to explain it and to model behaviors for the parents and caregivers who are with the children every day.” 

As a result of this approach, Better Beginnings regards the primary target of early childhood library programs as the parent.  Whilst it is of course still very important to make programs fun and engaging for children, the primary aim of a program should be to educate and empower parents to create a rich early literacy environment in their homes. 

Early Literacy is what children know about reading and writing before they learn to read and write. 

Early Literacy is NOT the teaching of reading.  We are instead encouraging parents to develop their child’s pre-reading skills, which are the building blocks that children need in order to be ready to learn to read and write by the time that they start school.  

Every Child Read to Read provides library practitioners with frameworks for both understanding the pre-reading skills a child needs to learn and for communicating the actions to parents that they need to take so that their child has the best chance of developing each of the skills. 

The pre-reading skills are grouped into five Early Literacy Components.  Better Beginnings recommends that library practitioners develop a knowledge of each of the components and an understanding of how their library service can support each component. 

Oral language is the foundation of all later language learning.  Oral language includes speaking, listening and communication skills. The root of language also includes non-verbal language which includes body language, facial expressions, and gestures. All of these are ways that we communicate with each other, from birth onwards. 

A 12 month old baby sits in front of a black curtain on a white rug with bright coloured flowers. The baby is holding a tambourine

Five Early Literacy Components 

The pre-reading skills are grouped into the following five Early Literacy Components.  All five of the Early Literacy Components are needed for children to be good readers, although they will not necessarily obtain them in any order. 

Phonological Awareness 

Phonological Awareness is the ability to hear and play with the smaller sounds in words. 

A child who has developed phonological awareness will be able to: 

  • Hear and make environmental sounds 
  • Clap syllables 
  • Hear, recognise and make a rhyme 
  • Recognise words with the same initial sound. 

Phonological Awareness helps children to concentrate on sounds that they will later sound out when they begin to read themselves. 

Activities that help children to hear the smaller sounds in words include singing, clapping syllables, hearing and making the sounds of animal noises and other environmental sounds, reading rhyming stories and saying nursery rhymes.  

Vocabulary 

Vocabulary is knowing the meaning of words: things, feelings, concepts and ideas.   

The more words a child understands, the easier they will find it when they start to learn to read.  A child with a larger vocabulary is more likely to recognise a word they are sounding out if they have heard it before.  The more words that they know, the more likely it is that they will comprehend what they are attempting to read themselves. 

Children learn vocabulary in the context of their own experiences and move from concrete - the names of things they can see and touch – to abstract – concepts and ideas like feelings, spatial relationships and memories. 

Immersing a child in an environment rich in language from their earliest years will build a child’s vocabulary.  Reading, talking, singing, writing and playing with young children each day will ensure that a child has a wide experience of different forms of language. 

Children’s books have three times as many rare words than a conversation between adult and child.  A child who is read to will be exposed to a wider vocabulary than if they only hear spoken language.   Factual books are especially rich in interesting words and concepts and are often read in a more conversational manner, encouraging the adult to add extra words to the text and the child to actively participate in the book sharing. 

Many rhymes and songs, particularly traditional nursery rhymes, use interesting words and are another vocabulary building activity that is easy to incorporate into everyday life. 

Print Awareness and Print Concepts 

Print Awareness is knowing that print has meaning and that the printed word represents words that we speak.  Print Concepts are book handling conventions and techniques. 

95% of a young child’s focus when looking at a picture book is on the illustrations.  By drawing a child’s attention to the text by pointing to the text and talking about the words on the page, we can help a child to develop an awareness of print. 

A child who has developed print awareness and print concepts will: 

  • Notice environmental print, i.e. print on signs, noticeboards etc. 
  • Knows how to handle a book, e.g. holds the book the right way up, works their way through the book in the right direction, can turn pages themselves 
  • Understands the direction of written words e.g. English text is read left to right 
  • Can point to words in a book 
  • Understands that the written words relate to the words that are read aloud 
  • Understands the role of an author and an illustrator. 

