Oct 27, 2023
min read
Parent Resources

Environmental Print’s Role in Reading

Sarah Nguyen

Environmental print is defined as the ambient print of logos, labels, and text found all around us every day. It can be seen on signs, packaging, and the like. Environmental print can contain letters and words. But much of it is logographic, meaning it contains an image, symbol, or character representing a word, object, or concept. And all of these logographs and letters are a golden opportunity to sneak literacy into your family's everyday routine.

Environmental Print: It’s (Literally) Everywhere

My older son is a junior in college now, but there’s a story that lives on in our family from a Saturday morning errand run when he was about three. Stopped at a red light in Berkeley, California, on the way from the post office to the grocery store, his little voice could be heard calling out “A clue! A clue,” just as he'd heard hundreds of times on his favorite TV show featuring a certain blue pup.  A quick check of the rearview mirror revealed his chubby toddler hand pointing at the sign of a pet supply store on the corner with a paw print logo hanging above its door, clearly visible through the window of the minivan. Wait…was he just…reading?

We get a lot of questions here at Ello about what parents can do if their child isn’t quite ready for the Read With Ello app, and utilizing environmental print is a great (but often-overlooked) strategy. It’s simple and easy to fit into your family’s everyday routine!

How many of you have had your child recognize the golden arches of the McDonald’s M or the red bulls-eye of the Target logo when you are out and about? What about junior family members who “help” at the grocery store by choosing exactly the items they want based on the packaging they recognize? These are examples of environmental print and how it can hold meaning, even without words.

What is the Link Between Environmental Print and Reading?

According an article published in the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy discussing the role of environmental print in emergent literacy, kids who get practice “reading” logograms—symbols or characters that represent words, sounds, or concepts—through their interactions with environmental print are doing important work. These logographic reading skills help support the growth of emergent literacy skills, the foundation for conventional reading skills everyone needs to become literate. 

The “reading” of environmental print can happen unprompted and in passing, as it did with my son and the pet supply store. Or, parents and educators can build on the innate affinity most young pre-readers have for environmental print—the logographic variety, and later the type with letters and words—by intentionally incorporating it into literacy development activities and routines. One way to do this is by helping your child connect with environmental print that is already present. Another is by creating pre-literacy opportunities involving environmental print for your child.

Ello is a great addition to any child’s reading experience. It’s fun, motivating, low-pressure, and affordable.

Creating Opportunities with Environmental Print

The pet supply store was right in the middle of our family’s errand route, so we had driven by it hundreds of times before while out and about. I think I—as a literate person—had always focused on the words on the sign, and not the logo. If you had asked me what that store was called, I would have told you the name of the business. I would likely not have said “the store with the paw prints on the sign,” because I already knew how to read. But as a pre-literate person, that’s not what my young son had seen at all. 

So, the first step in connecting to existing environmental print as a way of engaging your young pre-reader is to start seeing the world around you through their eyes. When you are out and about at your usual stores, businesses, and restaurants what signs or symbols do they see to distinguish one from another? Or one department within a store, or section of a menu, from the rest? 

Once you start looking from their point of view, you’ll be so surprised how many examples of logographic environmental print exist everywhere you look. As you start seeing them, bring them to your child’s attention. We know environmental print can involve letters and text but if your child is very young, focus first on the examples that are text-free. Later you can expand to include discussions about letters, sounds, and words as their reading skills develop.

It’s like a conversation I had with my younger son one day after summer camp pick-up. We stopped to stock up on a few things on the way home and “Oh look!” I pointed out. “There are red circles on the outside of the building, on the signs inside the store, on the employees’ shirts, and on the shopping bags…here we are at our neighborhood Target.” Then, if he was a bit further along in his reading development, I might have shown him the first letter of the word and pointed out how we can hear the sound when we say it.

Then you can start reading labels…How do you know if a word on a product sticker says “cake” or “cupcake”? Well first of all, you can see what’s inside the package…but also, each word has a different amount of letters and those letters make a different number of sounds. “Cupcake” takes more sounds to say than “cake,” so it’s going to take more letters to write on a label. 

A fun way to turn this activity around is to have your child look for environmental print while out and about, and then ask you what you think it means! Try answering correctly sometimes, and incorrectly other times, to see if they will catch your slip-ups.

Using Environmental Print to Teach Literacy Skills

“Okay,” you’re thinking. “So my kid can correctly identify a box of mac and cheese in the pantry. How do I use that to help them become a reader?”

This might look and sound like identifying letters and their sounds on signs and talking about how the same letters make the same sounds every time. Examples of packaging that you collect could now include the item’s name for practice in letter identification and sorting by letter. In the same way that symbols stood for words when your child was younger, letters now stand for sounds. So, you can identify the letters and their sounds in the environmental print you collect together. This could be a great way to extend the conversation as your child’s literacy skills grow and expand. During what can be the long transitional period from emergent to early literacy, kids are definitely still reading logographs so it’s valuable to continue making connections with your child between environmental print and not just concepts but letters, sounds, and words.

When children are younger, you could make an alphabet book from the cutouts you have gathered by putting all the “a” items first, then all the “b” items, and so on. As they build their skills, you could cut out words from packaging and use them as words within sentences or stories that you write together. This sets them up for Kindergarten reading success!

Transitioning from Environmental Print to Early Literacy

Reading environmental print can continue even once your child is more firmly established as a reader! You can ask for their help reading signs, directions, informational signs at events or venues you visit as a family, and the like. Once they are older and more independent, reading environmental print will allow them to navigate museums, airports, and sporting events. Being literate in the world is a skill we all need to develop, and it’s never too early to start.

Of course, it’s always great to have lots of books on hand to practice your reading skills. That’s where Ello can come in! But for those times when your reader is in between titles, or it feels like they’ve read everything in the house, there’s always the challenge of environmental print to help them keep building and refining those reading skills.

I have two kids, 6 year boy and 3 year girl. It was always hard [to get] my son to sit and read, but when I gave Ello box to him with iPa, he loved it and finished all 5 books in one sitting… I am so thankful for Ello app and really looking forward for some more amazing books. And soon I will be registering my 3 year old little one.
Huma A.

Neumann, M. M., Hood, M., Ford, R. M., & Neumann, D. L. (2012). The role of environmental print in emergent literacy. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 12(3), 231-258. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468798411417080