When you start thinking about what you can do to begin preparing your child for Preschool or Kindergarten, the first thing that probably pops into your head is to teach your child the alphabet. Learning the alphabet doesn’t seem all that difficult…a simple Google search will yield you plenty of information and activities. What Google won’t tell you is the key to your child’s success, and it’s probably not what you are thinking. After reading this post, you will know the truth about what your child needs when learning the ABCs and:

  • The difference between Letter Knowledge and the Alphabetic Principle
  • Why explicitly teaching letters is important to do
  • How to know if your child is ready to learn
  • The key to your child’s success
  • Simple activities that support learning the alphabet
Adult woman working with child to learn the alphabet

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What is Letter Knowledge and the Alphabetic Principle?

Both of these concepts are part of one of the six Early Literacy Skills. They work together as one skill even though they aren’t exactly the same. Let’s talk quickly about the difference.

Letter Knowledge

Letter Knowledge is simply your child’s ability to be able to recognize and label both lowercase and uppercase letters. Your little one needs to be able to identify all 52 letter symbols and recall their names in order to be successful with this skill.

Alphabetic Principle

On the other hand, the Alphabetic Principle is the concept that each letter has a corresponding sound attached to it. Those sounds work together to form words. Where this gets tricky is the fact that some letters make more than one sound. In addition, there are some letters that team up with other letters to make completely new sounds as well. So even though there are only 26 letters, there are actually 44 sounds, called phonemes, in the English language.

Why Explicitly Teaching Letters is Important

So why should you purposefully make sure your child is learning the alphabet?

Although your little one is a sponge, absorbing everything you say and do, learning the Alphabetic Principle is a complex task…similar to learning a new language. You want to make certain that your child is able to label all 52 letter symbols and name their sounds with ease. This will set them up for success when it comes time for them to begin decoding words.

Don’t make these mistakes when teaching the alphabet!

When they approach a word to decode for the first time, they will already have the background knowledge of each letter sound associated with the symbols they see on the page in front of them. Then, they will be able to recall and produce those sounds in order to blend those sounds together to make a word.

How to Know if Your Child Is Ready to Learn Letters

Girl learning the alphabet, pointing to letters on a chart.

One of the most troublesome things that you can do is to push your child into learning the alphabet before they are ready. It will only cause negative emotions around learning and reading, which could jeopardize their print motivation. Here are some ways you can know if they are ready:

They are Able to Label Things in their Environment

Children have a natural desire to want to label the world around them. In this way, if you have been exposing them to letters and print, they probably have already asked you, “What’s this called?” while holding up a blue foam bath letter.

You can take advantage of this desire to label the world by naming the letters that they are playing with in the tub. If you have a basket of magnetic letters that your child can sort through and play with, name them as they are playing. Make the opportunity to use the letter names in conversation during play such as, “Can you hand me the letter E? Let’s put the letter M in that cup. Where did the D go?”

They Show an Interest in Books and Letters

Showing an interest in the literacy-rich environment that you have created is a sure sign that they are eager to learn more. When they want you to read to them, play with their books, or rearrange the letters on the fridge, they are showing you that they are eager to interact with literacy. This is a great time to capitalize on this interest.

The Truths about Learning the Alphabet

When thinking about how you can support your child in learning to read, you probably first thought about them learning the alphabet at a young age. While so many moms out there are bragging about how their 3-year-old can read Harry Potter, after reading the following truths, you’ll be able to sit-back, relax, and know that your child is on the path to becoming a true lifelong reader.

colorful felt letters that spell "alphabet"

It’s Not the Most Important Early Literacy Skill

Believe it or not, learning the alphabet is not the most important literacy skill. Research has shown time and again that Phonological Awareness is critical to your child’s success as a reader. Don’t get me wrong, Letter Knowledge and the Alphabetic Principle ARE important. However, if students are not proficient in Phonological Awareness, they do not have the necessary foundation to develop as a reader. It is a prerequisite to learning to read (Fredericks, 2001).

Think about it this way. Phonological Awareness in a nutshell is about the sounds that make up words. If a child is unable to distinguish the sounds within a word, they will be unable to break down that word when it comes time to decode.

