Make Sense of Print

Helping Kids Make Sense of Print

Can’t Tell the Players without a Program?

When learning anything new, you encounter many new special words. To learn to play baseball, players learn the meaning of baseball, bat, home plate, pitcher, umpire, and so many other words. Players and spectators must learn concepts, too, like foul ball or walk.

And beginner readers have to learn lots of vocabulary, too, words like letter, word, sound, sentence, paragraph, title, author, cover, and so forth. Clever parents and teachers will ensure children don’t even notice they’re learning this specialized jargon.

As they read book after book, adults will quietly, unobtrusively talk about the print. Consider how a beginning reader might learn that in books each printed word is separated by white spaces. Until readers know this, it is difficult for them to look at a particular word as an adult reads it aloud.

Talking about print in books can help children learn the concept of a printed word. Here’s how to do it. Find a book that ends with the words: The end. (You might print out a copy of Baby Faces from this website.)

Read the story in the usual way. But when you finish the story, start a little conversation about the final words on the page, the end. You don’t need to repeat these comments word-for-word. Just read through the demo dialog and start your own conversation. “Well, that’s the end of the book. Oh, look: The author wrote two words here so we would know for sure we finished reading the book: the end.” [Touch the page with your index finger just under each word each time as you say it.] “The end. There’s the first word: the. There’s the second word: end. The end. You can tell where the first word ends because there’s a little white space. Then the next word starts. That white space shows where the other word ends.” This is typical of many conversations that will help your emerging reader make sense of print, so make it fun.


Whether it’s feeding or dressing themselves, toddlers and preschoolers like to do things independently. That natural urge to be one’s own boss helps them learn to read, too. Many young children like to read books by themselves.

Not all children are like Dylan, who at nine months liked to lie on his back, hold a picture book over his head, and vocalize just as though he were reading aloud to himself. But many toddlers and preschoolers will sit with a picture book on the lap, recount the story aloud as they turn the pages, and insist they are “reading.” One of the easiest ways to encourage this give-it-a-go attitude toward reading is to draw the reader’s attention to the concepts and conventions of print. Don’t be surprised when, after your mini-lesson, your young emergent reader wants to do the reading every time you come to those magic words, The end. And helping children think about these words helps them become even more efficient at learning to read.

Sharing the journey to literacy can be as exciting as a trip through the Rockies. And it bonds the travelers like only a road trip can.
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Whitehead, Marian. (2002). “Dylan’s Routes to Literacy: The First Three Years With Picture Books.” Journal of Early Childhood Literacy.” 2, 3, 269-89.

  • What’s a letter?
  • Why is there white space between words?
  • Why is the text in chunks?

Read First Words

Street signs


Helping Toddlers Read their first Words


What words do toddlers read first? Are they the common words we see most often when we read: is, from, the, I? Not usually.

Do they begin by reading the names of important people:Dad, Mom, Opa, Nana? Not usually.

But sometime before they are three years old–without any coaching–children typically read the first word that really catches their attention. And with a little encouragement toddlers begin to read words soon before they’re two. Few words are as noticeable as the brand names advertisers shout from billboards and TV commercials. That’s why many toddlers begin to read by identifying the sign at aMcDonald’s fast-food restaurant.

“Oh, that’s not really reading,” some parents say when children point to the display and call out for Fruit Loops in the supermarket. “They’ve just memorized that word.” That’s right: They have memorized the word. And that’s reading. When you support this emergent reading, you’re helping your youngster continue to learn to read. 

But here’s the exciting part! You don’t have to wait to discover a child has learned to read a word; you can teach one. Most kids can easily learn to read the word stop as displayed on a stop sign. Talk about the word just like you do when reading a picture book. When you’re near a stop sign–perhaps walking, perhaps in a car–casually point out the sign and say something like, “That sign says stop. If you’re driving a car, you must stop. If the way is clear, then you can go. You don’t go if someone is crossing the road. You really notice a stop sign, don’t you? The colour red catches your eye. Look at how big the letters are. Look at those big white letters that say stop. What’s that sign say? Right. It says stop. You’re learning to read.”

As soon as your child can read the word stop, download and print the picture book Stop. Just chat about it: “Do you see a picture of a stop sign? Can you put your finger on the word stop? Let’s look at all the vehicles that must stop when they come to this sign. ‘Stop, car.’ ‘Stop, bus.’”

Talk Like a Baby

Baby Talk

Your baby can begin to learn to read and write from birth—and you can help. Learn how reading books to infants can help your baby start on the path to literacy before she can sit up.

The best way to help babies become effective readers and writers is to begin by helping them learn to listen and speak. Fortunately, this is usually easy since babies are very skilled at learning language. Indeed, as long as they interact with adults who converse, babies will learn to understand them—and talk with them.

An Easy Way to Talk to Babies:

Read to Them!

Feel awkward talking with babies? What’s an easy way to break the ice? Talk about books. Discussing picture books with babies helps them learn language, partly because books give you something to talk about.

Simple board books are best for newborns. Books like I Can Say Blanket grab babies’ attention with a single, colourful picture of a familiar object, such as a door or a blanket. The plasticized pages are strong enough to withstand teething babies and can be wiped clean. Cuddled up on mom’s lap, even a newborn loves to look at a book. Even a baby more interested in chewing the pages is learning. Recent research shows that when babies learn the names of a pictured object, they can recognize the corresponding 3-D object when they see it in the real world.ii Babies who listen to book reading learn more vocabulary.

What you read your preschooler will help her understand text years later, like knowing–because you read her the picture book King Midas–why we all want a financial advisor with a “Midas touch”.

Use the books you can get your hands on. You can chat about many books in a simple way, even if the book is designed for older children. Mick Inkpen’s Wibbly Pig Opens His Presents will make sense to a toddler who has seen a birthday boy get presents. But you can read that book to a six-month-old. The first sentence is “These are Wibbly Pig’s presents.” This book is from a whimsical set that will lead toddlers to act out scenes, such as camping. Point to the little stack of presents and say something like, “Oh, look at all those presents!” Then point to the pig and say, “There’s the pig.” On the next page you might say, “There are the presents.” Then point to the stuffed bear that Wibbly Pig is now holding and say, “That’s a bear. You’ve got a teddy bear, too.”

Because babies don’t talk back, it can feel a little strange to talk with them. But after chatting your way through a few books, your conversational skills will improve.


I Can Say Blanket. Ann Locke. Illustrated by Louise Batchelor. New York: Zero to Ten, Ltd. Distributed by Larousse Kingfisher Chambers, 1996. 1-84089-020-7.
Paul Bloom. Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

Wibbly Pig Opens His Presents. Mike Inkpen. New York: Viking Books, 2000.