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Helping Young Children Learn: What Parents Can Do

We know that from the time a child is born they grow and learn. As parents, we don’t call it “literacy,” but that is the term educators use to describe the set of skills that help children learn to read and write. Parents of children with disabilities may want to be more intentional about laying the foundation for these learning skills.

"Young children learn to listen, talk, read, and write as a result of their involvement in interesting activities,” says Judy Swett, PACER’s early childhood staff advocate. “By talking, reading, singing, and playing with your infant, toddler, or preschooler, you are providing the foundation that helps your child develop reading, language, and writing skills.”

For some children with disabilities or developmental delays, these skills may develop more slowly than those of typical children. Doing activities with your child that are appropriate for his or her developmental level will encourage and support the growth of these skills. “From the moment babies are born, they begin developing literacy skills through their relationship with their parents and other adults,” Swett says.

Talk, Listen, Learn

Annalia Koren is a happy young child who likes arts and crafts, loves to play with her cousin’s dog, and enjoys building with LEGO. She also loves learning to read. Annalia’s mom has been helping her daughter develop literacy skills from the time her child was born. “I have always read to Annalia every night,” says Ruthy Koren, whose daughter is now 5 years old. “She really likes reading.”

Young children learn best through play or by being engaged in fun activities, whether that is with their parents or other adults in their lives. Encourage those who spend time interacting with your child throughout the day to talk, play, and share their experiences with your child, too.

Here are some fun activities you can do with your child on a daily basis to encourage the development of reading and writing skills.


  • Look at books together, naming and pointing to pictures of familiar objects such as a car, a ball, a shoe, or a cup. Then have the child name the object.
  • Sing fun songs, recite nursery rhymes, or carry on a conversation with your child during diaper changes.
  • Name the parts of the body, pointing to eyes, ears, hands, feet, and so on.


  • With most children you can make a game out of just about anything. When riding in the car, children enjoy naming familiar places and things they see out the window. This could include naming the color of cars, identifying animals, or talking about signs along the highway. “Annalia loves to do the ABC game,” Ruthy said. “We try to name things that match the letters of the alphabet.”
  • Music is an excellent source of inspiration for parents and children alike, and many families sing familiar songs together. “My daughter has CDs of her favorite children’s songs that she sings along to,” says Ruthy.


  • Is it time for your child’s bath? When preschoolers are in the tub, parents can help their child name objects in the bathroom, identify toys in the water, or point out his or her “heads, shoulders, knees, and toes.”
  • Grocery shopping is a family activity and a wonderful opportunity to help your child learn. Next time you are going to the supermarket, talk with your child about the things you intend to buy. In the store, you can identify items on the shelf together. It’s a fun activity and you will be helping your son or daughter develop early reading skills.
  • Helping children develop the skills they need to learn to read and write does not require you to purchase expensive resources or go out of your way to buy anything. Consider how many of these reading materials you may already have at home:

    • Books
    • Newspapers
    • Magazines
    • Catalogs
    • Takeout menus
    • Brochures or fliers
    • Grocery lists
    • Recipes
    • Calendars

    A library card can be a parent’s best friend! Many libraries have fun family reading activities and offer a variety of resources.

    “Annalia loves the library and we go about once a week,” Ruthy says. “We do a lot of activities there and even before she could read I always let her choose any book she wanted. She gets so excited about anything new, and she really likes things that she has seen in a video or a movie.”

    Nothing Better than a Book

    From the grocery store to the gas station, there are many ways to help your child develop reading, writing, and language skills on a daily basis, but there is still nothing quite like sitting down with your child and sharing the simple satisfaction of a good book.

    Most families are busy and you may need to be intentional about planning the time to read with your children, but it is a worthwhile goal. “I think it is important to sit down and spend time reading with Annalia,” Ruthy said. “I know in the long run it will make a difference.”

    Helpful Tools

    PACER offers a wide variety of resources for parents of children with disabilities to encourage the development of early literacy. Here are a few tools parents can use.

    Let’s Talk and Count! Activity Cards

    Lets Talk and Count! is an easy and fun way to interact with your child and help him or her be ready for reading and counting. Use the cards to build your child’s vocabulary, speaking skills, and early math skills. No special supplies are needed — just you and your child! Also available in Spanish, Hmong, and Somali, sets are $4 each with discounts for larger quantities. To order, call PACER at 952-838-9000 and ask for item PHP-a27.

    The Center for Early Learning Literacy (CELL)

    CELL offers many resources to help parents and professionals guide a child’s early literacy development through the use of fun and exciting learning experiences. All of the tools were developed for children ages birth to 5 with identified disabilities and/ or developmental delays.

    Tips to Support Reading and Writing: Every Writer Needs a Pencil

    When a young child writes a note to her mother in crayon, adults might see it as random squiggles. In reality, these are the foundation of conventional writing. This pdf handout shares tips on supporting the development of writing for children with significant disabilities.

    Tips to Support Reading and Writing for Children with Significant Disabilities

    Researchers have examined how best to support learners with significant disabilities so they can improve their reading, writing, and communication skills. This pdf handout offers ideas on how to encourage your son or daughter to read and write.

    Tips to Support Reading and Writing: Every Child Needs a Voice

    Communication is a lifelong process that begins at birth, and listening and speaking are important parts of literacy learning. This pdf handout explores options for parents of children with significant disabilities to provide access to the words that will help their child develop important reading, writing, and communication skills.