Top 5 Skills Needed for Childhood Literacy

Mother and son reading together on couch

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Intro needed

Literacy Skills

Literacy skills are all the skills needed for reading and writing. They include such things as awareness of the sounds of language, awareness of print, and the relationship between letters and sounds. Other literacy skills include vocabulary, spelling, and comprehension. Here are some simple definitions of some of the skills contained within the larger concept of literacy.

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness (awareness of sounds) is the ability to hear and play with the individual sounds of language, to create new words using those sounds in different ways. This usually occurs within the natural course of a child's development.

Not to get too technical, but it's interesting to break down the parts of the language, most of which we learn intuitively by hearing our parents and others around us. It's worth noting that words are made up of various sounds besides just consonants and vowels, including:

  • Digraphs: Two letters which form a single sound, such as the "ea" in "bread" or the "ng" in "song." 
  • Onsets: The part of a syllable just before the vowel of that syllable. In the word "cat" the onset is the /c/ sound.
  • Rimes: A syllable's vowel and the sound immediately after. In "cat," the rime is the /at/ sound.

A phoneme is the smallest sound segment in spoken language that has a meaning. In the word “cat,” there are three phonemes, /c/ /a/ /t/.

As your child begins to play with small pieces of a word, it indicates they have some phonemic awareness. This is why rhyming stories such as Dr. Seuss are great picks to read to children, even if they can't yet read themselves, to get them familiar with the different ways sounds can be rearranged.

Awareness of Print

Parents can encourage print awareness by exposing children to books and other reading materials from a very young age. Most print awareness begins in the home and the child's everyday environment. Reading to children is crucial in order to foster this awareness and to introduce them to the letters of the alphabet.

Children also pick up print awareness from environmental print, such words found on road signs, cereal boxes, and the like. It's important for children to have at least some print awareness before entering first grade to ensure they don't struggle when learning to read. 


Children learning to read (and most people) typically have two kinds of vocabulary, which is the collection of all the words a person knows and uses in conversation. 

An active vocabulary includes words a person uses regularly in speech and writing. Words in the active vocabulary are those which a person can define and use in context. The words in a passive vocabulary are those which a person knows, but whose meaning he may have interpreted through context and use by others. 


Spelling is simply defined as the arrangement of letters to make a word. The way words are spelled and understanding concepts behind irregular spellings help children learn to read earlier, particularly if they're encountering new words.

Reading Comprehension

If a child can read and understand the meaning of something he reads, he's said to have reading comprehension. More than just being able to read the words, reading comprehension includes the ability to draw inferences and identify patterns and clues in a text.

For instance, if a child is reading about a person who decides to carry an umbrella, the child can infer that the person is expecting rain, or that rain may factor into the story somehow. 

A Word From Verywell

How early a child develops literacy can vary and can be affected by factors such as learning disabilities, vision, hearing, or speech impediments. It's important to watch for signs that your child isn't grasping some of the basic concepts above, in order to be sure they get whatever help they may need to thrive. 

1 Source
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  1. Michigan State University. ABC’s of Early Literacy: The importance of developing early literacy skills. 2013

By Carol Bainbridge
Carol Bainbridge has provided advice to parents of gifted children for decades, and was a member of the Indiana Association for the Gifted.