The Role of Environmental Print in Early Development

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

One of the first indicators that young children are responding to print is their ability to read environmental print. What does this mean? This lesson will define the term and explain how to use it to develop early reading skills.

Explaining Environmental Print

Christopher's mom Cindy came into preschool this morning with exciting news about her three year old. Over the weekend, Christopher read the McDonald's sign. Cindy believes he is now ready to begin learning his letters and working on other reading skills. Clearly he's already reading!


Debbie, the preschool teacher, congratulates Christopher and Cindy on reaching this pre-reading milestone. They explain that Christopher is reading environmental print, the functional text a child sees in everyday life like street signs, food labels, and fast food logos. Christopher recognized and named the McDonald's sign, letting his mom know his brain is able to assign a label to a sign, much like we do with learning letters and their sounds.

The Role of Environmental Print

Many early readers begin to recognize symbols in their environment and 'read' them. Cindy believed Christopher was reading the sign, but in reality his brain isn't quite ready for reading just yet. Instead, he was responding to the clues he associated around the sign - things like the location of the sign on top of a high pole, and the playground he plays in when eating there.

This doesn't mean reading environmental print isn't important, useful, and exciting news. Christopher's teachers and parents now know he is beginning to understand that print carries meaning and that the signs and words around us are meant to convey a message. How can they help Christopher build on his newfound skill? Let's take a look.

Teaching with Environmental Print

The fact that Christopher is recognizing a relationship between objects and labels isn't totally new. In fact, when he began talking he was already connecting the fact that his spoken words connected to an object - this is a ball, or that is a bottle. But now his brain is beginning to transfer this understanding into more distinct visual clues with specific labels - that sign means McDonald's, or that sign means stop.

Parents, teachers, and caregivers can help build and strengthen these skills in several ways. For starters, they can reinforce environmental print awareness and extend knowledge by having conversations about the print. Cindy can say to Christopher 'McDonald's has a yellow sign', or 'That stop starts with the letter S'. This takes a child's emerging awareness of the sign and adds to the knowledge already there.

Environmental print labels can help students build early reading skills.

Supporting Environmental Print Awareness

Cindy and Debbie can also extend Christopher's environmental print awareness using several activities, such as:

  • Setting up play spaces with lots of print

Providing an environment rich in print reinforces the concept that words carry meaning. Christopher's parents and caregivers can set up dramatic play areas, like stores, banks, or restaurants. Using tools like menus or food labels can provide Christopher with experiences for him to learn the difference between a picture logo and letters, planting the seeds for development in phonics.

  • Exposing children to print

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