There is plenty that parents can do with their children from birth onwards to help them get off to a great start in literacy.



Under 5's

It matters what children do before they start school.
Here are Yolanda’s tips for setting children up for success in literacy before they learn to read.

Your young child is listening to everything you say and learning an incredible amount from the experiences you provide. Just because a baby cannot talk to you or seems to be oblivious to these activities, do not assume such activities are a waste of time. These activities shared every day will have a powerful impact on their developing brain. As your child grows, they will continue to develop their brain with more active participation in these experiences with you.

Yolanda’s key strategies for setting up the Under 5’s for later success in literacy.

Develop phonological awareness

It has been shown repeatedly that children who start school with good phonological awareness have better literacy outcomes.

Here are some easy and fun ways to help develop phonological awareness for your child:

Tell nursery rhymes every day (at nappy changes, in the car, etc).

Sing to/with your child (songs, rhymes, chants).

Turn off the radio and television so that your child can hear other noises, and also appreciate silence.

Talk about the sounds you can hear around you (e.g., a dog barking, a car revving, rain on the window).

Listen to music, nursery rhymes, and songs for children (Yolanda recommends Tessarose and Love to Sing).

When reading, talk about the stories, point to the pictures, make the noises of the animal characters (Yolanda recommends Eardrops).

Use silly voices and vary your tone and pitch when speaking, singing, and reading.

Include a cuddle and smiles with all these activities.

Use sound lotto games such as Listening Lotto and Sound Tracks to develop a wide repertoire of known sounds.

Top tip: Yolanda’s book Developing Phonological Awareness is packed with quick practical activities you can do with your child from birth. Parents are also welcome to take part in a Developing Phonological Awareness training webinars with Yolanda to learn how to effectively develop phonological awareness with their child.

Develop graphic knowledge

The skills required to be able to visually discriminate between words are laid down well before children read their first book. Games and activities where children must use visual information to match or separate one item from another visually will hone this skill.

Teach your child the principle of ‘same same’:

Basic colour/shape matching activities (e.g., puzzles where shapes and pictures are matched like to like).

Simple matching card games e.g., Snap.

Putting matching socks in pairs.

Sorting buttons/cutlery or other household items where like must go with like (e.g., put this fork with the other forks, put the teaspoon with the other teaspoons).

Name recognition (name their hat, lunchbox, bedroom door, and ask the child to point to the read and read their name).

Did you know that children can learn to read their name from the age of two years, if not earlier?

Develop oral language.

Talking to and with your child from birth is vitally important. Many studies have shown that the quantity of language spoken to the child predicts their later vocabulary and progress in literacy.

Have conversations. Talk about stories, people, places. Talk talk talk and read, read, read.

Reading to children

Start at birth and continue until they leave home. There is no reason to stop reading to your child. Did you know that children’s picture books have three times more interesting words in them than the conversation of university graduates? Building vocabulary early has long-term positive benefits for young readers.

Reading to children extends vocabulary, oral language, phonological awareness and opens the world for children. Read at least five stories over the day with your child. Also include rhymes and poems.


Read to your baby (try reading lying down on the bed with the book held above your faces) choose ‘real’ stories (such as Hairy McClary, Dr. Seuss) rather than baby board books.

Make visiting the library and borrowing books to read at home together later a weekly (or more frequent) routine.

Set up a reading corner/den for your child with cushions and books for you both (or by themselves) to take time out and relax with a book.

Instead of reaching for a device when you need your child to be occupied, reach for a bag of books that your child knows and loves for them to go through by themselves.

Incorporate reading a book in your regular activities such as going to the park or playground. Take a book for yourself too and find five minutes for you both to sit reading your books.

Yolanda’s favourite books for babies and toddlers

Hairy Maclary, Lynley Dodd

We’re going on a bear hunt, Michael Rosen & Helen Oxenbury

My cat likes to hide in boxes, Eve Sutton

Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?, Bill Martin Jnr

Each peach, pear, plum, Janet & Allan Ahlberg

An anthology of nursery rhymes such as This Little Puffin

Yolanda’s favourite books for pre-schoolers

Farmer Duck, Martin Waddell

The Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson

Animalia, Graeme Base

The Story of Ferdinand, Munro Leaf

Dr. Seuss books

plus classic traditional tale books

Children aged 5-7 years

Parents know that for children to be successful in literacy, they need to be able to work out new words, sounding them out for reading and spelling.

