Toy Whisperer: Tools for learning

Simple as A B C: Learn the Alphabet – Best Practices

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Learning the alphabet letters is the foundation for learning to read.  It is a fact that knowledge of the alphabet often predicts later success in the ability to read. 

And reading is the method many people use to learn concepts from the simplest to the most complicated. Many parents worry needlessly over their child’s progression for this task, as success may take some time. 

The Story of L

After 20 times of pointing out that your child’s name starts with “L” and little Leo still doesn’t seem to understand, it is easy to be discouraged. But what parents may not realize is that it could take up to 200 repetitions to solidify the concept. And this is especially true if this is the first letter you try to introduce. You may not realize what you are doing is almost a leap of faith on your child’s part.

Photo by Ryan Fields on Unsplash

They need to recognize that the squiggle on the paper has meaning. The squiggles are so unlike their standard method of communication – talking.

As a parent, you need to relax and keep repeating the story of “L” (as well as different letters) in many different ways until the message is understood. Repetition in interesting ways does work. However, dull, monotonous repetition does not.

It is significant that “L” is for Leo. 
But “L” has many stories to tell. It is for the brave lion in the storybook read last night. It is also “L” for lemon tarts that your child loves so much. You can make a capital “L” using your left hand and pointy finger. It is also the delightful smell of lilacs that bloom in the back of the yard. It is far more interesting and effective to have your child use their senses to associate with letter sounds. You can try using the coloring and identification pages, but you will have more success with experiential learning. Of course, you will need to introduce the symbols for “L,  l,” but associating the sounds with tangible objects is very powerful. 
You do not need set lessons about “L,” but the teacher (read parent) needs a mindset to point out every “L” in the immediate vicinity. It could be the ladder that daddy uses to fix the roof or the lightening in the rainstorm, or the lace on mommy’s blouse.  You could even point to the large sign that says, “Lucy’s Corner Store.” L seems to be everywhere.

After many repetitions, Leo will finally understand the association of the letter to the sound it makes. At that point you can start to associate the sound and letter of “L” to instances in print.

How fortunate that you decided on the name “Leo” as that name choice has made teaching the first letter of the alphabet much easier. The sound that “L” makes is in its name.  If you had decided on Charlie instead of Leo, your job would have been much more difficult. The “C” in Charlie has to be combined with the “h” to make the “ch.” Sometimes “C” is a hard sound such as in “candy,” and sometimes it is a soft sound such as in “ice.” The letter “C” can be so confusing!

What’s in a Name?

You might be wondering why I started with your child’s name. Why didn’t I start with “A” as it is the first letter of the alphabet?  Current research affirms that the beginning sound or letter of your child’s first name is an ideal place to start. Did you know that children are 7.5 times more likely to know the letter of their first initial, according to a scientific study, Pivotal Research in Early Literacy? And even better, if the name has an easier letter with which to begin.

It only makes sense to many people that children would be partial to their own name. After all, they have heard their name many more times than most other words. It is easier to start with the familiar when teaching something as abstract as a symbolic system of letter recognition. 

The Name of the Letters or the Sound?

There have been many debates about which system is more important. Do you teach the name of the letters or the sound the letters make? Experts have solid arguments for both strategies.
But this same study confirmed that whether you start with the letter names, as in the ABC song, or the sounds of the letters doesn’t substantially make a difference. Interestingly, in the US, parents tend to teach the letter names, and in the UK, they tend to teach the sounds of the letters.

Capital Letters or Small Letters

It is easier for kids to recognize the capital letters as opposed to the small letters as capitals are graphically more unique from each other. Anyone who has run into the “b” and “d” confusions can attest to this phenomenon.

As a veteran teacher of small kids, I prefer that parents familiarize their kids with the small letters of the alphabet as those are the “meat and potatoes” of reading.  You do not need to begin with the small letters, but by the time your child is ready to go to kindergarten, it is important that he or she is familiar with all of the small letters. Research does validate that the kids who know capital letters first had better retention of small letters. 

Where to Start?

Start with the first letter of your child’s name, even if it is a tricky letter. Familiarity trumps almost everything else in introducing an entirely new form of communication. Your young child knows talking. Now you are introducing something far less concrete.  

