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20Q: Incorporating Literacy into Early Intervention, Preschool & Home

20Q: Incorporating Literacy into Early Intervention, Preschool & Home
Karen Thatcher, EdD, CCC-SLP
June 28, 2019

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From the Desk of Ann Kummer


Literacy development begins well before children enter primary school and even before they enter preschool. In fact, between birth and the age of 3, children develop not only oral language, but also necessary skills that are the foundation for learning to read and write. The lack of literacy experiences in these early years can have a negative impact on a child’s literacy skills later on. This is a particular concern in that it is well established that impaired reading and writing skills can ultimately impact the child’s cognitive development and academic success. Because it is so important to promote a child’s interest in books in the first few years of life, I am happy that Karen Thatcher, EdD, CCC-SLP has submitted this 20Q article entitled Incorporating Literacy into Early Intervention, Preschool & Home.

Dr. Thatcher’s career has been focused on language and literacy in early intervention and the importance of an interdisciplinary approach. She has authored or co-authored several articles and also has a new book on this topic, which is as follows: Thatcher, K. (2017). Fun with literacy: 100s of Activities, Exercises, and Tips for the Classroom & Therapy (Birth-Preschool), PESI Publishing, Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Dr. Thatcher is currently Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. Previous to teaching at Samford University, Dr. Thatcher was Assistant Professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. 

In this article, Dr. Thatcher discusses the critical importance of early literacy exposure for the development of oral language and subsequent academic success. She emphasizes that literacy opportunities are particularly important for children with special needs. She also describes the “red flags” for early literacy difficulties. Finally, she talks about how speech-language pathologists can create and implement literacy opportunities during early intervention therapy.

This article is particularly relevant to pediatric speech-language pathologists. It will also be of great interest to those of us who are parents or grandparents of children under the age of five.

Now…read on, learn, and enjoy!

Ann W. Kummer, PhD, CCC-SLP, FASHA, 2017 ASHA Honors
Contributing Editor 

Browse the complete collection of 20Q with Ann Kummer CEU articles at www.speechpathology.com/20Q

20Q:  Incorporating Literacy into Early Intervention, Preschool & Home

Learning Outcomes

After this course, readers will be able to: 

  • Discuss the critical importance of early literacy exposure for the development of oral language and subsequent academic success
  • Identify "red flags" for early literacy difficulties
  • Discuss the need for early literacy opportunities for children with special needs
  • Create and implement literacy opportunities during early intervention practice
K ThatcherKaren Thatcher

1. What is literacy?

The conventional definition of literacy is being able to read, write, and understand the world of language and text.  This definition also includes the ability to use and understand oral language and is considered a more “historical” viewpoint (Thatcher, 2017).

2. Are there any other definitions of literacy?

There is another facet of literacy that can be considered, particularly for children with disabilities.  This is an unconventional definition termed personal literacy (Thatcher & McVicker, 2005).  Defined, personal literacy is attempting to read, write and understand at a personal developmental level.  This term, personal literacy, suggests that all children can benefit at some level from being involved in oral language and print-related activities.


3. What is emergent literacy and why is it important?

Emergent literacy can be widely defined as the precursor skills required for formal literacy training.  In other words, skills such as book handling and orientation, understanding that books contain stories and the story stays the same every time it is read, print is read from left to right and corresponds with the pictures on the page, and the concept of beginning, middle and end as parts of the story. 

4.  When should children first be introduced to literacy?

It is imperative that exposure to literacy occur way before a child enters formal schooling and many parents in fact do begin reading to their child at a very early age.  Evidence-based research shows that the birth-to-three developmental period is crucial to developing not only oral language but the foundation of literacy. In fact this research has led to an increased awareness and focus on the environmental supports for emergent literacy and the role that emergent literacy plays in the development of formal literacy (Dickinson & McCabe, 2001).  Researchers have found that the age at which parents and caregivers begin reading to their child is highly correlated to the development and quality of the child’s language development (Duursma, 2014). Specifically, reading to children at two years of age strongly correlates to the child’s book knowledge, cognition and oral language skills. 