Yolanda has trained over 20,000 teachers in New Zealand and overseas on how to help children do this. Her ideas can also be used by parents who want to actively support and help their children read and write.

School ready literacy check

Being school-ready for literacy means starting school with the skills in place to optimise your child’s first formal literacy learning experiences.


Have they engaged in the experiences outlined on the Under 5s page? If not, start now. It is never too late.

Can they read and write their first name? (N.B. their name should be spelled with only lower-case letters other than the first letter which is a capital letter).

Can they hold a pencil correctly? Use the Nip Grip Flip method.

Can they handle a book correctly?

Can they listen to a story and talk about it?

Have they had repeated experiences with playdough/ drawing/ painting/ colouring/ sandpit? These experiences are vital for writing.

Understanding phonics

Phonics is not just knowing how to hear, read and write sounds/letters. It is also knowing how to use these sounds (phonemes) for blending and segmenting for use in reading and writing.

The starting place, once phonological awareness is developed, is the alphabet. Children need to know all the letter sounds, names, and word associations. As the brain is wired for story, it is helpful to tell children little stories (mnemonics) about each letter to teach the sound, word association, and letter name.

Yolanda has written a free alphabet mnemonic scheme with short letter stories and word associations that you can download for use with your child.

You can also buy the stories in a handy pocket-sized card pack.

Also available are letter/mnemonic flashcards, and an alphabet wall frieze that could be used in their bedroom for a fun and colourful wall decoration. Reinforce the letters whilst developing motor skills and muscles in hand necessary for writing with Yolanda’s alphabet playdough mats.

A smart tray with the Phonemic Awareness card set offers a hands on way for children to practise their phonic skills.

Yolanda’s Alphabet Sounds (NZ) App allows children to hear, read and write the letters for the alphabet sounds. it is available in both the Google Play and Apple stores for a $3.49 annual subscription.

High-frequency words

High-frequency words are the words that appear most frequently in text. E.g., the, is, my, go, come. Did you know that only 100 words make up half of all reading? When children learn these common words (also called sight words), it frees their brain to attend to and work on the other words in text they don’t yet know. Over time, children develop an ever-increasing bank of these words until eventually almost every word is known and they have an extensive graphic knowledge. Reading is much easier when you recognise all the words and don’t have to work them out.

It takes time to develop good graphic knowledge. This is why we teach phonics. It gives children a way to get a word that they don’t yet know. But some words (e.g., was, come, saw, my, I) are not easily decodable. And for many such early words, it is more efficient to teach the child to recognise them by sight.

Yolanda has developed a programme called Early Words for teachers and parents to do with their children to help them learn these basic sight words. Yolanda used this programme to teach her own four children before they started school and has also taught it to many students and teachers. It has been taught in the U.K as well as many schools in New Zealand.

The Early Words book has all the instructions for how to teach the programme but parents are also welcome to attend Yolanda’s online Early Words courses for teachers.

Children reading

Here are useful suggestions of what you can do if your child is having problems and feeling stuck when learning to read.

Ask them to get their mouth ready for the first sound and check the picture to help them get the word.

Blend the sounds to make the word, but first check that the word can be sounded out easily, i.e., ‘dog’ and ‘cat’ are easy to sound out; ‘said’ or ‘there’ are not. Just tell them these words.

Encourage them to check that the word that they have sounded out makes sense in the story.

Encourage them to re-read the sentence again. Using the sentence structure can help them get the word plus it confirms what they have read sounds right.

If the unknown word is a high-frequency word (i.e., a common word such as ‘the’, ‘is’, ‘my’ etc.) just tell them the word. Such words are best learned by memorising rather than phonics.

If your child is challenged by more than one word in every ten, the book is too hard. Either you read the story to them or take turns reading each page or unknown word so reading does not feel like a struggle. Struggling does not help children learn to read.

Encourage your child at this early level to read with their finger (drop it later once they have the idea of the one-to-one matching). Encourage them to re-read the books again and again to develop fluency and expression.

