The Joy and Power of True PRE-Literacy

I’m thrilled to introduce Heather Shumaker as today’s guest writer.  I have really loved connecting with her and I can’t wait to let you know what we’ve been working on for all of you!  For now I’ll tell you this:  You do not want to miss out on tomorrow’s post!  Today, however, I just want you to enjoy what Heather’s put together for you!


My 5-year-old comes home singing a song from kindergarten. The tune is Yankee Doodle, but they’ve altered the words: “Sentences are fun to write, but first you need a letter, start it with a capital…”

I’m all in favor of songs, but the current focus on formal literacy for young kids is misplaced. There’s no hurry to learn to read. What most young children need is time and space for pre-literacy.

Pre-literacy is getting the squeeze. But it’s vital for all kids – especially those without books and bedtime stories at home. Pre-literacy is simply about filling a child’s world with words – words that give joy, power and meaning.


Nursery rhymes, silly finger chants, songs, picture books, stories told aloud, puppet shows and poems. This is the base of language, rhythm, rhyme and storytelling.  It’s fun and joyful. We need to fill their heads with songs, rhymes and stories.


The single most powerful act is creating a new story. The child’s story. Let the child dictate a story as you write it down. Kids love hearing their own words read back to them and adding pictures. Dictated writing creates storytellers.


My favorite time to teach early literacy is during a temper tantrum. That’s when written words can have the most heartfelt meaning. When a child is crying, raging or just plain sad, offer to write down her words in a letter. “Let’s write down how you feel. Dear Mommy, I’m mad…” Kids respond beautifully because words are capturing their deepest feelings. They understand writing has emotional meaning and relevance to their lives.

I admit, most of us feel downright foolish the first time we reach for a pen when our child is squalling. But it works magic.


Here’s what one parent (of a 2-year-old) said –

We just started writing letters to our son in the last few weeks.  I will be honest: I did not think it would work. But it sounded so wonderful that I thought we should do it for practice, so he could “get it” later. Well, he got it right away! It’s stopped every tantrum cold, and last night, the most incredible thing happened at bedtime. Our son was starting to ramp up into a tantrum because he wanted to play with the vacuum at bedtime…and as he began to cry he wailed, “Write note!” My heart must have skipped a beat! We raced out to the kitchen and wrote his note, and that was the end of tears.

Teaching the alphabet is a stepping stone that can wait. Don’t stop a kid who’s an early reader, but make sure kids don’t miss out on the rich world of pre-literacy.

author image

Heather Shumaker is the author of It’s OK Not to Share and Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids* (Tarcher/ Penguin, 2012) which was named one of the Best Parenting Books of 2012 by Parents magazine on  She’s a speaker, blogger and advocate for free play and no homework for young children. Heather lives in northern Michigan with her family where she blogs at

(*Affiliate link)

Have you read Heather’s book?  I’d love to hear from you if you have!



Filed under Building Readers, Child Development & DAP

12 Responses to The Joy and Power of True PRE-Literacy

  1. This is AWESOME! We are ALWAYS singing songs! Sometimes my kids and I sing our conversations and directions to each other. It helps prevent the yelling when someone isn’t doing a good job of listening. I am DEFINITELY going to try the note writing with my youngest! She is throwing the most tantrums, and I think it’s because she has a harder time communicating. I’m sure her brother will want to participate once we get it started. Thank you for the words of advice and encouragement!

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  3. This is so wonderful to read, and reassuring to have my instincts confirmed. So many people have suggested I should soon get some alphabet-related educational tools for my son but I have resisted, feeling just as this post described, that the engaging stuff like songs and stories and picture books should come first. We read a lot and describe things to each other (as much as a 13-month-old can!) and I sense that our ‘conversations’ are important to him as that’s how he can make people listen to his feelings. There is plenty of time to learn the alphabet, once he’s fallen in love with words and stories and rhythm and rhyme! Thanks so much for this point of view. Ginny

  4. Dorothy

    My daughter was an early reader but not so much with the writing. However, she got the idea to write us little notes. Indescernable as they were, they were vital to her calming down process. She now still does this and the notes are easier to understand. I love that she can find a way to communicate with us as well as work out her frustration and feelings by turning to writing.

