By Amy Vickrey, MSE

Many times I hear questions about what children need to learn at young ages. What curriculum should parents be choosing and using? At what level do they need to be reading or writing? How much math should they know?

The honest answer is…it depends on where your child is at and what they are ready for.

Many studies have shown that there is no long term benefit to pushing a child to accomplish things before they are ready. In fact, in some cases there may even be long term negative effects. A lot can be done without buying curriculum or sitting down to work in a workbook. Before your child even holds a pencil, reads a book, or does a math problem, there are many skills that need to be mastered before your child is ready for more “formalized” education. Here are some pre-academic skills to prepare your child for reading, writing, and formal arithmetic.

Before children ever begin reading, there are many skills that can and should be worked on. Many of these skills happen in everyday conversations and when reading stories to children.

Letter Knowledge – It is important for children to learn the names of the letters and to recognize both upper and lowercase versions, as well as the font differences in letters like a and g (older script fonts have a different style for a and g than more modern print fonts). ABC books are available on just about any topic and kids really love them.

Letter Fluency – Being able to name letters automatically without having to think about them is a precursor to reading fluency. This can be done a few letters at a time. Make a game by seeing how many your child can get the first time. Each day they will get a few more. Review any that are missed or need longer to identify (be sure to allow more time for children who have slower visual processing).

Letter Sounds – Being able to identify the basic sounds letters make (and if they make more than one sound like a, c, e, g, i, o, u, and y) is another basic pre-reading skill. To do this I have created a simple book with the letter and a picture and each day we review the letters, sounds, and pictures. As this becomes routine, my children begin to learn the letters and sounds and at least one word that begins with this sound.

Phonemic Awareness – This is a huge “buzz word” in the early childhood teaching world right now. However, you are most likely already doing it. Here are the parts of phonemic awareness and some simple activities for each.

  • Syllables – breaking words into their parts – clap, jump, stomp the syllables of familiar words like banana – ba-na-na (3 claps)
  • Alliteration – Most or all of the words begin with the same sound – Sally sells sea shells by the sea shore (tongue twisters)
  • Rhyming – words sound alike at the end like cat and hat (Dr. Seuss is great for rhyming)
  • Onset-Rime – the onset is the first sound in a word (/c/) and the rime is the rest of the word (/at/). When you put them together you get c-at, CAT! (you can give your child the two parts and have them put them together)
  • Compound Words – two unrelated words come together to create a new word, like rain and bow go together to make rainbow (you can give your child the two words and have them put them together)
  • Segmenting – breaking words apart. Say CAT, C-A-T, CAT
  • Blending – putting words back together – C-A-T makes CAT

Phonemic awareness activities are very important to learning to read by phonics and other methods. It equips children to later be able to decode words, find words within words, and perform other effective reading strategies.

Before a child holds a pencil to write his/her name, there are a lot of skills that need to be mastered to help build hand muscles.

  • Pouring using 2 hands – pouring out of pitchers and buckets
  • Pouring using 1 hand – measuring cups and bath toys
  • Squeezing bath toys
  • Using tongs, children’s chopsticks, and other small tools to pick things up
  • Making balls and snakes out of play-doh (gluten free/allergy friendly play-doh is available for those like my son who cannot use traditional playdoh)
  • Painting – with finger paints, brushes, q-tips, cars, sponges, stamps, and a variety of other tools
  • Using a variety of tools for play – crayons, pencils, pens, markers, sidewalk chalk, dry erase markers
  • Stickers – great for developing pincer grip (what is needed for gripping a pencil – using two fingers and thumb)


There are many math skills that can be accomplished without paper and pencils that will prepare your child for more formal math curriculum.

  • Identifying colors ( if your child really struggles with identifying colors after age 5, and especially if colorblindness runs in your family, you may want to consult your doctor about the possibility of colorblindness)
  • Identifying numbers (0-9 to start with)
  • Counting by rote (counting with just saying numbers, not counting objects) – my goal was 20 by the time he was 5, and then to 100 before first grade
  • Counting objects (up to 10)
  • Understanding that the last item counted is the quantity represented (if child counts ducks, 1, 2, 3 – he understands that there are 3 ducks)
  • Being able to identify the quantity of objects without counting (up to 5)
  • Sorting by color, size, texture, or other feature
  • Making simple patterns (block, car, block, car…)
  • Doing simple addition and subtraction problems using objects (2 bears sat in the car, 1 more bear got in, how many are in the car now? *as your child moves the bears into the car and counts the bears*)
  • Saying/singing days of the week and months of the year
  • Identifying seasons
  • Using counting books, shape books, and other math concept books to gently introduce math concepts


Other subjects:
My son loved science. We used educational videos and apps to allow him to explore his interests in the world of science, animals, dinosaurs, and other topics. He now reads books on many topics, and we work to make books available to him on subjects he is interested in. Using “living books” is a great way to introduce them to many different subjects, topics, and interests for them to explore in greater depth later in their homeschooling career.

As I watch my almost 7 year old transition into more formal academics this year, I am excited to watch how the foundation we have laid for him is helping him accomplish great things in his work and help him pursue his interests. My 2 year old wants to be involved and doing “big boy school” too, so we are just beginning to gently guide him through the beginning of these types of activities. He is drawing, playing with stickers, doing play-doh and puzzles, “reading” books and having books read to him, exploring alphabet books and letter sounds. When the time comes for him to learn more formally, he too will be ready.

For more information please check out the SPED Homeschool Preschool Pinterest board plus these topic specific links:

5 Quick and Fun Phonemic Awareness Activities
Phonemic Awareness Activities for Kindergarten

Pre-writing Pointers
The 3 Steps of Forming Letters 
Spacing, Sizing, and Alignment

299 Ways to Help Your Child Develop Early Math Skills
Preschool Math
15 Hands-On Math Activities for Preschoolers


Did you know SPED Homeschool is 100% donor funded?

Donate today