Learning the alphabet at an early age prepares children for the entirety of their academic career. The foundation of any language is the letters, and it is important to introduce your child to their letters as early as possible to develop the necessary literary skills.
“The best way to introduce your child to the letters is just by reading to them,” Carol Roberts, pre-kindergarten teacher at St. Vincent de Paul Parish School, says. “Eventually, children will know that books are made up of words and sentences, and those are all made up of letters.”
Heather Burrington, center director of Creative Playrooms in Strongsville, says it is important to make learning so engaging and exciting that the child does not even recognize they are learning.
“We need to provide an environment in which children are immersed in the language, so in addition to reading and singing regularly throughout the day, they need to have activities that are engaging and interesting,” Burrington says. “Generally, that’s through play-based activities, which is the most developmentally appropriate. It creates excitement about learning, because the children just feel that they’re playing.”
Roberts says the best way for kids to learn is to teach them in ways that will interest them in learning. Roberts has an activity where she places an object starting with the letter of the week in a trash can. The students get three clues as to what is inside the trash can. When her students recently learned the letter ‘J,’ Roberts placed a box of Jell-O in the trash can.
“I have a student with a ‘J’ name in my class, so she gets to sit on the trash can, and we get to sing to her about the letter ‘J,’” Roberts says. “I also hid the game Jacks around the classroom, since it starts with the letter ‘J.’ Our goal is to just reinforce the letters and have constant repetition.”
Roberts also recommends parents include other subjects while learning the letters. For example, her students love science and science experiments, so when they learned the letter ‘A,’ they performed a science experiment with apples.
“The basis is really just reading and getting kids excited about the letters,” Roberts says. “Be sure to incorporate fun games and activities that will excite them. On the car ride to school, you can even point out the stop sign and ask ‘What letters do you see on the stop sign?’”
Nancy Schneider, instructional coach for curriculum at Euclid City Schools, agrees that the most important tip for parents is to be present with their child and engage in interest-based learning.
“For 3- or 4-year-olds, if it’s not something that’s important to them, or connects with them on some level, they won’t be engaged,” Schneider says. “If they’re not engaged, it’s not going to go to their long-term memory. Only discuss letters in context if that’s important to the students.”
Schneider believes that learning sounds is key to success. Children will be able to distinguish between different sounds of letters and recognize that some words start with the same sound.
“Mom or Dad should be reading, making lists, writing lists, having things labeled when they can be,” Schneider says. “Just making your child aware of letters, making them aware of the sounds of letters, making them aware of words and sentences. This is all really important.”
Above all, Schneider says it is important to promote literacy. Children are inspired by their parents and often model similar behavior. For example, if a child sees their mother reading the newspaper or writing a grocery list and or engaged in literacy, the child will recognize the importance of letters and sounds.
“The more information we provide our kids, the easier school will be,” Schneider says. “Our job as parents is to give them the tools and give them the foundations that they need to be successful. By giving them letter names, and teaching them their letter names, that’s going to help them be more successful when they get to school.”
Schneider recommends that parents help their children first learn how to isolate the beginning sounds of words. Children first learn the definition of words by seeing an object and then breaking down the word into chunks to comprehend the sounds and letters. As time goes on, children will understand that ‘pen,’ ‘pig,’ and ‘park’ all begin with the letter ‘P’ and make the same sound.
“Children learn when they are interested in the material,” Schneider says. “With that being said, children might be inclined to turn to their tablet or a website to learn. That is fine, but adult supervision must be there. If a child is watching a video about Elmo, the parent should be there to make the comparison between the beginning sounds of ‘Elmo’ and the beginning sounds of ‘Elsa,’ for example.”
While learning apps and websites are easy ways to teach your child the letters, Roberts recommends that for preschoolers, parents conduct hands-on learning rather than resort to using technology.
“Parents need to make time to read a story to their child before bed,” Roberts says. “Or if they are in the car, going back to the stop sign example, point out the stop sign and say ‘Stop’ begins with ‘S’ and so does your name, for example. Make those comparisons.”
Burrington agrees that hands-on learning is more beneficial for young students than technology-based learning.
“When they’re only 3, we still need to provide them with hands-on learning, especially during those formative years,” Burrington says. “There’s nothing wrong with some online matching games, but I feel that real life is where you’ll really connect, and you’ll really get an idea of what they need to know and what they do already know.”
Knowing the letters and the sounds letters make is the precursor to reading. Teaching your preschooler the letters now will help them become stronger students in kindergarten and will prepare them for the rest of their academic career.
“If children recognize their name and can write their name, it creates confidence in starting kindergarten,” Burrington says. “When they know and recognize the letter names and sounds, this is one of the first steps in children learning to read and write. By the end of kindergarten, children are expected to do both of those things. If they don’t go in there already having those basics down, they may fall behind, they may become frustrated, and they may become confused, which will discourage them from learning further.”
There are several objects you can use around your home to help your child learn their letters. Parents can easily create Bingo with a sheet of paper, or use flashcards and create a flashcard game. As you and your child are eating breakfast before school, have your child read the letters on the front of the cereal box or have them point out letters in a TV commercial.
Burrington recommends using play dough to create letters or using rice or sand to trace letters.
“Even recognizing letters while they’re driving to school is important,” Burrington says. “Playing letter games while running errands at the grocery store can be engaging as well. Finding letters or talking about the letter sounds as they pick out the items and put them in the cart can be really engaging. Just make games out of everything.”
When Roberts is reading a story to her students, she makes sure to incorporate her students in the learning process. For example, when reading a book about ants, she will point out that ‘ant’ begins with the letter ‘A,’ and encourage students to find another word that starts with the letter ‘A.’ Parents can easily model this technique at home by asking their child to identify an object around the home that also starts with the letter ‘A.’
“We do a ‘letter of the week,’ and the students tell me if the letter is a vowel or consonant,” Roberts says. “We also cover the sounds of the letter as well as incorporate sign language. We also play games to get the children excited to learn, such as ‘Letter Bingo.’ Parents can make this game at home, too, just with a piece of paper.”
It is important to be present with your child and help them learn as much as they can. Spend 10 minutes before bed reading to them, or have your child sound out the grocery items they are placing into the cart. No matter what the activity is, make sure your child is involved and that quality time is being spent.
“I think the most important thing to remember is that this is time that you’re spending with your children,” Schneider says. “So, be positive, make it fun, and make it engaging.”