Shapes, Pictures and Colors: Environmental Print as a Teaching Tool

Environmental Print

My wife and I were driving in the car last weekend and were discussing environmental print. My wife is a retired Special Education teacher who taught in the K-3 grades for 39 years. Currently, she is Adjunct Faculty at Arizona State University. I found her discussion of it very interesting and saw some parallels with what we try to do with data visualization and infographics. My blog today discusses what environmental print is and how it is used to help teach literacy in our early stages of education. It is from a paper by  Rebecca McMahon Giles and Karyn Wellhousen Tunks (source noted at the end of the blog post).

Best Regards,


What is Environmental Print?

“Hey, Ms. McMillan, you have three McDonald’s in your name.” This observation, made by 4-year-old Jadin as his pre-kindergarten teacher wrote her name, reflects young children’s familiarity with popular logos and commercial print that they see every day. [1]

Early encounters with environmental print, words, and other graphic symbols found in children’s surroundings are among their first concrete exposures to written language.

These experiences

  • provide an introduction to making meaning of abstract symbols and
  • offer children their first opportunity to make sense of the world through print.

As a result, children typically read print from their environment before reading print in books.

Why Environmental Print Is Important in Early Literacy

More than four decades of research on the role of environmental print has substantiated its important influence in young children’s literacy development. The preponderance of studies on environmental print, however, took place in earlier decades and focused on its impact on early reading behaviors. Interest in the impact of environmental print on children’s early writing is a more recent development.

Research clearly shows the benefits of exposure to environmental print for emergent readers and writers. In one study of preschoolers, 60% of the 3-year-olds and 80% of 5-year-olds could read environmental print in its context of cereal boxes, toothpaste cartons, traffic signs, and soft drink logos.

Children typically read environmental print first.

Children are initially dependent on the label or logo associated with the word. As their understanding of print and phonetic skills necessary for reading increases, they gradually begin to read words presented separately from the logo.

Children’s responses to environmental print are the direct outcomes of their prior experience with it. Academically at-risk preschoolers recognized significantly fewer environmental print logos than did their academically advantaged peers. However, studies consistently show that regardless of socioeconomic status or home language all children benefit from exposure to print in their environment.

Barbie - Environmental Print

Choose Suitable Environmental Print

Using environmental print in preschool, kindergarten, and primary classrooms is an important part of developing a language/literacy-rich learning environment. Many products marketed in the United States are labeled in English, French, and Spanish, so they can be tools to broaden children’s language experiences even further. Even so, reading environmental print is likely to be individual and dependent upon geographic location. For this reason, children should collect much of the environmental print that they will learn from at school.

  • Experiences in which children take ownership, such as cutting out a recognizable name or label from a container or magazine found at home, are particularly beneficial.
  • Contributing their own examples of environmental print to create class books or displays also strengthens the home-school connection.

Activities like these reinforce the fact that readable and writable print can be found everywhere, while ensuring that the print is actually familiar to the children.

Env Print2The purpose of using familiar environmental print for instruction is to form a bridge between the known and new, so it is important that teachers use
examples that are meaningful for the children in each group. Horner (2005) recommends emphasizing the use of child-familiar logos—such as those from toys, movies, and television shows—rather than community signs or household items. These were found to be most recognizable by both males and females of various ages. For instance, the journal entries in Photo 1 (above) [1] by two kindergarten girls, reflect their recognition of and interest in the text found on a classmate’s lunchbox.

Horner (2005) also points out that an educator’s use of logos could imply approval of the products they represent. She recommends that teachers use acceptable toy names whenever possible. Children usually enter learning settings already familiar with a wide variety of commercial environmental print, such as road signs and household product logos. Their classrooms often are filled with homemade environmental print, such as daily schedules, labels on shelves, and a list of birthdays. Initial experiences with both types of environmental print enable children to associate print with meaning. This enables them to build confidence in their ability to read, which is necessary for becoming successful readers. In addition to supporting young readers, recent research demonstrates how print from the environment gives young children confidence to experiment and use print resources to improve their writing. These researchers found that children experimenting with writing engage in  “environmental printing”— copying conventional forms of print—directly from sources in their immediate surroundings.

This study of kindergarteners’ journal-writing behavior revealed three distinct ways children used environmental print.

  • Some children used environmental print simply as a source to copy without regard to its meaning.
  • Environmental print also served as a resource for the correct spelling of particular words or phrases, such as the day of the week, needed in the child’s message.
  • Environmental print inspired children’s choices of writing topics.

Environmental Print in Daily Explorations

Env PrintEarly writing attempts can easily be promoted by deliberately stocking children’s play and learning areas with a combination of authentic environmental print and writing supplies along with other props. For example, a block center that contains street signs, “under construction” labels, and corporate logos such as those from
restaurants and manufacturers encourages the use of environmental print when building. Coupling such signs with blank index cards, sticky notes, and markers promotes environmental printing as children label or write about their structures.
Placing cookbooks, large colorful paper, and blank recipe cards in the pretend play area may prompt children to record the dishes being served.

They might design restaurant menus or transfer information from a cookbook to a personalized recipe box using the original text as a model and spelling reference. By adding labeled measuring utensils in pretend and water/sand play, children begin to see the relationship between quantities, numerals, and words. Setting up a classroom movie rental facility, pet rescue service, or grocery store with children for their dramatic play is another way to provide familiar environmental print as a motivation for writing. Telephone books, magazines, travel brochures, play money, and similar items all can expand children’s early literacy resources.

With a wide array of manipulatives that spark the use of environmental print, children will soon be able to write words to their favorite songs, learn color name words (in three languages) from crayons or markers, and match the names and shapes of seashells. Immersing children in a learning setting intentionally filled with environmental print to be used as a writing resource increases their ability and motivation to write.


Children who are surrounded by print flourish in literacy development and are often more successful in school. As children observe, read, discuss, and copy the signs and symbols in their world, they become aware that literacy is part of everyone’s daily activities. They come to realize that reading and writing fulfill various purposes and functions in their lives. Environmental print

  • provides models for children’s writing,
  • helps them internalize correct spellings of commonly used words, and
  • inspires their own writing through environmental printing. With support and guidance, young children eventually learn to write conventionally, composing messages for a variety of purposes and audiences.

Consciously capitalizing on their familiarity with environmental print as an aid for early writing is one way to promote their progress on the road to becoming independent authors and readers.



[1] Rebecca McMahon Giles and Karyn Wellhousen Tunks, Children Write Their World: Environmental Print as a Teaching Tool, Dimensions of Early Childhood, Fall 2010, Volume 39, Number 3,

3 thoughts on “Shapes, Pictures and Colors: Environmental Print as a Teaching Tool

    1. I asked my wife who is a retired teacher. She said she collected hers from magazines over the years. We have Lakeshore Learning near us that sells educational supplies. Perhaps you have something like that near you?

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