Watch Yolanda teach her nephew to read a simple guided reading book.

Yolanda has written 50 little guided reading books, the Early Words Readers, for children’s first reading experiences. These books are used in schools, but you also can start teaching your child to read with the first book in Set One (Mum). The next day, teach the second book in the set (Mum is Exercising). Then work your way up the reading levels, book by book. Children love the Early Words Readers stories. And they feel confident and successful being able to read their own little book.

Listen to Yolanda talk with Jesse on RNZ about writing the Early Words Readers.

Children writing

Here are useful suggestions of what you can do if your child is having problems spelling a word when writing.

First check that your child wants to spell a word that can be sounded out easily. Words such as ‘saw’ and ‘here’ are best spelled by you for beginning spellers and then learned by memorising.

Tell them to say the word slowly. Ask your child to tell you the first sound they can hear in the word. After they give you the sound, then tell them to write the letter for that sound.

Ask the child for the last sound they can hear. Help them to say the word slowly to help them hear it. Leave a gap after the first sound is written down and then write the last sound.

Ask your child if they can hear any middle sounds. Write the letter for these sounds in the gap between the first and last sounds.

Praise them for their good work.

If your child needs to sound out more than one word in each sentence, just give them the other spellings so that writing does not become a struggle focused entirely on spelling. Working on one or two words is enough. You do the rest. Struggling does not help children learn to write.

After they have written each sentence, encourage them to reread it to check that what they have written sounds right and makes sense.

Specific Learning Difficulties (SLDs)

Specific Learning Difficulties affecting literacy learning can include dyslexia, dysgraphia, difficulties with memory, organisation, auditory and visual processing, time management skills, and more.

Yolanda is a mother of children with severe Specific Learning Difficulties. Knowing that the education system is not resourced to properly help children with these difficulties, she taught her own children plus used a wide variety of learning and support programmes throughout their education.

Yolanda’s advice to parents of children with SLDs

When parents think there is something wrong with their child’s learning, they are usually right. If you think your child has a learning difficulty and the teacher does not, ask for a second opinion. But if the teacher thinks there is a learning problem and you do not, the teacher is usually right. Listen to what they say.

Get a diagnosis as soon as possible. Early intervention helps though usually an official diagnosis can’t be made until the age of 7. Unfortunately, the testing for a diagnosis can cost at least $500 and funding is difficult to come by. But having a diagnosis means your child understands why reading is harder for them than their classmates and they know it is not their fault or a sign they are not intelligent. Intelligence is not an indicator of literacy outcomes!

Don’t look for one magic cure. There isn’t one. A multi-pronged approach is the best course of action. Different children will need different supports, and these will vary over time.

Get your child involved in some kind of musical activity whether it be singing, kapa haka, learning an instrument, or all of these. There is much evidence showing that music helps all learning.

Focus on developing phonological awareness as soon as possible. Phonics is a very helpful tool for children with SLDs. It isn’t a cure, but extra support with phonics has been shown to specifically assist children with dyslexia.

Keep up reading to your child. Make sure reading is still pleasurable. It will be if you keep reading to them.

Have the subtitles turned on when watching movies.

Ensure your child has at least one area in their life they excel at so that the focus isn’t always on what is hard.

Take your child to a behavioural optometrist for an assessment. Yolanda has seen dramatic positive effects with her own children and for many of her students after getting glasses from a behavioural optometrist.

Remember that children with SLDs can still learn to read and write. It might be harder for them, and they will need more repetition. They may end up as fantastic readers and writers and they may not. Whatever the end results are, they will be better for any extra support received along the way.

The number one effective resource for a child with learning difficulties is a parent who supports and understands them and will knock on every door to get help for their child.

Acknowledge to yourself that it can be emotionally hard being a parent of a child who is bright, intelligent, and wants to learn, but finds learning hard and sometimes, is not understood by their teachers.

Read How My Brain Learns to Read by Duncan Milne to your child.

In this Ted talk, educator Anita Collins makes a passionate case for music education as an indispensable part of school curricula, describing how learning to play music is the neurological equivalent of a full-body workout.