How to teach the alphabet is the often the first thing parents wonder about when they want to start developing pre-reading skills in their children. And it’s a great place to start!
(To learn everything you need to know about developing reading readiness skills in your child, take my online digital course for parents, How to Raise a Reader – Reading Readiness Edition.)
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Why is Teaching the Alphabet Such a Great Place to Start?
For the most part, teaching kids the alphabet is straightforward and easy. It’s an area in which parents generally feel confident – we all know the alphabet song, right?
Best of all, it’s FUN.
No matter what age your child is (birth to late Kindergarten), I believe that you should be “teaching” the alphabet, at least at some level. (Yes, I know this is a controversial statement, but stay with me here.)
“Teaching” the alphabet to kids looks and sounds very different depending upon the ages of the children.
How to Introduce the Alphabet to Babies – Yes, Babies!
For babies, it’s all about low-key, natural exposure. Make the alphabet an ordinary, expected part of your home environment and daily routine.
Think about this – nursery decor, books, and toys for babies are themed with basic concepts such as colors, shapes, animals, foods, nursery rhymes, etc. Make sure that the alphabet is included in there somewhere, too.
My favorite way to do this is by reading aloud lots of alphabet books. Just as you would point out objects in a book when you are reading to a baby – “Look, there’s the elephant,” – you can point out letters just as naturally. You might say “I see the letter B,” while you point to it, and then keep moving right along through the book.
I also like to have a simple, clear alphabet chart or poster as decor in a nursery. And be sure to include the alphabet song in your repertoire of lullabies.
I want to be very clear here. You are NOT teaching the alphabet, per se. You are making it an ordinary part of your home environment and family culture. The goal is to make the alphabet a natural part of the background in your baby’s life.
Helping Toddlers Learn the Alphabet
Take a look at that heading just above – notice that I used the term “learn” as opposed to “teach.” With toddlers, it’s all about helping them LEARN the alphabet, as opposed to TEACHING them the alphabet.
To help younger toddlers learn the alphabet, start casually building on the exposure you established during babyhood. This is the time to add a few alphabet toys to your child’s toy box.
Be more purposeful when reading alphabet books. Transition from telling the name of a letter to inviting your toddler to point to a letter – “Where is the B? Show me the letter B.” If they can’t, point to the letter and say, “There’s the B!” Keep it fun, brief, and low-key.
Use your home’s alphabet chart in this same way. “Read” it together once each day, perhaps as part of the bedtime routine.
Toddlers are usually able to point to letters before they can say the names of the letters. Once you notice that your little one can say the names of some letters, start asking, “What is this letter?” as you point. If they have trouble, say it yourself and encourage them to repeat it. Keep it conversational, and don’t ever let it sound like a demand or a test.
If Kids Can Learn That a Cow Says “Moo,” They Can Learn That the /b/ Sound Goes With the Letter B
For older toddlers who seem ready, you can repeat this process with letter sounds. Always start by modeling – “That’s the letter B. /b/, /b, /b/.” When the time seems right, move on to prompting “What sound does B make?” Again, if they have any trouble, say it yourself and encourage them to repeat it. Keep it as casual as any other conversation you share with your toddler.
The goal is for your toddler to learn to identify letters by name and know their sounds in the same way that the rest of their language is developing – naturally, and on their own personal timeline.
Tools for Learning the Alphabet
Toddler-hood is the time to introduce magnetic letters and foam letters for the bathtub. Keep a set of jumbo magnetic letters on the fridge and draw attention to them in the same way you do with alphabet books. I like to have uppercase magnetic letters and lowercase magnetic letters.
Use magnetic letters to form your child’s name, and point it out to them every day. This is a great way to start developing the concept that letters form words, which convey meaning.
Toddlers love to play with jumbo magnetic letters, stacking them, rearranging them on the fridge, and taking them in and out of containers. Continue modeling by commenting casually – “You’re putting the letter M in the tub, aren’t you?” Then move along to inviting participation – “Can you hand me the letter W?” You can make these same activities a part of your child’s bath-time by adding foam letters to your collection of bath toys. Early on in your child’s journey to learning the alphabet, magnetic letters should be more of a toy, not a formal learning tool. It won’t be long before you’re using them to reinforce letter sounds and early spelling skills.