Once a reader learns this skill, they will hardly be conscious of knowing these concepts of print.  However, a baby is not born knowing them and relies on the presence of a caring adult to read books to them and let them experience books themselves to learn them.  The first experience of book handling may be chewing on a book – this is ok! Tearing pages while learning to turn them is also a natural step towards building Print Concepts.  A child who starts school knowing how books work can concentrate more on learning to read. 

Background Knowledge 

Background Knowledge is what children know when they start school.  It is the sum of their experiences, what they know about the world and how things work. 

There are three areas of Background Knowledge: 

Content Knowledge 
  • What a child knows about different topics, learnt from people, experiences and stories. 

Conceptual Thinking 
  • Knowing concepts such as shapes, colours and size 
  • Abstract thinking, i.e. the ability to think about things that are not tangible or immediately in front of you.  Abstract thinking requires thought processes such as remembering, problem solving, symbolic thinking, decision making and predicting. 

Symbolic thinking is the ability to represent reality using abstract concepts.  It is important in the development of early literacy because words are symbols for both real and abstract concepts, e.g. the word “apple”, whether spoken or written, is not an actual apple, but it represents the idea of an apple.  The development of symbolic thinking begins in pretend play, when imagination lets one item become another e.g. a block becomes a telephone. 

Book/Story Knowledge 
  • Print Motivation – enjoying books 
  • Understanding common story structures, e.g. knowing that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end; familiarity with cumulative story structures 
  • Familiarity with common story conventions e.g. that stories may start with “Once Upon a Time” 
  • An understanding of the different purposes of books e.g. story books, poetry books, factual books 
  • Narrative Skills: an ability to tell and retell stories 
  • Understand the language of story and notice differences between written and conversational language. 
Letter Knowledge 

Letter Knowledge is knowing that: 

  • Letters are different to one another 
  • One letter can have different shapes and different sounds 
  • Letters have names and represent sounds. 

The beginning steps to developing Letter Knowledge are being able to recognize similarities and differences.  The simplest categories for babies and very young children are often facial expressions, colours and shape.   Knowing shapes can help directly with learning letters, as letters are made of shapes e.g. already knowing circles will help a child when a letter “O’ is compared to a circle. 

The ability to recognise and name the upper case and lower-case letters of the alphabet has been shown to be a significant factor in learning to read in the first year of school. 

Five Early Literacy Practices 

To support the development of the skills encompassed by the Five Early Literacy Components, Every Child Read to Read recommends that parents and caregivers incorporate these five activities, known as the Five Early Literacy Practices, into their family’s life every day: 

  • Reading 
  • Talking 
  • Singing 
  • Writing 
  • Playing 

Each of these activities has the potential to support the development of each of the Early Literacy Components. 

Better Beginnings has adopted the recommendations from Every Child Read to Read to use the Early Literacy Practices to encourage parents to incorporate activities in their daily lives to enhance their child’s literacy development and to help them understand how doing so will help get their child ready to learn to read. 

Here are just some of the ways that each of the Early Literacy Practices support the development of the Five Early Literacy Components: 

Read 

Reading aloud is the single most important activity to help a child get ready to learn to read. 

  • Reading rhyming books, or books that offer the opportunity to make animal noises or the noises of things, e.g. cars, clocks can help a child to develop Phonological Awareness 
  • Books offer three times the number of rare words than does a conversation between adult and child, aiding Vocabulary development. Factual books offer a different range of words than story books 
  • Point out text when reading books to a young child to help them develop Print Awareness.  Reading books with a variety of fonts, text size, speech bubbles or text that flows around the page helps to focus a child on the words 
  • Reading alphabet books, pointing out shapes and colours in books and comparing items that are similar and different while reading helps develop Letter Knowledge 
  • Reading books on a wide range of topics of interest to a child will help them develop Background Knowledge 
  • Reading books on concepts and ideas can help children develop their Conceptual Knowledge 
  • Reading aloud with fun, warmth and genuine enjoyment is an advertisement to a child for the joy of reading books.  Print Motivation is developing a positive attitude towards books and helps children to persevere later when the job of learning to read gets tricky 
  • Reading books with strong story structures helps children to understand how stories work. 
Talk 

Talk with a child in a way that the child is encouraged to take part in the conversation to support their Oral Language skills, the basis of all early literacy development. 

