Reading for Your 4-Year-Old

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Now Is the Right Time!

As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship from the start, and growing skills that will help your 4-year-old child learn to read is a great way to do it.

Learning to read begins as early as possible, long before your child can read a word on a page. Young children begin to recognize the print that is all around them on signs, logos, and cereal boxes. No matter what age, it is always good to build a habit of reading books together, and there are many other things that you can do to develop early reading skills as well.

Reading skills are grown by talking and singing with your child, playing rhyming games together, noticing the print in your environment all around you, and reading to your child often to build their vocabulary and knowledge about the world.

Children are naturally very eager to learn and are interested in letters and sounds, particularly letters that are important to them (like the first letter of their name). Children are in the process of learning how people use language to think and communicate, and they are preparing to understand how that language can be put into writing. Language provides them with a new way to connect with you, an opportunity to express themselves and get their needs met, and a way to organize their thoughts about all of the experiences they are having with you. The early years are the right time for developing language skills, playing with sounds, and enjoying books together so children will be ready for reading in the future.

Throughout the early years, your child is turning to you to help them figure out what is important to pay attention to in the world. When you fill your child’s day with talking, singing, rhyming, and reading, they learn that language is important. Your child is interested in your voice, the words you choose, the rhythms of your speech, the songs you sing, and the books you love.

Often people face challenges in helping a child to learn to read. As your child is developing, though, it is important that they can turn to you to figure out when a challenge is the right size for them, and how to overcome feeling frustrated. Reading begins with fun with words and sounds and you. As your child gets older, learning to read may begin to feel more challenging, and it will help if they are ready to face these challenges.

The steps below include specific, practical strategies and conversation starters to help you have fun with your child while growing their language and early reading skills and building a relationship that includes reliable and unconditional support and love.


Why Reading?

Your child’s experiences including talking, singing, rhyming, reading, and playing with you are essential to developing a healthy brain, growing creativity skills, learning about language and emotions, strengthening their relationship with you, and cultivating lifelong reading skills.

You can begin by exposing your child to songs, sounds, and books they can explore! As time goes on, they will turn to you for new words and stories and will connect language and reading with the joy they feel when they are having fun with you.

Today, in the short term, getting ready to read can create

  • language skills that help your child communicate about their needs with you,
  • fun times with you as you learn new songs and stories together, and
  • a love of learning that will encourage your child to explore and be curious.

Tomorrow, in the long term, helping your child get ready to read

  • prepares your child for success in school;
  • provides a firm foundation for exploration, learning, and speaking up;
  • helps them identify thoughts and feelings and struggles, which grows self-awareness;
  • helps them manage impulses so they can stay focused on the story or on the letter they are trying to write, which grows self-management;
  • helps them become more socially aware as they learn how to take cues from others about how to use language together in games and songs;
  • helps them grow responsible decision-making skills as they learn good reading habits and they learn to ask for help when needed; and
  • creates shared family stories, games, and memories.

Five Steps for Building a Foundation for Reading Download a summary of the 5 steps

This five-step process helps you and your child in developing early reading skills together. It also builds important critical life skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).


These steps are done best when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.


Intentional communication and actively building a healthy parent relationship will support these steps.

Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input

Three-to-four-year olds may use five to six word sentences to communicate and may end up frustrated that they don’t know all of the words to express how they are feeling. Paying close attention to your child’s facial expressions, body movements, and sounds helps you better understand what they are trying to communicate.

Your efforts to learn from your child build trust and create empathetic interactions that let them know that you are interested in what they are thinking. This will make a big difference for setting the stage for early reading. Your child will give you lots of cues about what they are ready to learn. Every child is different, and your own child may change from day-to-day in how willing they are to sing new songs, have conversations, and listen to new stories.

You are getting to know your child’s cues and are learning to anticipate if talking about letters, reading more stories, or any other experience is right for today. Is your child feeling particularly tired? Did they just get hurt or are they hungry? Knowing how they are doing and what their facial expressions and body language mean will help you decide if an activity is right for your child.