If your older toddler seems ready, do the same sort of activity with sounds.
Along with plush toys, blocks, play vehicles and dolls, be sure to include alphabet puzzles and alphabet games in your child’s toy box. This is another way to make letters and sounds a natural part of your home’s culture and environment.
Alphabet puzzles help your child develop fine motor, visual discrimination and problem-solving skills while physically touching and exploring the letters of the alphabet. Work on these together at first, until your child has built some success in fitting the letters back into their spaces. Try offering one letter puzzle piece at a time, and pointing to the general area of the puzzle frame where it can be found. Offer clues – “Can you find the picture of the ball, for the letter B?”
Teaching the Alphabet to Preschoolers
Up until around age three, I recommend keeping letter and sound activities informal and casual. At around age three, as kids move into the preschool years, they should interact with letters and sounds in a more purposeful way. Start including 10-15 minutes of more structured (but still fun!) alphabet activities in your daily routine.
Continue modeling, especially with sounds, but invite your child to actively participate more often. In addition to taking advantage of learning opportunities as they come up, start intentionally creating fun teaching opportunities. Add a few alphabet games to your home and establish a weekly family game night. Suggest doing an alphabet puzzle together, and then comment on or ask your child to identify most of the letters rather than just a few. Have your child watch LeapFrog’s Letter Factory while you are cooking dinner. (It’s an incredibly effective way to reinforce letters and sounds.)
Flashcards Can Be Fantastic
While I don’t recommend using flashcards to “drill” your preschooler, they are invaluable for playing games and creating alphabet activities. A great physical activity is to have your child lay alphabet flashcards out on the floor in order, and then read them aloud, walking or crawling along the line of cards.
Or, grab your tub of magnetic letters and have your preschooler place each one on top of its matching flashcard. You can tape flashcards around the house and send your child on a treasure hunt to see how many letters they can find.
Buy two of the same sets and use them for playing matching games or “concentration.” Play bingo by pulling a few flashcards from one set to create a bingo card, and using the other set for letters to “call.” With two sets, you can even play a limited version of “Go Fish.”
Once each day, point to each card in order from left to right and “read” the card with your child. This activity is a great addition to your bedtime story routine. For babies and toddlers, just say the name of the letter and the name of the picture. For preschoolers and Kindergartners, say the name of the letter, the name of the picture, and the sound.
If you are homeschooling, or you want to provide activities in a more systematic way, invest in a high-quality alphabet curriculum. This Reading Mama has an unbelievable, affordable product called the “Learning the Alphabet Bundle.” It’s jam-packed with powerful hands-on activities for learning letters and letter sounds. To get the most bang for your buck, I recommend purchasing a downloadable bundle product such as this rather than just picking up alphabet workbooks here and there. You’ll receive many more activities to choose from, and you can download and print out exactly what your child needs.
Any of the activities the Learning the Alphabet Bundle would be great for that 10-15 minutes of structured alphabet learning time that I recommend for preschoolers. When we provide engaging activities like these, kids learn much more easily and quickly. I guarantee there is something in this bundle that your child will fall in love with, which will totally supercharge their alphabet learning!
Developing Deep Letter Knowledge
In order to become a skilled, fluent reader and writer, your child needs to develop deep letter knowledge. And the time to do this is during Pre-K and the beginning of Kindergarten. If you haven’t started using a curriculum like the “Learning the Alphabet Bundle,” now is definitely the time to add 10-15 minutes of structured alphabet activities to your child’s day.
Having deep letter knowledge means that your child can:
- Readily identify all lowercase and uppercase letters by name.
- Write each lowercase and uppercase letter.
- Hear a vowel or consonant sound and immediately know which letter represents it.
- Look at a letter and articulate the sound it makes.
True mastery of these four skills takes time – from informal babyhood exposure to direct instruction during Pre-K and Kindergarten. It takes steady, age-appropriate practice and review at the same time your child is developing other reading readiness skills.
Whether you are homeschooling or reinforcing what your child learns in preschool, Pre-K or Kindergarten, isn’t it wonderful that you can set your child up for success in learning to read by something as simple as teaching the alphabet? You’ll never regret taking advantage of this amazing power and precious opportunity.
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