One of the questions I’m asked a lot from parents of toddlers and preschoolers is just wondering how to get started with teaching their kids. Although my response is typically along the lines of remembering their child is still very young and to focus on just playing and learning that way – I know that learning some of the early basics are very important. I’m not advocating hours of seatwork or grade level learning, but using tools you have to play games, do challenges that allow your kids to sponge up what they need to know.
One such area is teaching your kids about the alphabet – a very important pre-reading skill.
First, a few tips.
Don’t focus alphabet teaching on the alphabet song. I know, it seems strange, but it’s really hard for kids to grasp that the letters they are singing are the same ones they are learning. The alphabet song is a good idea for a starting point with letters, but since kids usually are just singing the sounds – not really the letters. Ever heard a toddler sing “m&m, mo, pee”? It comes with time. They do need to learn the sequence of the alphabet, but it’s better just to speak it. Move forwards and backwards to help them get alphabetical sequences.
Teach both the letter name AND the phonetic sounds when teaching letters – that will help them understand how words are formed and how letters work together.
Use their bodies. Find activities that include a variety of learning methods and body parts. Sound is important. Sight is important. We almost take them for granted in our learning – but don’t forget small motor skills like pinching and grabbing, and large motor activities like jumping and walking, etc. Kids learn best when multiple methods are involved.
Make it fun. If you force learning, especially at a young age, they will lose interest and not fully grasp the information that you want them to learn. So make it fun, make it about them and what they like.
1. Alphabet Magnets: These magnets are a great way to learn the alphabet. If you can find a collection that has both the upper and lower case sets of letters – you can do some fun games with them:
- Find the Set: Match an upper and lower case letter together. (We called this game GrownUp and Baby – that was a hit!)
- Letter Hunt: Find the letter “X”. Find the first letter of their name. Find the letter that sounds like “guh.”
- Match the Letters: Make a letter matching sheet and let the kids take the magnets off the fridge to match to the page. You can also take a cheap baking sheet, write the letters out by hand with a permanent marker and do the same thing. Another idea is to place some of the letters on a darker coloured sheet of construction paper and leave it out under the window where the sun can lighten the exposed part of the paper, leaving the outline of the magnet letters for the same kind of game.
- Hide the letters: I’ve seen some great ideas of hiding magnet letters into small containers like plastic Easter eggs that the kids pop open to find a letter. This could be a lot of fun, even for older early readers – by placing the letters of a word inside, having them pop the letters open and then unscramble the word!
2. Recipe Cards: My mom was a teacher before us kids arrived and she had so many creative ways to teach us things. One fun thing we had were letters hand-drawn on recipe cards. I’ve done the same thing with my boys. Here’s how we use them.
- Letter Hop: All over the floor in an open room, the cards are spread out face up so the child can see what letter they are. Then I call out a letter. The child finds the letter, jumps on the card and shouts out the letter name. As they progress, you can change it up to calling out the phonetic sound for them to find the match. Or you can call the letter name and they call out the sound in return. When even further along, you can get them to hop on a series of letters to spell basic early words like CAT, DAD, HOP, etc.
- Flashcards: Have a pop quiz by holding up a card and seeing if they can repeat back the letter name and/or sound. If they get it right, they get to keep the card. If not, it gets tucked back into the pile and repeated again later. The goal is to encourage the child to feel successful by collecting more cards than they have to redo.
3. Secret Letter of the Day: Pick one letter of the day and give it a place of honour.
- Cut out pictures from magazines of things that start with that letter.
- Talk about its name AND what is says (phonetic sound).
- Put the letter into a little container when you go to the grocery store, or for a neighbourhood walk and see what you can find that starts with that letter.
4. Go Fishing. Cut out some little fish from paper, writing a letter on the side of the fish and a paperclip on where it’s mouth would be. Make simple “rods” from doweling, some string, and a magnet on the end. The kids throw the magnet into a pond – either a pile of the fish on the floor or a wide container – hoping to catch a paperclip. When they catch a fish – make sure they share what letter they caught!
5. Playdough. Playdough is a magical toy and one of the best tools for small motor skills. Get your child to roll it into letter shapes, use letter shaped cookie cutters to cut out letter “cookies”, poke holes in a letter pattern…. you are really only limited by your imagination. 🙂
These are really just a few of the thousands of ideas available for letter learning. There are SO many great hands-on learning activities out there for learning letters!
Apps, TV Shows, & Websites That Teach Letters
Little ones love technology. There are so many ways to use it to your advantage and encourage learning. Here are some ideas:
- SuperWhy: This cartoon follows the adventures of a little boy named Wyatt and his friends in Storybook Land. Whenever they have a problem, they meet in their clubhouse, transform into language-powered superheroes, and dive into a book for answers. During their adventure, they collect letters that are hidden along the way and use them to make words with the answer to their problem. It’s pretty cute AND they spend a lot of time including letters and words in the show, making it a natural part of the storyline.
- ReadingEggs: This has both a website and a few apps that focus on early letter recognition and phonics. Depending on the age of your child, they have a Junior edition which is an easy and fun introduction to letters and language. Their regular edition is more of an intentional program to learn to read.
- Starfall: This website has some great letter and language activities. The “click a letter” activity was always popular in our house. They click on a letter of the alphabet and a set of words with interactive screen images and activities or things appears.
- Endless Alphabet: This app is fun. A word appears on the screen, then some monsters rush through and knock them all out of place. Your child has to drag the letters back into their spaces. While being dragged, the letters sing or say their phonetic sounds. It’s a great visual and audio way to connect what sounds belong to which letter. When the word is complete, something happens related to the word they have built as well as defining the word in a way that kids can understand.
Do you have a favourite activity you like to do to help your children learn their letters and sounds?
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This post was last published in 2017 and has been updated to include up-to-date information in 2020.