5. What effect does a child’s environment really have on literacy development?

Research completed has shown a significant relationship between a child’s home environment and literacy development.  Hamilton, Hayiou-Thomas, Hulme and Snowling (2016) define home literacy environment as “the literacy-related interactions, resources, and attitudes that children experience at home” (p. 401). Additional research by Hammer, Farkas, & Maczuga (2010) found the home literacy environment affects both oral language and literacy development and in fact highly correlates to later academic success.  Environments that provided opportunities to access and participate in quality literacy activities resulted in increased expressive and receptive language skills.  In addition, literacy and oral language skills at kindergarten and first grade predict school achievement and even the completion of high school (Froiland, Powell, Diamond, Son, 2013).

6.  What are “red flags” for early literacy difficulties?

There are several early indicators for possible literacy difficulties.  When a child exhibits decreased attention skills, a decreased awareness of rhymes, is unable to segment words into syllables, and is unable to recognize letters of the alphabet a literacy assessment may be warranted.  Other behavioral indicators of possible early literacy difficulties include fussing and refusing to look at books or pictures, flipping pages of book but shows no interest, and sitting passively as an adult reads.  In addition, if the child is considered a “late talker” and is not combining words until after the age of 2 the child may experience literacy difficulties.  Finally, an articulation and/or language impairment, a family history of literacy deficits or even a lack of exposure to literacy experiences may increase the chances that a child will have reading deficits.

7. How has literacy been perceived in relationship to children with special needs?

Historically, many parents and teachers viewed children with special needs incapable of learning, using or not needing literacy, resulting in limited access to literacy opportunities.  In fact, the more severe the disability, the more typical was this reaction.  However, this viewpoint has altered significantly.  In fact, Goldstein (2011, page 268-269) notes, “Today’s challenge is to apply new and emerging of literacy to all children, and in particular to provide a foundation for literacy in early childhood for children with and at risk for disabilities.”  Research has shown that children with disabilities are at risk for developing poor reading skills or even a non-reader (McDonnell et al., 2014; Snow, Burns, Griffin, 1998).

8.  What does the literature say about access to literacy for children with disabilities?

Although research relating to emergent literacy is beginning to emerge, the research for literacy development in children with disabilities has not kept pace (McDonnell, et al., 2014.) Previous research that been done shows that the literacy experiences of children with disabilities, most notably those with severe and multiple disabilities, tend to be significantly different than those children without disabilities (Goldstein, 2011).  Specifically, children with disabilities may have less access to literacy experiences (book handling, shared-book reading, observing literacy use within the environment, etc.).  Of particular concern is that these children require more exposure to a literacy rich environment and opportunities in order to begin developing a possible foundation for literacy.  However, Koppenhaver, Pierce, and Yoder (1995) did indicate that, “Research suggests that in cases where literacy is incorporated into daily routines and interventions, many individuals with severe disabilities make good progress in learning to read and write (p. 7).”  Understanding the needs of these children and the limitations for literacy provide a critical platform for early intervention providers.  Many teachers and therapists now acknowledge the importance of literacy for children with special needs, but note inadequate instruction on how to instruct these children in reading and writing (Thatcher, 2017).

9.  Are early literacy opportunities important for parents of children with special needs?

Historically, the research has shown that parents of children with special needs rated access to literacy for their child as a low priority, focusing on more basic areas such as physical health, self-care, and mental health of the child (Light & Kelford Smith, 1993; Marvin & Mirenda, 1993). Parents also indicated that their child’s specific disability (i.e., low vision, decreased fine motor skills, etc.) interfered with their child’s ability to read and the parent’s ability to introduce literacy to their child (Thatcher & McVicker, 2005).  Parents of preschoolers in special education also reported fewer home literacy opportunities than did parents of children in Head Start and regular preschools (Marvin & Mirenda, 1993).