No, no, no – Not a Letter a Week Approach

It would seem to the adult mind that focusing on a letter a week just makes sense. But that is not the best way to learn the alphabet. Not every letter deserves an intense focus on it. Your focus on the letters should be proportional to their importance. E is the most frequent letter in the English language, and q is the least infrequent. Spend more time on letters that have more significance. Some lowercase letters are very confusing because the shape is the same, but the orientation is different. Consider these pairs: b–d; p–q; u–n. Many kids also confuse n with m because they look so similar. Don’t get discouraged if your child has some difficulty in distinguishing the differences. Other kids confuse s with 2. Some kids are 7 or 8 years old before they stop confusing these letters in their writing.  

So,  spend more time with letters that are difficult or used more in the English language. Take less time with uncommon letters and letters your child learns quickly.  

An Alphabetical Approach- NOT


Any set of exercises that starts at A and ends with Z is not based on the latest research for instruction. You can use these materials if you rearrange the order of the letters and intensify instruction for the most important letters. 
Any program that introduces a letter a week does not do justice because some letters require more instruction because they are complicated. All of the vowels fall under this category as they have at least 2 different sound associations – short sound like “e” in egg and long sound like “e” in easy. Then there are times when “e” is silent, but it makes another letter change its sound, such as “e” in cape. 


Programs that are organized to teach your child the letters and sounds may have a slightly different order of letters, but they do start with the letters that are easier to learn and are also used in many 3 letter words. You can easily find different organizations through a Google search. Then you can select the program that best suits your child’s needs.


However, “s” is often a beginning letter to investigate (after your child’s name) because it has a very distinctive sound and is used in many words. You will find many picture books that emphasize this letter.


Letter Recognition, Print Awareness, and Beginning Writing – All at the Same Time

Another critical aspect of learning the ABCs is linking the letters or their sounds to print. You should be looking for letters in a book, in the world around your child, and in writing letters to spell words. These 3 approaches scaffold the reading process.
 
Books that have a repeated letters are great for a letter hunt. 

In the environment, you can look for “H” as it signals a hospital. Or the STOP on the red sign means that mommy must stop the car. All of these letters in your environment can become useful tools for teaching the alphabet.




Start your child writing the first letter of their name. Add the consonant letters next and finally slip in the vowels. Let your child scribble and tell you about the story they have written. That is a significant, positive step in development. They may progress to invented spelling for words such as using grf for giraffe. 

So, learning the letters, recognizing them in printed text, in the world around them, and using the letters to communicate are very valuable steps in the reading-writing process. Each activity adds meaning to the other.

A Recap for an Evidence-Based Approach to Teaching the ABC’s

  • Child’s Name: One very successful place to start with is the first letter of your child’s name, especially if it is a letter that has a similar or identical sound and name. Some of those letters are more suitable for teaching than others A for Adrian (but not for Alyssa), C for Carlie (but not for Charlie), G for George (but not for Gregory), etcetera. But even if your child has a less desirable first letter, I would start there anyway as familiarity will be more important than exact sound matching.
  • CAPITAL LETTERS: You can use the capital letters for first teaching the recognition of the letters.  However, every primary teacher will be supportive of teaching small letters by kindergarten age.
  • Experiences: Focus on experiential learning and not worksheets or dull practice of the sounds. A caveat here. Some kids like to have worksheets, just like big brother or sister. You can effectively use those phonic pages, but don’t insist the pages get completed if their interests wander.
  • Look for the Print: Alphabet instruction is enhanced when it is also linked to print –  in the environment, in writing, and in the books you read to children. 

Here’s what to Teach to your LO before Going to Kindergarten

The process of acquiring these skills will be haphazard. It is not necessary to start at any one point, but it is necessary to cover these skills for a successful beginning to school.

Developing Comprehension Skills

  • Enjoy hearing stories and singing songs
  • Understand the meaning of stories.
  • Be able to tell what happened in the story – beginning, middle, and end

Developing Letter and Phonetic Skills

  • Sing or say the alphabet
  • Identify most of the uppercase and lowercase letters
  • Match uppercase letters to lowercase
  • Identify rhyming words
  • Know the sounds that the letters make
  • Write some of the letters
  • Write their name and know the letters in their name

Mathematical  Knowledge

  • Count to 10
  • Recognize number patterns  – the patterns  look like what is on dice 
  • Sizing  – bigger and smaller objects, longer and shorter, taller and shorter, heavier and lighter
  • Names of commons shapes  – 3D, e.g., cube, ball,    and 2D, e.g., square, circle, triangle, 
  • Progression of time  – sooner and later, day and night,  before and  after

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