  5. Pam

    While I agree with your belief in the importance of pre-literacy, I am stumped at the tantrum behavior.You suggest that in the middle of a tantrum about bed time that it is somehow good that your son demands to write a note, thus making another demand of you, and still delaying bed time? I suggest instead a bed time pattern, this is bed time, this is what we do to get ready for bed. No we do not play with the vacuum at this moment, no we do not scream, no we do not write a note about our mean parents making us go to bed. Well you can throw a tantrum, but you will do it in your room and not subject others to it. If it continues for too long then you may miss your bedtime story.
    My husband and I raised three children, none of whom were tantrum throwers, because there was no reward for them. Seriously, no reward, we did not, in the middle of a tantrum, stop what we were doing to put their thoughts down on paper. On many occasions we did write down their thoughts for them and as they got older they wrote their own notes to us. But never would I have indulged a tantrum, we just didn’t. Our oldest threw his first tantrum in a public location, the parking lot of a Navy Commissary, after he was done screaming we told him that we were sorry he was mad, but we were still going grocery shopping. It was also his last. Similar events happened with our other kids. Our daughter threw her first one at home and was introduced to the tantrum rule: Go ahead throw a tantrum, but you do it in your room, no one else need suffer through this with you. Every one of our foster kids also learned this lesson. And we never had more than one actual tantrum from one of them. And yes, we were a loving house hold, but a place where our kids learned boundaries. Which amazingly meant that our children learned to calm themselves down when they were upset and that it was not okay to scream at others, or to make demands of them.

    • Snow

      What a paragon on motherhood you are! I’m going to try your techniques today. I just know that as soon as I tell my children no at the beginning of a tantrum that they will just accept my will and calm down, just like every kid that you raised. I wish someone had told me how well saying no works on children. I surely would have tried it sometime in the last four years, and knowing how well and easily it works from your experience… well golly, I just can’t wait! This is going to be a new day in our house. I’m going to say no and everything will be fine instantly!

  6. Dee

    I nanny for a 3 year old & her 18 month old sister. I’m hoping the note writing will help with the 3 year old who often reverts to baby talk/ gesturing for attention. Thank you for the idea.

  7. Maria

    I can’t wait to try this! I actually just finished reading her book yesterday. It was so good that I finished it in 2 days (while taking care of 2 toddlers)! I immediately used a couple of suggestions she recommended in the book and worked like a charm. I think the book is great especially for the parents. As a parent, I feel like I need to please other parents and be nice to everybody instead of focusing on my kids’ “rights” as the author puts it. The book is excellent and would recommended it to moms with young kids!

  8. Great post, Heather! As a speech language pathologist who specializes in treating toddlers and preschoolers who have language delays, I often advise my parents to wait teaching the ABCs and to hold off on buying advertised educational toys. But, I LOVE to incorporate books into my sessions. Books with repetitive lines are great and stories that children can relate to, make the “reading” experience meaningful. As Heather mentioned, pre-literacy is much more than learning the alphabet. Sing the books, dress up and act out stories or use puppets and props! The more your child is actively engaged in the language learning experience, the more he or she will learn, want to talk, and down the road want to read.

  9. Ann Morris Bruehler

    Amen! I have been teaching preschool to 2-5 year-olds for many years, and am often questioned about teaching the alphabet. So many people think literacy begins there. It is so important to begin by talking and reading to children about everything in their environment and beyond. Great article!

  10. Oh my gosh the tantrum note idea is brilliant! My kids love love love ‘pre literacy’ activities and it has made learning the alphabet something they wanted to do on their own. They are very keen to be able to read so we are taking it very slow but still enjoying language for fun!

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