In becoming sensitive to the nuances of your child’s verbal and nonverbal expressions, you

  • show them that they can trust you to notice how they feel;
  • let them know that you will help them face challenges;
  • help them advocate for themselves if something feels like too much for right now or if they need more support;
  • let them know they can trust you to help them navigate the experiences that are right for risk taking and which ones are not; and
  • deepen your ability to communicate with one another.


  • Language development and relationship development set the stage for later reading success. Simple questions can be conversation starters to engage your child in using language with you, and they also tell your child that you care about what they think and how they feel. Each time there is an opportunity, ask your child questions and help with prompts as needed so they can be successful.
    • “What do you notice? I notice…”
    • “How do you feel? I feel…”
    • “I wonder if the other person feels sad because their head is down. How do you think they might feel?”
    • “What are you wondering? I am wondering what happens next.”
  • In addition, help your child notice and name their own cues so they can develop self-awareness and learn to trust their own feelings. This includes describing and naming the pride they may feel when they have flipped through the pages of a new book.
  • When looking at signs, addresses, menus, grocery receipts, etc., stop and notice letters that are important to your child. Or, if they are ready, ask them if they can find their special letter anywhere. They will feel a sense of pride when they can eventually find it all by themselves.

Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling

3-4-year-olds are learning how to engage in healthy relationships through your loving interactions, which include growing skills that will help them learn how to read when they are older. Skill building takes intentional practice. Learning about developmental milestones can help a parent better understand what their child is experiencing.1

  • 3-4-year-olds are copying or mimicking adult words and actions.
  • 3-4-year-olds are growing in their sense of empathy for others and will attempt to comfort another crying child and will show affection for others without prompting.
  • 3-4-year-olds can carry a conversation offering two to three sentences but do not yet have a full emotional vocabulary to describe their body sensations when they are upset or dealing with any big feeling. A feelings vocabulary takes longer to develop.
  • 3-4-year-olds are eager to engage in pretend play by themselves and cooperatively with other children. Children gain vital practice with all of their developmental milestones through play.
  • 3-4-year-olds can show defiant behavior and test boundaries as they learn about the rules and attempt to understand your values.
  • 3-4-year-olds are able to show a wider range of emotions.
  • 3-4-year-olds are beginning to notice differences including culture and race making it a critical time to discuss inclusion and the essential nature of different perspectives in order to learn.

Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.


  • Read and pretend play together. Read books together during the day, as part of your bedtime routine, or pretend to be a librarian and lead a storytime for all of your child’s stuffed animals. Pretending to read is a wonderful way to experience what it will feel like to be a reader and to get a glimpse of the sense of pride and confidence that will come with it.
  • Ask your child what they notice when they see the letters in their name. Allowing plenty of wait time after you ask your child questions is critical for making sure they have time to get their thoughts and words together and say all that they would like to say. For example, if your child is looking at their name written on a piece of paper, you might trace the first letter with your finger to draw attention to it, and say, “I notice that you are looking at the first letter. That is your letter ‘S.’ It is the tallest letter in your name and it wiggles back and forth like this (tracing it again). Would you like to put your finger on it and see how it wiggles?” You might even name what expressions and body language you notice. “I see that you smile when you trace your letter ‘S.’ That letter is special because it is the first letter in your name.”
  • If your child is feeling unsure about letters or sounds, ask them to describe their emotions and then step back for a bit and return to talking, singing, and reading books together. If your child is getting frustrated, then you may be pushing reading too quickly for their developmental level. If you have any concerns about their development, you can reach out to a specialist for support. In the meantime, focusing on keeping learning fun will keep your child engaged and joyful.
  • Check out storytimes or other activities for children at your local library. These activities help children play with words, sounds, and develop a love for books and reading.
  • Make your thinking and emotions explicit. Talk about what you notice, how you are feeling, why you are feeling it, and what signs you are giving. “I have so much fun singing songs together with you. Sometimes you pick them, and sometimes I pick them. My favorite times are when we dance while we are singing!”
  • Talk aloud about the ways in which you respond to your own big feelings: “That story made me feel happy. I wanted to clap my hands.”
  • Cultivate a love of playing with language and stories. “I don’t like the ending of that story because it makes me wonder what would happen next. Do you ever wonder about what would happen next? We should put on a play to act out a different ending.”

Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits

Your daily routines are opportunities for your child to practice vital new skills. With practice, your child will improve over time as you give them the chance with support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child works hard toward a goal or demonstrates belief in themselves.

Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy — a child’s sense that they can do a task successfully. This leads to confidence. It helps them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning and getting ready to read.

To develop early reading skills, it is important to talk, sing, rhyme, read, and play.


  • Keep books within reach so your child can enjoy them when they choose.
  • Use books, songs, rhymes, and games at home that give children a chance to see examples of language and sounds all around them. With a voice recorder, for example, they can practice recording themselves and their loved ones and then listening to the recording again.
  • Use your child’s dolls or stuffed animals to act out moments of enjoying language and reading. This is a good way to practice what it feels like to be a reader and to build that part of your child’s identity. You can name the emotions that the doll might feel when your child reads it a book. “Does the doll have any questions about the story? What do you think the doll’s questions are?”
  • Notice and acknowledge when your child recognizes logos, signs, symbols, letters, and numbers when you are out and about. You can take advantage of all of this print your child sees and talk about the letters, words, and sounds. You can play the license plate game, where your child points out different letters on license plates as you drive. All of this different symbol, logo, and print recognition is the start of their emerging reading ability.
  • Provide opportunities for your child to use language and words in a way that is just a bit more challenging than what they have done before. The goal is to come up with experiences that are just beyond that with which they are comfortable. If they have already heard you read a favorite book to them many times, ask them if they would like to tell the story to you. Since they have so much experience with the book, they will not need to read the words to be able to tell the story and turn the pages as they go. Make sure it is a book they know well so this can feel like a successful experience.

Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success

At this point, you’ve engaged in various activities to get them excited and build a foundation for reading. You allow your child to practice so they can learn and grow.

Now, you can offer continued positive support. This support encourages your child and keeps learning to read a fun activity. Now is not the time to focus on correcting or getting things right. Now is the time to generate excitement and positive feelings about language and reading.


  • Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like: “I noticed how you were singing when you were playing. I love hearing that.”
  • On days with extra challenges when you can see your child is not interested in talking or reading as much, that’s OK. Don’t let reading become a chore.
  • Actively reflect on how your child is feeling when playing with language and words together. You can offer reflections like:
    • “I notice you make the letter sounds every time they come up in the song. That is my favorite part too, because it is so silly.”
    • Build reading and songs into your daily routines and comment on how important those parts of your routines are. “I noticed you like to sing songs when you are getting ready for bed. I love hearing you sing.”

Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation

No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.

Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and expanding your child’s self-esteem and confidence. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.

You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example,“You picked out the book and helped turn the pages — I appreciated that!”

Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying “If you sit and listen to the story at the library, I will give you a sticker” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You were such a good listener when the librarian was reading the story today. Love seeing that!”


  • Recognize and call out when it is going well. “I notice that you follow along when we move our bodies to the music. Great!”
  • Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
  • Build celebrations into your routine. Notice when your child tries something new, for example. These conversations might start happening naturally during your bedtime routine or when snuggling up to read stories together.


Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.


[1] Developmental Milestones. Retrieved on November 25, 2019 at
[2] Office of Child Development, University of Pittsburgh. Reading 1: Preparing for reading. Retrieved on April 20, 2020 at
Recommended Citation: Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2020). Reading. Ages 3-4. Retrieved from
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