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Teaching Preschoolers Reading, Writing, and Math

WebMD explains the best methods for teaching preschoolers how to read, write, and apply math skills.

When it comes to helping your preschool-aged child work on language and math skills, it’s best to find games and activities you both enjoy. This can lay the foundation for a positive attitude toward learning.  

“My perspective is that whatever parents do to teach children this age, they need to make it playful and fun,” says Pamela High, MD, professor of pediatrics at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and director of the division of developmental-behavioral pediatrics at Rhode Island Hospital. “You don’t want children to turn off to it because it’s too difficult for them.”

High tells WebMD that a good preschool or other early education program can help your child learn basic language and math concepts, as well as skills like being able to share and get along with other children. “These social and emotional skills are just as important for school success,” she says.

But experts say that preschoolers (ages 3-5) also benefit a great deal from the informal learning experiences that parents can build into everyday interactions and routines. Here’s how you can foster your child’s interest in reading, writing, counting, and more.

Building Reading and Writing Skills

You can prepare your child for reading and writing when you:

  • Read aloud to your child and discuss the characters, pictures, and events in the book. “Ask your child questions, such as: ‘What do you see in this picture?’ or ‘What do you think the bears will do next?’” says Kathy H. Barclay, EdD, professor of early childhood and reading in the department of curriculum and instruction at Western Illinois University.
  • Point out new words in books. For example, Barclay says that after you read: “She took a small nibble of the porridge,” you could say: “It says she took a small nibble. That means she took a really tiny bite of the porridge. Do you ever nibble your food?”
  • Sing songs and read books with rhymes and play rhyming games. “Rhyming patterns help children become aware of the individual sounds of language,” Barclay says.
  • Play with alphabet magnets and letter stamps so your child will start learning about letters. “Help your child learn to recognize the letters in her own name and in the names of family members and friends,” Barclay says.
  • Give your child crayons, pencils, markers, and paper and encourage her to scribble and draw. Eventually she’ll start trying to write letters. But don’t worry about whether she is forming letters correctly in these early stages, Barclay says. It’s more important that she develops motor skills and becomes comfortable with writing.

Learning a Second Language

If you’d like to teach your child a second language, the preschool years are a great time to do it. “For most children, the earlier they’re exposed to other languages, they more fluent they’re likely to be as they get older,” High says.

One way to teach your child to be bilingual is to speak, sing, and read to them in both languages from the time they’re born. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, learning more than one language will not cause a child to develop speech or language problems.

Developing Basic Math Skills

To introduce your child to numbers and other math concepts, you can:

  • Count things out loud together. For instance, you can count how many carrots are on a plate or how many pennies you’re putting in a piggy bank. Juanita Copley, PhD, emeritus professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Houston, suggests walking along a path and counting each line in the sidewalk.
  • Ask your child to point out the numbers he sees around him -- for example, while you’re riding in the car or shopping at the supermarket.
  • Encourage your child to build towers with blocks. “Discuss what they’re building using words like under, over, between, inside, outside, up, and down,”  Copley says. This can help them learn about geometry.
  • Sort objects with your child by color, size, or shape. While you’re folding laundry, you can ask your child to sort the white socks into one pile and the blue socks into another pile. This teaches them to compare whether objects are the same or different.
  • Play a game with your child in which you try to toss six pom-poms into a hula hoop. Help him count how many of the pom-poms land inside the hoop and how many land outside. “Your child will see that numbers can be broken into parts and that leads to an understanding of basic addition,” Copley says. 
  • Teach your child about measuring with cups and tablespoons while you cook. Ask them to help you count how many cups of flour you’re adding to the cookie batter.

Learning at Their Own Pace

Keep in mind that children develop their math and language skills at different rates. If you’re concerned about your child’s development, talk with your pediatrician. 

It’s possible that a child who is struggling with language, for example, may have a hearing problem. Your pediatrician can evaluate whether your child may have physical or learning problem and, if necessary, refer you to a specialist.

Encouraging Your Child’s Interests

If you find that your preschooler is drawn to one particular area, such as math, you can build on that by working on other skills at the same time.  “If they’re interested in numbers, read a book together that has numbers in it,” High says.

You can also spark their curiosity by choosing books with their favorite characters and activities that allow them to show their talents. “You want to find your child’s particular strengths and gifts and give them the opportunity to demonstrate them,” High says. “That will feed their self-esteem and help them work on areas that may not come as easily to them.”  

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