While the Alphabetic Principle is necessary to be able to link those letter symbols to the sounds that they make within a word, the underlying skill in decoding is being able to break apart and blend those sounds together to actually create that word. Children who have difficulty reading or who have failed to read, lack Phonological Awareness (Fredericks, 2001).

It’s Not the End of the World If Your Child Doesn’t Know Their Letters by Kindergarten

Believe it or not, the range for children to learn the alphabet is from ages 2-7 (source). So if your child isn’t recognizing all 52 letter symbols by 36 months, you shouldn’t be concerned. In fact, it’s not developmentally appropriate for 2 and 3-year-olds to have all of the letters memorized. Yes, exposure and some recognition is great, but don’t be forcing your child to memorize everything when it isn’t necessary.

So let’s get back to learning letters by Kindergarten. I’ll be honest, Kindergarten teachers think it’s a nice perk if your child comes in knowing all of their letters and sounds, but they don’t expect it. Consider the age range I shared above. 2 years to 7 years is an appropriate time for your child to be learning the alphabet. A 7-year-old is a first grader!

With that huge age range, it should not be alarming when a 5-year-old doesn’t have it all mastered. It will come and there are so many other ways to build literacy without forcing your child to be an alphabet savant before they are ready.

You Should Teach Sounds When Teaching the alphabet

Yes, you should teach the sounds that letters make at the same time you are teaching letter names. Literacy experts are starting to share that learning letter sounds while teaching letter names is equally as important (source).

Think about it this way. When you are teaching your toddler the names of animals, don’t you also expose them to and teach them the sound that animal makes? Why wouldn’t you do the same with letters?

Helping your child understand that each letter also makes a sound early on will help them link letters and sounds and will also help them with the important concept of Phonological Awareness. This will enable them to be able to decode words more efficiently.

Simple Activities that Support Letter Learning

wooden block letters that spell out "play"

So how can you help your child with Letter Recognition and the Alphabetic Principle? I always recommend starting your formal instruction with the letters and sounds in your child’s name. This is the strongest link your child has to letters and something with which they are fascinated. It is a great way to increase motivation and enhance their self-identity. Take advantage of it! Other ways to support letter learning at home are:

Sorting

As your child is exploring letters and their shapes, have them sort similar letter shapes together. You may have them sort by ones that have sticks, curves, or both. Or if you have a set of colorful letters, have them sort by color.

Matching

A purposeful activity to help your child link uppercase and lowercase letters or letters and their sounds is to have your child match letters.

You can learn more about letter matching and other ways to grow a strong reader in my free email course Read to Lead.

Letter Hunts

Letter hunts are an engaging way to increase your child’s ability to find and match letters. This is perfect for Letter Recognition and working to match letters. I also provide a lot more information on this in my Read to Lead email course along with the free tools you need to get started.

Letter Play

Letter play is a wonderful opportunity to get exposure to letters for younger toddlers and also to practice writing and fine motor skills with older toddlers.

Letting your young toddler freely play with letters is a perfect way to surround them with a literacy and print-rich environment. Their natural curiosity will spark some interest in labeling their environment, leading them to start labeling and learning more about the letters that are around them.

As your toddler grows older, capitalize on their need for sensory experiences and get messy with some shaving cream, sensory bins, hair gel, and more to practice writing letters. They will want to get messy in the sensory experience you have created for them so why not get them to try to copy and write some letters?

What’s Next for Letter Learning and Your Child

As your child grows into a reader, you may be wondering how you can continue to support them in their journey.

Wooden alphabet blocks in a pile

As always, make sure that you are taking your child’s lead. Whether they know 5 or 20 letters, you should be providing the opportunities for exploration and play with letters without being forceful.

Continue reading every day with your child and having them point out the letters that they notice in print. As they recognize more letters and are confident in the corresponding sounds, show them how you break down simple word into their sounds so that they can begin to understand the basics of decoding. Then, you might be able to have them start recognizing simple words on a page.

Just remember, stay confident in what you are doing to support your child’s literacy journey. You are doing an amazing job!

What are some ways that you support learning the alphabet at home? Drop a comment below and don’t forget to share!