Inside: Phonics? Phonological skills? Long vowels? Short vowels? Lowercase? Uppercase? I just want to help my child learn the alphabet but I don’t know where to start! If this sounds like you, then this article is for you. Read on to discover where to start with teaching the alphabet and letter sounds, plus how you can make it fun and full of connection for your little one.
Most children start to learn to recognise the alphabet between 3-4 years old. However, babies are able to recognise different sounds and rhythms from our speech from as early as in the womb and ‘buh’ and ‘duh’ are often the first sounds babies make and can distinguish between, even though these sounds are incredibly phonologically similar. Isn’t that amazing?
Do I teach the alphabet or phonics?
Now you may wonder why I am talking about sounds and this thing called phonics when you just wanted to know about teaching the alphabet…
Well, you’ll recognise there is a difference between the name of a letter, ‘ay’, ‘bee’, ‘see’, ‘dee’, and the sound that letter makes when it is read in a word, ‘ah’, ‘buh’, ‘kuh’, ‘duh’ and so on.
Unfortunately, it is not very helpful for children to learn letter names alone because the sooner they can begin connecting the letter shape to the sound it makes, the sooner they will be on their way to reading. We use the term phonological awareness to refer to the ability a child has to determine, link and blend sounds from letters as they are put together to make words and sentences.
The importance of phonological awareness in the process of learning to read is known to be true for almost all languages. So, it’s important that we are not just teaching our children what the letters of English are, but their sounds too.
So, HOW do I teach the alphabet?
The truth is, there are so many phonics resources and programmes out there, it can be overwhelming. There are just a few important things to note when teaching the alphabet and letter sounds at home, and you are perfectly capable of teaching your child with your knowledge of English, and things you already have.
1) Teach beginning sounds
As we have established, we must teach the sound each letter makes as we introduce our children to their shapes and names. Some letters make different sounds depending on where they are placed in a word, so it is simplest to start by only teaching the sound a letter would make if placed at the beginning of a word.
For the vowels a, e, i, o ,u this means their ‘short’ sound. For example: ‘ah‘ for apple rather than ‘ay’ as in cake, ‘o’ for octopus, rather than ‘oo’ as in noodle.
2) Choose an order
The most popular order to teach letters in is to choose a handful of the most common letters used in words. This allows you to move on to doing lots of early reading activities with the many words you can make from these letters while you teach and add in new ones. Fynn shares more about the best order for teaching the alphabet in this youtube video.
3) Lowercase before capitals
I recommend introducing the lowercase alphabet before capitals. This is simply because lowercase letters (a, b, c, d, e) are more common in print and easier for children to recognise than capitals (A, B, C, D, E). Of course when spelling or looking at your child’s name you will use a capital letter at the beginning.
Activities for Noticing Letter Shapes
There are many ways to practise recognising letter shapes when learning the alphabet. All of these activities encourage children to use fine and gross motor skills while making strong memory connections to the shapes of their letters.
Letter Shape Activity 1: Tracing
- Use playdough, a tray of sand, or a zipper bag full of paint to make the letter for your child by using your finger, and then they can follow using the groove with their finger.
- You can then roll up the playdough or wipe the sand or paint clean to try again.
- Try writing your chosen letter on a piece of paper and placing it underneath the sand in the tray or behind the zipper bag of paint so that they can practise tracing for themselves.
- Tracing activities encourage focus, concentration and pre-writing skills
Related: Get your child practising with more fun, multi-sensory letter formation activities that you can set up easily at home!
Letter Shape Activity 2: Letter Pancakes
- You can do this simple activity at home if you have a set of alphabet letters, maybe borrowed from another game or cut out of thick cardboard.
- Use playdough to make ‘letter pancakes’ by rolling balls of playdough and pushing letter shapes into them.
- Encourage your child to push the letter really hard to make sure they get the whole shape
- Then, pull it off, mix them up and try to match the letters back to their pancakes!
Remember: Think about how you can help your child to notice the shape of the letter and link it to its initial sound: ‘This is g’. ‘Guh, guh, guh, g’. ‘Can you see g has a tail?’’
Letter Shape Activity 3: Using our bodies
- Look at your new letters and talk about their shapes. Some letters (like g, j, p, q, y) have 'tails', some (like a, b, d) have 'heads' or ‘bellies’, some (like l, m, n) have 'legs', some (like i and j) have 'hats' or ‘eyes’.