10. How do young children with special needs react to early literacy experiences?

It should be noted that research indicates that children with special needs respond favorably to literacy, even during the birth to three years.  A study by Thatcher & McVicker (2005) documented numerous positive responses of children with disabilities to literacy opportunities including:

  • 88% enjoy pictures in books
  • 64% become excited when read to
  • 52% pretend to read
  • 44% name some pictures
  • 18% ask simple questions
  • 81% have easy access to books
  • 13% repeat rhymes & stories
  • 58% enjoy repeated readings
  • 44% enjoy various types of books
  • 12% try to fill in familiar words
  • 71% enjoy sitting close

11.  What are considered best literacy practices for children with special needs?

Thatcher & McVicker (2005) identified and discussed several key components that support best literacy practices for children with special needs.  Specifically:

  • Literacy must be thought possible.
  • Literacy must be accessible.
  • Literacy must be convenient.
  • Literacy must not be based on conventional assumptions.
  • Literacy must be inclusive.
  • Literacy must be multi-sensory.
  • Literacy must be developmentally appropriate.
  • Literacy must be innovative.
  • Literacy must be repetitive.
  • Literacy must be social and interactive.
  • Literacy must be visually stimulating.
  • Literacy must be offered in a nurturing, positive environment.
  • Literacy must be personal.

12.  Why should early literacy be multidisciplinary?

Early intervention service providers must be familiar with, utilize and adhere to the guidelines of developmentally appropriate practices.  All areas of infant and toddler development are interrelated, including gross and fine motor, oral and written language, social, and cognitive skills.  Specifically, development in one skill area influences and is influenced by development in other areas (NAEYC, 2009).  In fact, research has shown an affirmative correlation between physical movement of a child and his/her cognitive development (Kirk, Vizcarra, Looney, & Kirk, 2014).  Evidence-based research supports the idea that if we are to make more meaningful connections among these developmental areas, we must make intervention more effective.   A developmentally appropriate curriculum should provide for all areas of a child’s development including cognitive, physical, social, language, emotional, and aesthetic (Thatcher, 2017).  All early intervention play a vital role in the development of the infants and children that we service.  Providers not only affect a child’s current development, they also have the ability to shape a child’s future academic and social success.  Incorporating literacy into therapy goals and activities allows providers and parents to meet the developmental needs, abilities and interests of the children with special needs (Thatcher, 2017).

13.  If an early intervention provider wanted to provide literacy opportunities during therapy, what developmental skills would support a literacy opportunity?

An early intervention provider must realize that most developmental skills can be addressed by incorporating literacy activities.  For example:

  • Walking
  • Jumping
  • Sorting
  • Talking
  • Crawling
  • Sitting            
  • Marching                                                                   
  • Dressing
  • Pointing
  • Coloring
  • Grasping
  • Measuring
  • Hopping
  • Climbing
  • Eating
  • Writing

Thatcher (2017)

14.  Could one book or literacy prompt be used by an early intervention team member for a therapy treatment?

Absolutely and it doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated.  Any children’s book, nursery rhyme, finger play, or song can be used.  One of my favorites is Itsy Bitsy Spider.  When we sing the Itsy Bitsy Spider song with the child there are many different hand motions and finger plays that all disciplines can incorporate.  For example:

Have children put thumb and index finger together to make a “spider.”  The children can make the spider walk up by rotating their hands to bring the thumb and index finger that is on the bottom to the top.

When the song says “Down came the rain,” have the children make “rain” by putting their hands high up in the air, wiggling their fingers and bringing their hands down.

To “wash the spider out” have the children cross their hands in front of them and then move each arm out to the side.

When the song says “out came the sun,” have the children hold their hands over their heads in a circle to make a “sun.”

At the end of the song have the children make the spider motion again as he crawls back up the spout.

(Thatcher, 2017)

15.  How can gross motor be targeted in early intervention using Itsy Bitsy Spider?

Copy or make a picture of a water spout.  Place the spouts around the room, having the child mover from spout to spout and move a plastic or paper spider up the spouts. 

Create a large web on the floor using black string.  Have child maneuver over and around the web using different types of locomotion such as:

  • Walking
  • Walking backward
  • Walking sideways
  • Crawling
  • Hopping
  • Jumping
  • Tip-toe

Take the child outside to find either the fake bugs in a container or place bugs in the dirt and other places such as on a rock, in a bush, in the sandbox, on the swing, etc.

