Concepts About Print

How often have we said to our littlies that when they go to school they will learn to read?

We build it up as such an expectation that there are those who go home disappointed because they did not learn to read on the very first day!  It is why that I made sure every kindergarten student came to the library on Day 1 and went home with a book they had chosen themselves tucked safely into a smart library bag that also had a lot of other goodies in it so that the idea of the library being a good place to be was set from the start.

However, as well as building up their expectation that they will learn to read when they get to school, there is much we can do to start them on their way long before formal instruction begins and which will help them develop a positive attitude towards reading and be successful sooner.  It may take a little more than a day but it will happen.

Reading is a very complex process, a learned behaviour that is so much more than decoding a set of sounds.

Reading involves trying to duplicate in your head exactly what the author had in theirs- something that is impossible because our interpretations are shaped by our individual experiences – but nevertheless, the most successful readers are those who can best reduce the uncertainty of the meaning of the squiggles on the page.

When our little ones first see a page of print it looks like this to them…


It is a jumble of wiggles and squiggles that make no sense at all. (Click on the picture to enlarge it and see if you can work it out.)

Of course a picture would help enormously in giving some sort of lead but there are a number of other concepts, cues and clues that the experienced reader brings to the text to help them work out its message – concepts, cues and clues that we use unconsciously but which we expect our children to master by the time they are about 6; concepts cues and clues that we can help them start to develop and use as we read aloud to them each day from their earliest days as they curl up on our laps in anticipation.

Apart from the benefits of reading with your child from birth  – the most important of which is their understanding that reading is a valuable, valid and valued activity that is worthy of your time and effort –  there are lots of other things that children can internalise that will give them a headstart on reading and writing, as well as supporting their oral language and listening because each mode of language enriches and enhances the others.

Long before formal reading instruction starts in school, little ones are learning and absorbing information about reading, developing understandings and attitudes about it that will shape their mastery and success. If they are comfortable in a print environment they will not only anticipate that they succeed in reading, but they will expect to do so.

Making meaning

The central core of reading something is to make sense from the marks on the page and so very early on young children will expect that what you read to them will make sense. It will have meaning for them by connecting with what they already know and feel – critical for developing a stronger link between them and the story –  or they will be able to make new connections. Making these connections is an interactive process and it is why talking about the story and its illustrations with the child are so important.  (There are many suggestions for helping this in Reading With Your Child),

Learning in context is critical – even as adults we bring to any new situation or circumstance a range of background knowledge, understandings, skills, attitudes and values built on previous experiences and we flounder if we are in plunged into something so totally foreign that it makes no sense to us.  Stories open up a world for our children that they cannot yet experience for themselves so while they may never have seen a monkey, for example, pictures, discussions, actions and activities about them will help to build a minds-eye picture that they can draw on in the future.  

So building up an environment where print, in all its guises and formats,  is presented in natural and meaningful situations helps the child feel comfortable and builds their expectation that they will soon be able to control it for themselves.  Their motivation will come from within.

Covers are critical

Children choose stories because of the appeal of the front cover. It is the thing that says “Read me” to them more than the title, the author or even the topic.  Colour catches their eye first and then the focus of the picture particularly if it is something they recognise like a dog or a truck or even a popular television character.

Have a look at this cover

Fancy Pants

Even though the children were not yet able to work out the title and the author’s name is in small type, it was the one chosen from a selection of ten by a large majority of the group of preschoolers when they were asked which story they wanted to hear most.  When they were asked why, they said, “It looks like fun” and “We like stories about Australian animals.”

But there is much more that you can do with the cover than use it as a hook for the book.  Before you begin to read together, use it to focus the child’s thoughts about what the story is likely to be about. Have a conversation about the cover and ask them some questions such as

  • Who do you think will be in this story?
  • Anyone else?
  • Where do you think the story will take place? How do you know?
  • Remember when we went to the … and we saw…  Do you think there might be some of those in the story?

By getting them to make some simple predictions like this not only builds up the anticipation but also lets them begin to take risks within a very safe environment.  You don’t have to teach children for very long to know how much they enjoy having their thoughts confirmed and “Told you so!” is spread around the group!

Telling the child the title and the author is important as that helps their understanding of books in general, and if the author is one who is not only prolific but writes quality stories they are already familiar with, they will begin to add another selection strategy to their toolkit.

