Here’s a set of materials that will help parents and caregivers build young children’s pre-literacy skills. Lots of parents want to help get their children ready to start school, and many of them may already know that one of the best ways to get kids comfortable with written language is to make them comfortable with spoken language, in particular with how to answer complex questions.

What do I mean by complex questions? If you sit the average adult down next to the average young child with a picture book, the adult will ask the child, “Where’s the bird [or bear, or boy]?” and encourage the child to point to it. Pointing develops no language, folks. It’s much better to ask “what” and “why” questions that encourage a child to answer in words and to express her thoughts. “What is the bear wearing?” and “Why is the bear wearing a pirate hat?” Parents and caregivers should be striving for the largest and most complex thoughts, expressed in words.

To that end, here’s a set of handouts in English and Spanish, developed by educational consultants with the Washington (State) Research Institute, that will suggest what kinds of questions will stimulate children who aren’t yet reading to give thoughtful answers. Many of these questions don’t involve books or reading; for example, when eating or preparing food in the kitchen you can talk about what words you might use to describe what apples or raisins look like, feel like, and taste like. What does an apple or a raisin remind you of?

These questions may give you some ideas, too, when you’re presenting a storytime and want to encourage responses from the children (and of course, model behavior for the adults). The 46 activities are divided into three levels – for younger children, for print-centered activities, and for children with more developed language skills. Take a look. (The materials were developed with a Federal grant, and can be duplicated and distributed for free, but not sold.)