16.  How can fine motor be targeted in early intervention using Itsy Bitsy Spider?

Fill a container with rice, packing peanuts, or other appropriate material and hide plastic bugs in it.  Have the child pick out bugs with fingers, spoon, tongs or spade.  Switch the utensil often to increase skill level.

Copy or make a spider body and have the child pull apart the cotton balls then glue the cotton on the spider body.  The child could also attach and manipulate legs onto the spider body by bending the straws or pipe cleaners to look like legs.

Use a flashlight to make shadow puppets on the wall.  Show the child how to use fingers and hands to make the spider on the wall.  Also show the child other shadow animals that can be made.

Have the children cut string licorice, yarn, pipe cleaners, or construction paper to fit from the middle of a paper plate to stretch to outside of paper plate.  Cut enough to cover the paper plate as much as the child would like. Glue the pieces from middle of plate out to make a web-like design.  Let the children place bugs on the web.

17.  How can oral language be targeted in early intervention using Itsy Bitsy Spider?

Using the container with plastic bugs mentioned above, talk about where bugs live, what their homes might look like, how many bugs live together, how bugs make their homes, would you like to live where a bug lives, etc.

Take a walk outside and look for bugs.  Talk about all the different types of bugs (e.g. spider, ant, grasshopper, lady bug, caterpillar, centipede, praying mantis, cricket, lightning bug, etc.). 

Using the paper plate web described above talk about how the web looks.  The shape of the web and shapes within the web (triangles, circle).  Show pictures of real webs and have children describe those as well, comparing and contrasting with the ones they made.  Talk about color, size, shape, etc.

18.  What other developmental areas can be targeted using Itsy Bitsy Spider?

Cognitive:  Have the child compare his/her own homes’ to a bug’s home.  Talk about what is the same (he/she sleeps there, lives with family, collects things there, etc.) and what is different (people eat at a table, bugs hunt for their food, people sleep in beds, bugs sleep on the ground, etc.)

Sensory:  Using your hand as a spider, make it crawl up child’s back, leg, arm, etc. and have the child describe what it feels like.  You can also use other items to brush on the child such as pipe cleaner and cotton ball.

Phonological Awareness:  Have the child pick a bug (e.g. lady bug) and have the child think of other animals that start with the same letter (e.g. lion, lama, loon, lamb, lizard, leopard, etc.)

Have the child rhyme words with key words in song (e.g. spider, spout, sun, itsy, rain) and each time they make a rhyme they can put on another part of the web or add another bug.

Make up a silly song about spiders and related items using alliteration.  For example, “my silly spider sped slowly” or “the wacky web where Will was.”

Writing: Have the child write letters or their name in the dirt during the dig or if you take the child outside, you can also have him practice writing letters in the sand or dirt with a stick/shovel.

Tactile Exploration:  Talk about how a spider web feels (sticky) and provide another material to represent the spider web - silly string works great!!!

Generalization:  Similar to cognitive skills, have the child/children compare their own homes’ to a bug’s home.  They can talk about what is the same (they sleep there, they live with their family, they collect things there, etc.) and what is different (people eat at a table, bugs hunt for their food, people sleep in beds, bugs sleep on the ground, etc.)

19.  How can early intervention providers support parents who want to embed literacy opportunities for their child in the home routine?

  • Educate both parents and other providers on the link between oral language and literacy. 
  • Continue to find ways to incorporate literacy into oral language, gross and fine motor and social activities. 
  • Provide literacy models for parents and caregivers. 
  • Encourage and assist parents in accessing books and activities. 
  • Educate parents to advocate for their child’s literacy development after leaving early intervention. 