As well as setting them up for what is to come, the cover also helps build the concept of directionality. Knowing which way up the cover should be and the direction in which it opens begins the process of knowing their way around a book as well as learning positional words like ‘start’, ‘beginning’, finish and ‘end’.

It helps them learn which way to turn the pages – indeed, that a story continues over a few pages each one leading into the next until the tale is told. That, in itself, is another concept to understand as the child builds the idea that a book contains a complete story. Picture books are perfect for the very young because they usually deal with just one problem and its solution within its covers but as they mature, even quite young children can cope with longer books that have a complete story in one ‘chapter’ each featuring familiar characters from the previous episode.  This enables them to carry their thinking over several stories and several days. Later they will be ready for novels and even series, but it all builds from that initial expectation.

The Magic Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton is a perfect example of a stepping stone between picture book and novel.

The Magic Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton is a perfect example of a stepping stone between picture book and novel.


Print versus pictures

Unlike talking and listening, interpreting written language is not an innate behaviour – it is learned and right at the beginning of that learning is the difference between print and pictures.  While the best picture books are a seamless marriage of text and graphics, each has a separate role with the illustrations enriching and enhancing the words on the page.

Like the cover, it is critical to start with the picture so the child’s mind can focus on what is likely to happen in that phase of the story – it is the very beginning of making meaning as they begin to make connections between what they are seeing and hearing.  So talk about the pictures, have them tell you about what they think is happening, encourage them to look for familiar things and introduce new vocabulary for unfamiliar things, search for details and make predictions about emotions and actions. Then, when you read the text explicitly make the connection to the words so they know that they are carrying the author’s message.

What sorts of things could be explored in this iconic image from Possum Magic by Mem Fox?

Picture cues are even more important when children begin to read for themselves so the child who has learned to look at them in detail, recognise unfamiliar objects, interpret things like mood through the use of colour or movement through the use of lines is going to be at an advantage in predicting what the text will say.

If the child really tunes into the pictures you may well find that they will return to the book again and again independently “reading” it because the pictures act as triggers for the plot of the story. Even ifthey read it using different words each time, they are still laying solid foundations about the fun of reading and that it is something they will soon have control over.


Assuming we are working with and reading to children in English, learning left-to-right directionality is critical.  Knowing how we turn the pages and that the story starts or continues on the top left of the left-hand page and moves to the right and then back to the left again working down the page and then on to the top of the next page is a key concept that we often assume little ones know.

Teachers using big books or books on screens that all children can see will often use a pointer to follow the words as they are read to emphasise the direction of the print, but parents can also do it as they read using their finger in a flowing movement.  Asking the listener questions like “Can you show me with your finger where we start to read?’ and “Where do we go next?’   reinforces the concept while actively engaging them in the reading with movement and confirming their understanding.

Even when different fonts or shapes are used to emphasise different words, the best books still use that left to right, top to bottom format so that it becomes a natural tracking pattern for the eyes.

Words and Letters

While much is being made (again) of the need to teach and test phonics (the correlation between letters and the sounds they make) as an indicator of reading ability, children need to understand the concept of a word.  When we speak or read aloud we don’t put spaces between the words – everything just runs together in a blend of sounds that make sense to the ear if the brain has something to connect them to. It’s why early writers will often write “priminister” because they have not distinguished the two separate words of “prime minister”.

Without getting into a debate about phonics versus whole word learning, it is worth knowing that English is a confusing language to learn phonetically not only because of its diverse roots from so many other languages but also because we have just 26 units to represent about 44 sounds (depending on dialects). Our literature is littered with rhymes that highlight the difficulties that relying on letter-sound relationships can cause so helping young learners understand what a word is – defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing, used with others (or sometimes alone) to form a sentence and typically shown with a space on either side when written or printed – seems to make sense.

Perhaps the first and easiest word a child will recognise is their own name and then this is followed by the names of familiar things, particularly those for which there is a concrete connection and which have meaning for them.  The trickiest words are those that connect the nouns and verbs such as “my, to, is, said, here, the” and early childhood teachers have a variety of strategies that help make these sight words automatically recognised.

Back in the 70s Glenn Doman was promoting the concept of teaching toddlers to read by placing cards with the names of things like ‘television’ and ‘refrigerator’ on the actual objects so that the child would see them, make the connection between word and object and later recognise them out of context. Making explicit connections like this by writing the child’s name on clothing or books, or labelling their drawings or pointing out the word “monkey” underneath the picture of a monkey in a book certainly helps them develop the concept of what a word is so that when their formal reading instruction begins it is a concept that is mastered and they can match their finger to specific words.

