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Print Awareness and Print Referencing to Support Emergent Literacy Skills

Updated: Nov 9, 2023

Pink rectangular image. Green text says Word and blue text says Clouds. Black text says pre-reading activity. Image of a white thought bubble. Black Speechie Adventures logo in the bottom right-hand corner.

Hi friends!

Let's talk about supporting print awareness and emergent literacy skills using this strategy: Print Referencing.

"Print referencing is an evidence-based strategy that may be used by speech-language pathologists and other early childhood specialists to enhance the emergent literacy skills of young children" (Justice & Ezell, 2004).

print referencing

  • Use during shared storybook reading interactions

  • Involves the use of verbal and nonverbal cues to direct a child's attention to print

  • Encourages children’s interactions with print/written language

  • Increases the metalinguistic focus of storybook reading interactions

  • When delivered within the child's zone of proximal development, clinicians can foster mastery of key emergent literacy concepts

With print referencing, emergent literacy skills can be developed simultaneously using the same materials as literacy-based and narrative language intervention, with minimal additional time and effort.

When using print referencing, the goal is to increase print awareness or written language awareness. Written language includes three areas:

  1. Print Concepts

  2. Concept of a Word

  3. Alphabet Knowledge

Print Concepts

Print concepts refers to the form, features, and functions of print.

  • Movement of print (e.g. right to left, top to bottom in English)

  • How to hold a book (e.g. right side up vs upside down)

  • How books are organized (e.g. chapters, front cover, back cover, table of contents)

  • Names of various language units (e.g. question mark, period, exclamation mark, sentence, paragraph)

  • Relationship among language units (e.g. a question mark marks the end of the sentence and means the person is asking something)

  • How print carries meaning (e.g. When it says "He feels sad" it communicates the character's feelings)

Concept of a Word

This refers to how the written word is a representation of a spoken word that has meaning. For example, "This word says 'humongous.' That means big." For typically developing children, this discovery usually occurs around four to five years of age, and helps a child understand how speech to print are linked.

Alphabet Knowledge

Alphabet knowledge refers to knowing the names of letters. For example, "Her name is Sarah. It starts with the letter 's'. Let's trace the letter with our finger."

Clinicians can bring awareness to all three areas of written language when using print referencing cues.

5 types of print referencing cues

Print-referencing are meant to direct the child’s attention toward one or more of the three areas of written language. Cues can be verbal or non-verbal.

  1. Pointing to Print

  2. Tracking Print

  3. Questions About Print

  4. Comments About Print

  5. Requests About Print

Table titled "5 Print Referencing Cues." Column one reads Non-Verbal Cues and Verbal Cues. Non-verbal cues include pointing and tracking. Verbal cues include questions, comment, requests. Examples of each are given.

"For print referencing to be effective, it must target skills that children are able to perform with assistance but that have not yet matured to independence. This is the zone of proximal development" (Justice & Ezell, 2004).

Quick Tips

  • Shared storybook reading should be fun - aim to strike a balance with using cues vs reading

  • Keep print references within the child's proximal zone of development

  • Use print referencing to increase a child's interest in print before moving on to higher level literacy skills (i.e. use more non-verbal cues and comments about print before moving on to using questions and requests about print)

Want to see some examples?

Want some examples using some commonly used books? Check out this blog post and this post on instagram.

Happy reading! 🩵

Three grey mountains with some white snow on to. A small heart in a speech bubble. Four boot prints underneath the mountain. The name Sarah in pink, blue, peach, green, and purple colors.


Justice, L.M. & Ezell, H. K. (2004). Print Referencing: An Emergent Literacy Enhancement Strategy and its Clinical Applications. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools.

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