When an early intervention provider incorporates literacy opportunities throughout a child’s intervention, parents can see the functional and easy ways that literacy is utilized throughout the daily routine (Thatcher, 2017).   Providers can also suggest the following as easy literacy experiences:

  • Recipes
  • Greeting cards
  • Food labels
  • Billboards
  • Newspapers
  • Board game rules

20. How can the SLP educate parents about the importance of early literacy?

The speech-language pathologist can provide information about how and when literacy develops.  For example, sharing with parents that a child’s love of books and reading begins before they begin school. In fact, children can develop a love or hate relationship with reading before they even enter kindergarten. Children learn to love books and reading in the same way they learn to talk; by being immersed in it. By hearing the people around them use language every day, kids begin to see language as a means to achieving something. Parents must understand that when a child sees a parent or other caregiver looking at a book, using a recipe to make a meal, making a shopping list, writing a thank-you note to someone, they begin to recognize the importance of literacy. Here are some other simple ways to share reading with a child:

  • Point out letters on cereal boxes and can labels while shopping or cooking.
  • Write a letter or thank you card to family/friends and have the child "sign" his/her name with a crayon.
  • Use a shopping list, and have the child cross off items when found.
  • Keep books where the child can access them; the bedroom, bathtub, car, etc.

There is no “secret” to incorporating literacy opportunities into intervention or the home environment.  Literacy is fun and there can be literacy opportunities in every activity if we just look for it!


Dickinson, D. K., & McCabe, A.  (2001). Bringing It All Together:  The Multiple Origins, Skills, and Environmental Supports of Early Literacy.  Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 16(4), 186-202.

Duursma, E.  (2014). The Effects of Fathers’ and Mothers’ Reading to Their Children on Language Outcomes of Children Participating in Early Head Start in the United States.  Fathering, 12(3), 283-302.

Hammer, C., Farkas, G., & Maczuga, S.  The Language and Literacy Development of Head Start Children:  A Study Using the Family and Child Experiences Database.  Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in the Schools, 41(1), 70-83.

Froiland, J. M., Powell, D. R., Diamond, K. E., & Seung-Hee, C. S. (2013).  Neighborhood Socioeconomic Well-Being, Home Literacy, and Early Literacy Skills of At-Risk Preschoolers.  Psychology in the Schools, 50(8), 755-769.

Goldstein, H.  (2011). Knowing what to teach provides a roadmap for early literacy intervention.  Journal of Early Intervention, 33(4), 268-280.

Koppenhaver, D.A., Pierce, P.L., & Yoder, D.E. (1995).  AAC, FC, and the ABC’s:  Issues and relationships.   American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 4, 5-14.

Kirk, S.M., Coleman, R.V., Looney, E.C., & Kirk, E.P.  (2014). Using physical activity to teach academic content:  A study of the effects on literacy in Head Start preschoolers.  Early Childhood Education Journal, 42, 181-189.

Light, J., & Kelford Smith, A. (1993). The home literacy experiences of preschoolers who use augmentative communication systems and of their nondisabled peers. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 13(2), 1 – 15.

Marvin, C., & Mirenda, P. (1993). Home literacy experiences of preschoolers enrolled in head start and special education programs. Journal of Early Intervention, 17, 351 – 367.

National Association for the Education of Young Children.  (2009). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children birth through age 8.  A position statement of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Thatcher, K.  (2017). Fun with literacy.  100s of Activities, Exercises, and Tips for the Classroom & Therapy (Birth-Preschool).  PESI Publishing, Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

Thatcher, K. & McVicker, C. (2005). Literacy into therapy: The first steps provider. Indiana First Steps Newsletter.


Thatcher, K. (2019). 20Q: Incorporating Literacy into Early Intervention, Preschool & Home. SpeechPathology.com, Article 20138. Retrieved from www.speechpathology.com

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karen thatcher

Karen Thatcher, EdD, CCC-SLP

Karen Thatcher, EdD, CCC-SLP is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Samford University, Birmingham, AL,  Previous to teaching at Samford University, Dr. Thatcher was Assistant Professor at Ball State University, Muncie, IN.  Dr. Thatcher’s interests primarily focus on language and literacy in early intervention and the importance of an interdisciplinary approach. Dr. Thatcher has authored or co-authored several articles in addition to her recent book which is a follows: Thatcher, K. (2017). Fun with literacy.  100s of Activities, Exercises, and Tips for the Classroom & Therapy (Birth-Preschool).  PESI Publishing, Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

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