Nevertheless, knowing the individual letters of the alphabet and the sound they make is a critical skill for reading as well as writing.

Early skill in letter knowledge [is] a good predictor of early progress in reading during the first year of instruction. Knowledge of letter names and sounds does not assure success in acquiring a sight vocabulary but lack of knowledge produces failure.

Donald D, Durrell


When a child comes to an unknown word in a text, a common strategy in early formal reading instruction is to say, “Get your mouth ready for…[the beginning letter of the word].  So knowing the sounds is essential and thus any strategies you can use to support this learning will be useful.  It is worthwhile knowing that research by Dr Marie Clay demonstrated that children who are developing their visual perception of print will identify

  1. sounds in the initial position
  2. sounds in the final position
  3. sounds in the medial position

and some letters such as ‘m’ and ‘s’ will be recognised before others.

There are a number of strategies that parents can use to help their children understand the concepts of words and letters including

  • writing their name in large letters, cutting  it into individual letters and then helping them reconstruct it into a word
  • writing captions to accompany the child’s drawing saying the words as they are written
  • writing captions to go with photographs of a special event
  • having the child trace and then copy the caption
  • having the child create their own book using pictures cut from magazines and then writing the word of the object underneath it which they then trace and copy
  • making individual letters (such as those in their name) using shaving foam, brush and water, even growing grass in a seed tray
  • making a sandwich (or something simple) and then constructing the instructions for it
  • watch the BBC’s Words and Pictures  series available on YouTube

Best practice to help them is to write like a book – beginning sentences and names with capital letters and then using lower case – so you are modelling not only what they see but also what they will be expected to do.

The Role Play Reader

Children will mimic what they see the significant adults in their world doing and so role-play reading is an important step in the continuum of becoming a reader. Thus the model we offer and the encouragement we give are critical.

Already she knows that books bring pleasure

Already she knows that books bring pleasure

There are many signs that your child is in the role-play reader phase…

  • being curious about print
  • having favourites that they want read repeatedly
  • being able to select their favourite from a number of choices
  • remembering the words so they can either read it with their eyes shut or tell the reader that they’ve missed a bit or got it wrong
  • making connections between print and context particularly signs and labels and their objects
  • picking out their own name amongst others and seeing the letters in their name in other words
  • being happy to sit and look at books even without them being read to them
  • asking an adult to write a story to go with the picture they have drawn
  • acting out stories and retelling them
  • enjoying the rhythm of our language through songs and rhymes,
  • connecting their own experiences to those of the characters in the stories
  • growing in confidence to predict what will happen next
  • joining in with favourite parts, either completing a repeated sentence or mimicking noises or even shouting, or wriggling and jiggling at appropriate places
  • asking questions about the story
  • choosing new books for themselves
  • viewing visiting the local library as a wonderful excursion
  • enjoying listening to recorded stories 
  • reading a favourite story to a toy or teddy

Because it is the foundation for developing attitudes and expectations about reading, this is the most fundamental and important phase of the reading journey and something that every parent and grandparent can help develop while having the best fun together.

PS.  That bunch of squiggles in the picture – the only clue is that it’s title is Jack and the Beanstalk. Now put yourself in the shoes of a beginning reader to work it out and take note of the strategies you use automatically, including what you already know of the story and how that helps you and those you need to really concentrate on to make it make sense.  It’s worth doing just so we can go back to being a five-year-old again!

Key References and Readings (for the purists)

Clay, Marie.M. (1972) Reading: The patterning of complex behaviour Heinemann Educational, Auckland

Clay, Marie M. (1979) The Early Detection of Reading Difficulties: A diagnostic survey with recovery procedures Heinemann Educational, Auckland

Clay, Marie M.(1972) Sand Heinemann Educational, Auckland

Clay, Marie M.(1979) Stones Heinemann Educational, Auckland

Education Department of Western Australia (1994) First Steps: Reading Developmental Continuum. Longman, Melbourne

Kemp, M. Children’s Understanding of Reading Language School of Education, Canberra College of Advanced Education

Plus all the other stuff I’ve read, learned and practised over 45 years of teaching littlies to read, including six university qualifications


Prepared by

Barbara Braxton

Grad. Dip. Ed (Literacy and Language Education), M.Ed.(TL) , M.App.Sci (TL),  M.I.S. (Children’s Services)


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Concepts About Print by Barbara Braxton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on a work at

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