- Ask your toddler what they think the letter looks like and help them to describe it.
- You can then see if you can use your arms and legs to make the letter shape and correct each other.
Related: For more gross motor activities to practise letter recognition, check out this blog post ‘5 Gross Motor Activities for Kids to Learn their Names’.
Activities for Learning Letter Sounds
Letter Sounds Activity 1: Letter grab
- The aim of this activity is to listen carefully to the initial sound of a word and then grab the letter that you hear. This is an adaptation of a Japanese game called Karuta where a player’s aim is to beat their opponent to grab the word they hear. It’s very simple, which is what makes it so fun.
- Lay out (or write) 1-3 letters. Model the beginning sounds of each letter and then ask your child to listen very carefully. As you say a word, they must listen and decide whether to grab or slap the letter.
- For under 3’s: Start with one letter in front of them so that they can focus on only listening for one sound. Once they have got the hang of the game you could introduce another and use only words that begin with either of those two sounds. Remember: your child sees all of the modelling that you do. They love to watch you and this is such valuable learning time for them!
- For over 3’s or a child who is already more familiar with their alphabet: Play with 3-5 letter sounds. You can give words a little faster or introduce an oven glove, a fly swat, tongs, chopsticks or a spatula to give them another element of fun when grabbing.
Letter Sounds Activity 2: Jump, letter, jump!
- The aim of this activity is to focus on how the beginning sound of a letter comes out of our mouth.
- Carefully write the letter on a square of toilet paper or tissue, place the tissue on the table and see who can make their letter jump by moving your face close and making the beginning sound of that letter.
- Sounds made by the letters f and v will make the paper flutter or slide because they are made by blowing air through our teeth and lips.
- Plosive sounds made by the letters p, b, t, d, c, g might also make the paper jump because these sounds are made by closing our teeth or lips and then releasing a burst of air.
- Sounds that involve opening your mouth very wide like the vowels a, e, i, o, u, or closing your lips and making the sound through your nose like m and n will not make the paper move at all because they do not release a lot of air from your mouth. You don’t have to leave these letters out, simply explain that we make the sound in our nose/throat or with our mouths wide open or closed.
Letter Sounds Activity 3: Letter Picture Matching
- For this activity you will need to write or display the letters you are practising on a piece of paper or a tray. You will also need to collect pictures or items to use for matching. Here, I have used some pictures cut out from an old picture dictionary because it means the children can also see the word too, however you could draw objects, print pictures off, cut them out from a magazine or even use toys and things from around the house.
- Lay out your chosen letter/s and a number of pictures or items to choose from. Ask your child, ‘What is this?’. Model the word for them using its initial sound by saying, ‘b-b-b-boat!’ Ask them, ‘Can you see the letter that goes ‘buh’?’ ‘Put them together!’
- Using a muffin tin is a fun way to do this activity by making it a scavenger hunt. Take the muffin tin around the house to find things that start with your letter sound.
- This is a great activity to come back to with 2-3 letters after they’ve been introduced.
Related: Here's how you can support your child's speech development.
Activities to practise Letter Recognition and Matching
Letter Matching Activity 1: Peg letter matching
- One simple activity that my children love which you can reuse again and again is to write each letter on a dot sticker and stick it onto a peg.
- Cut out a long snake, worm or caterpillar that your child can match the pegs to. You can take the pegs off when they are finished and use them again.
Remember: continue to emphasise letter sounds while doing matching activities with your child, and remind them of any other ways you have identified that letter together. Maybe you have said that letter t looks like a tree, or e looks like an ear. All of these little repetitive links help to create stronger synapses for memory.
Letter Matching Activity 2: Feed the Monster Letter Matching Box
Letter Matching Activity 3: Apple and Caterpillar Letter Matching Activity
Related: Another fun way for children to practise is to recognise, match and order the letters in their own names.
Ultimately, the goal of alphabet learning activities is not to simply drill them until they can be recalled. Instead, interacting with letters and their shapes and sounds in different ways: through touching, creating, listening, producing the sounds, matching, and creating a little bank of words that they know which begin with the letters all contributes to creating a really strong foundation for learning to read.
So have fun!