The University of Iowa

Literacy Education at Home: Approaches for Practicing Reading and Writing

Family reading time

Approaches like reading with children and helping them through unfamiliar words with a set of three clues allows for literacy learning in the home in addition to formal education at school.


Posted on: January 23, 2018

Reading and writing skills start to be built in the home and continue to be reinforced in elementary school. Through active participation with your child and thoughtful consideration of the literacy skills your child is working on, families can ensure that literacy practices in the home connect with the instruction teachers provide at school.

Look, Listen, Think: Go Beyond Just “Sound it Out”

When children become stuck on a word while reading, there are more ways to help than just asking them to “sound it out.” Reading is a cognitive system in which many skills or pieces need to work together (Aboud, Bailey, Petrill, & Cutting, 2016). There are three clues that readers can use when they are trying to read an unfamiliar word or when they think they have made a mistake:

  • Look: Get clues from the letters in the word. This is similar to “sound it out.” Help children use this clue by pointing to the letters and saying, “Look at this letter. What does that letter sound like?” 
  • Listen: Listen to how the sounds and words fit our language. Prompt children to, “Listen to the sentence as you read it. Does that sound right to you?”
  • Think: Consider what would make sense given the context provided by the text. Challenge children to, “Think about the story. What word would make sense right there?”

These three clues are on the bookmarks available below in the “Resources” section. Keep the bookmark with you while you read with your child as a reminder of the different ways to support repairing any breakdowns in identifying words or understanding the text. Teachers may also keep the bookmarks next to their reading group stations.

Encourage Children to Write More

Parents and teachers often think that writing comes after learning to read. However, research findings show that learning to write can help the child learn to read (Collins, Lee, Fox, & Madigan, 2017; Graham & Hebert, 2011). When children write their own texts and then read those texts to themselves or others, they already know the texts’ meaning. This allows them to focus on the mechanics (i.e., sentence formation, spelling, punctuation) while writing and the sound clues (i.e., the “Look” clue from the previous section and bookmark) while reading back the texts they produced. As students practice writing for someone else to read, they have to think about what that audience needs to be provided or told to understand the written piece. Engaging in this process as writers helps students gain a better understanding that books and stories have a purpose and a plan, which also may draw students’ attention to the structure of stories written by other authors. At home, children can write their own imaginative stories to read to family members. In addition, children can write letters (handwritten or typed) to send to family members, neighbors, or friends.  

To encourage your child to write, this website offers fun lined paper you can download and print.  Children have amazing imaginations, so encourage them to generate their own ideas for what to write about, rather than always providing a prompt or suggestion. Teachers and parents alike can respond to a child asking for an idea by saying, “It’s your story, so you will do the best job of coming up with the idea!” Once children learn that adults will not give them the ideas, they will be more likely to explore their imaginations and come up with some amazing stories!

Read Together

The amount of time children spend reading is related to their literacy achievement (Buckingham, Wheldall, & Beaman-Wheldall, 2013). Before children can read independently, listening to a skilled adult reader can help them learn the structure of stories and the way our language works. When children are ready to try reading themselves, they will have a framework for what readers do and how they make sense of a story. Listening to someone read helps children with all three of the clues on the bookmark: looking at the letters while hearing them blended into words, listening to the flow of the language, and thinking about the meaning of the text.

To provide opportunities for young children to listen to books when adults are not able to read with them, try sharing recordings of children’s books being read, such as the videos available on this “Storytime Castle” YouTube Channel. In the videos, children can see the words on the page while they listen to adults read the books.

Talk to Each Other

Basic everyday conversation may seem inconsequential, but oral language experiences do contribute to children’s comprehension abilities (Lee & Tsai, 2017). Asking children questions and talking about the things in their world can help them learn language structures and new vocabulary words. Use a variety of words in your conversations, including sophisticated vocabulary for which you can provide brief, child-friendly definitions or explanations. Use those same vocabulary words frequently throughout the day. New words are learned by experiencing them in meaningful contexts over multiple exposures—not from a definition heard one time (Lenfest & Reed, 2015). The bigger children’s oral vocabulary, the better their reading achievement will be when they enter elementary school (Morgan, Farkas, Hillemeier, Hammer, & Maczuga, 2015).

Do Not Be Afraid to Ask for Help

Teachers and family members are very busy, but they both want the best for children. Parents may decline to dialogue with the teacher about literacy learning at home for fear they are bothering the teacher, while teachers may feel they do not hear enough from the parents. When teachers communicate with families and families get involved in their children’s schools, students experience higher reading achievement (Galindo & Sheldon, 2012). Caregivers should not hesitate to ask the teacher questions by sending an email, calling the school, or scheduling a meeting. Likewise, teachers should make efforts to reach out to their students’ families. Caregivers know their children best and might have advice for how to reach a child.

By taking the time to align reading at home with literacy instruction at school in these ways, you help maximize the benefits of family reading time to the advantage of children as they grow as readers and writers.


PDF iconSet of Four Look, Listen, and Think Bookmarks

Help young readers when they encounter unfamiliar word by helping them to look, listen, and think about the word with these questions.


Aboud, K. S., Bailey, S. K., Petrill, S. A., & Cutting, L. E. (2016). Comprehending text versus reading words in young readers with varying reading ability: Distinct patterns of functional connectivity from common processing hubs. Developmental Science, 19, 632-656. doi: 10.1111/desc.12422 | Full text

Buckingham, J., Wheldall, K., & Beaman-Wheldall, R. (2013). Why poor children are more likely to become poor readers: The school years. Australian Journal of Education57, 190-213. doi:10.1177/0004944113495500

Collins, J. L., Lee, J., Fox, J. D., & Madigan, T. P. (2017). Bringing together reading and writing: An experimental study of writing intensive reading comprehension in low-performing urban elementary schools. Reading Research Quarterly52, 311-332. doi:10.1002/rrq.175

Galindo, C., & Sheldon, S. B. (2012). School and home connections and children's kindergarten achievement gains: the mediating role of family involvement. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 27, 90-103. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2011.05.004

Graham, S., & Hebert, M. (2011). Writing to read: A meta-analysis of the impact of writing and writing instruction on reading. Harvard Educational Review81, 710-744. doi: 10.17763/haer.81.4.t2k0m13756113566

Lee, S. H., & Tsai, S. (2017). Experimental intervention research on students with specific poor comprehension: A systematic review of treatment outcomes. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal30, 917-943. doi:10.1007/s11145-016-9697-x

Lenfest, A., & Reed, D. K. (2015). Enhancing basal vocabulary instruction in kindergarten. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice30, 43-50. doi:10.1111.ldrp.12050

Morgan, P. L., Farkas, G., Hillemeier, M. M., Hammer, C. S., & Maczuga, S. (2015). 24-month-old children with larger oral vocabularies display greater academic and behavioral functioning at kindergarten entry. Child Development86, 1351-1370. doi:10.1111/cdev.12398 | Full text