  • Making animal and environmental sounds helps children develop Phonological Awareness because those sounds are also found in real words and helps a young child to hear the smaller sounds that make up words 
  • Talk about the parts of a book, e.g. cover, spine, title, author/illustrator’s name/s, title page.  This will help them to develop Print Concepts 
  • Talk about new words you child encounters in conversations, songs or books to help them expand their Vocabulary
  • Pointing out and talking about letters will develop a child’s Letter Knowledge 
  • Talking about what you know and encouraging the child to tell you what they know will not only improve their oral language and listening skills, but also develop their Content Knowledge 
  • Helping a child to talk through a problem or puzzle will help them to develop their Conceptual Knowledge 
  • Encouraging a child to tell or retell a story helps to develop their Narrative Skills
Sing 

Singing is a form of modified talking.   We include nursery and action rhymes as well as songs in this category. 

  • Singing slows down language so that young children can hear the smaller sounds in words.  This ability to hear those smaller sounds is Phonological Awareness 
  • Songs and rhymes often have words that are rarely used in conversation.  Because songs and rhymes are usually repeated over and over, they are an excellent way for children to build Vocabulary 
  • Some picture books are singable or have singable refrains.  Pointing out the words each time they are sung helps a child to understand that the text on the page represents the words they are singing 
  • Singing the alphabet song helps a child to develop Letter Knowledge 
  • Songs and rhymes that are about colours, shapes and size help children develop Conceptual Knowledge 
  • Many songs and rhymes are little stories and can help a child’s Narrative Skills to develop e.g. “Five Little Ducks”. 
Write 

The connection between writing and reading is strong because both represent spoken language.  Writing as an early literacy practice for babies focuses on encouraging physical development and gross and fine motor skills to get little hands ready to write but does not include teaching a baby or toddler to write.  

  • Point out the first letter of the child’s first name and make the sound of the letter to help develop Phonological Awareness 
  • When a child draws a picture, ask them to tell you about what they have drawn.  Add a new word to theirs to extend their Vocabulary 
  • Ask a child to tell you about their drawing. Write their words down and point out the connection to their words to support Print Awareness 
  • Make letters out of play dough to spell out a child’s name.  Kneading, rolling, pinching and shaping the dough is a great way to strengthen hand muscles needed for writing.  Notice the shapes of each of the letters to support the child’s Letter Knowledge 
  • A young child can retell a story by drawing a picture, developing their Narrative Skills.  A retelling of a loved story can reinforce their Print Motivation too. 
Play 

Play is how young children learn about their world. 

  • Play games with rhyming words to support the development of Phonological Awareness 
  • Add new words relevant to a child’s play to extend their Vocabulary 
  • Encourage children to add print to their imaginary play, e.g. “write” a sign, a shopping list or a menu, depending on the game.  “Reading” a book to their toys also reinforces their understanding that print exists and has meaning 
  • Pointing out and naming the shapes of blocks or sorting by colour supports the development of Letter Knowledge in very young children 
  • Playing with jigsaws, sequencing games or other puzzles can help develop a child’s Conceptual Knowledge  
  • Pretend play, where one object represents another, supports the development of symbolic thinking 
  • Role playing develops and reinforces a child’s Background Knowledge of situations they have experienced e.g. going to the doctor, school or shops
  • Dramatic play gives children a chance to retell a story or make up their own, developing their Narrative Skills

Further Reading 

Every Child Read to Read

Ghoting, S., & Martin-Díaz, P., 2013. Early literacy storytimes @ your library: partnering with caregivers for success. Chicago: American Library Association. 

Ghoting, S. and Martin-Diaz, P., 2013. Storytimes for everyone!: developing young children's language and literacy. Chicago: American Library Association.