So you are wanting to take the initiative with your toddler or preschooler and start preparing them for reading success. Way to go, mama! The first thought you probably had was to start teaching your child the alphabet. With a quick Google or Pinterest search, you were bombarded with worksheets, activities, printables, and more. But, before you get started falling into the depths of these letter learning techniques, make sure you aren’t making these 3 mistakes. After reading you will know:

  • What exactly Letter Knowledge and the Alphabetic Principle are
  • Why Letter Knowledge/Alphabetic Principle is an important early literacy skill
  • 3 big mistakes you could be making when teaching your child the alphabet
  • How to know when your child is ready to learn letters
  • Ways to encourage interest in letters
Girl in pink sweater holding colorful magnetic letters; teaching your child the alphabet.

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Letter Knowledge and the Alphabetic Principle

Letter Knowledge and the Alphabetic Principle are one of the six early literacy skills your child needs to know to grow into a reader. They are kind of combined under one skill even though they represent different ideas.

Letter Knowledge is simply the ability to recognize letters and recall the letter names for both uppercase and lowercase letters.

The Alphabetic Principle is a bit more complex. It is a child’s understanding that each letter is a symbol that represents a sound and that those sounds can combine to form words. So basically, it takes what your child already knows about the letters’ names and teaches them that each letter also makes a sound (or multiple sounds).

Why Letter Knowledge & The Alphabetic Principle are Important

All of the 6 Early Literacy Skills are important, but what makes Letter Knowledge and the Alphabetic Principle stand out?

Being able to recognize letters and understand that they represent sounds is a big first step to being able to decode and read. It is a big task to learn the names of the letters and to understand that each letter can be represented in two different ways (uppercase and lowercase). Luckily, some of the uppercase letters look very similar to the lowercase letters, but that is still 52 symbols to memorize and recognize.

On top of having to memorize 52 symbols, children have to know that each letter makes at least one sound…many of them more. Learning the different sounds that the letters make gets very complex as they can make different sounds by themselves, but also brand new sounds when combined with other letters. There are 44 different sounds in the English language, even though there are only 26 letters.

While my opinion is that the Alphabetic Principle isn’t the MOST important literacy skill, I will say that it is still a very critical one. You can’t read if you don’t know your letters or sounds!

Little girl in tulle dress playing with magnetic letters on an easel.

3 Mistakes You are Making when Teaching Your Child the Alphabet

While teaching the letters of the alphabet may seem like a very simple task, be aware of these three mistakes that could be making it more difficult for your child to learn.

You Are Teaching your Child the Alphabet Before They are Ready

Trying to get your child to do anything before they are ready can be a struggle. Hello tantrums at bedtime! But when you are trying to get your child to learn the letters of the alphabet before they are ready, it could have a very negative impact on their future reading success.

If your child isn’t interested in learning the alphabet yet or it seems a little difficult for them, don’t force it. You want to create positive learning experiences around letters and forcing it will only cause frustration in both you and your child.

Even if your child isn’t ready to learn the alphabet, you can still practice valuable literacy skills, especially phonological awareness (one of the most important skills in my opinion!).

You are Teaching the Letters in Order

Colorful felt letters in abc order; teaching your child the alphabet

Yes, the Alphabet Song is a great introduction to teaching the alphabet. But here is the issue. When you teach the alphabet in order, you are very heavily focusing on those beginning letters.

Why is that a problem? Some of those beginning letters aren’t the most frequently used letters that your child will encounter in text. Focus on letters that are most common in the beginning sight words your child will learn. Think of the words in, at, it, am, I, etc. Only one of those letters is in the first five letters of the alphabet!

Another reason to avoid teaching the alphabet in order is that research shows that children will recall a letter’s name more often than the sound that it makes (source). This makes it very difficult to start teaching how to decode words because these children aren’t able to recall those letter sounds to eventually blend words together.

You are Teaching in Isolation

You should be teaching the letter names with the letter sounds. While everyone may not agree with that statement, let me share the research with you as to why I have changed my opinion and believe this is the best thing for your child.

As literacy expert Tim Shanahan explains, learning letters and sounds is an abstract concept and requires us to learn a whole new language: the language of reading. Think about it this way…do you really absolutely need to know a letter’s name in order to decode?

Surprisingly, you don’t. You just need to know the sound or sounds it makes. The letter names are labels we provide to help us make this abstract concept more real or concrete as we are learning them. And it helps us to be able to reference a letter by name when we are trying to teach the sound that it makes.

Children love to label things, so introducing letters by labeling them with their name naturally makes sense to do. But, it is even more effective and very appropriate (especially once your child is 4 or older), to teach the sounds at the same time as you are teaching the letters.

This allows your child to learn about the letters as a concept, like they learn about other things in their life. For example, they can not only label pasta, but they know that you have to cook it in hot water in order to eat it OR they know that the furry animal running around your house is a dog and it says, “Ruff!”

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    How to Know Your Child is Ready

    So how can you figure out if your child is ready to learn the alphabet? There are no hard and fast rules, but the following signs can give you a good indication of readiness.

    They are Showing an Interest in Reading and Letters

    Simply put, your child’s interest and desire to read and learn about the letters in the world around them is a huge sign that they are ready to get started.

    Whether they love cuddling up with a book next to you, playing with their books, or are showing an interest in their name, they are subtly telling you that they want to learn more. Keep on reading and start introducing the letters in their name. Write their name around them a lot and make a big deal whenever you encounter those letters in print.

    Toddler boy playing with magnetic letters on a stainless steel fridge.

    They Can Label Things around the House

    Another sign of your child’s readiness is that they are labeling the world around them. They may be providing labels for you or they may be asking you on repeat, “What’s this?” Either way, their curiosity is leading them to make meaning of the world around them and that likely will include print.

    If you have magnetic letters or bathtub letters, you can start labeling those with your child. Again, challenge them to find letters you are working with in print around them (I would start with the letters in their name!)

    Ways to Encourage Interest in Letters

    So what if your child doesn’t seem to be ready? Continue doing these things and providing lots of love and support!

    Exposure

    Even from before your child said their first word, they were absorbing everything you said and did. Surrounding them with a print-rich environment is one of the best ways from birth that you can support your child’s literacy journey.

    Even if your child is already communicating, but doesn’t seem interested in print or the alphabet, surrounding them with magnetic letters or bathtub letters is a perfect way to introduce the concepts in a non-threatening way. The more exposure your child has, the more likely they will want to learn more.

    wooden letter blocks that spell out play; using play to teach your child the alphabet

    Play

    You definitely do not want to create negative, strict experiences around reading and the alphabet. So one of the most important thing you can do for your little one is to incorporate as much play into the learning as possible.

    Letter sorting games with magnetic letters or other games are great ways to turn a memorization task into a fun learning experience. You can learn more about Early Literacy play and other ways to boost your little one’s reading skills in my free email course Read to Lead.

    Being a Role Model

    One of the most powerful things that you can do for your child’s literacy skills is to be a reading role model. Your little one wants to do what you do so why not model reading as a part of your everyday life?

    Showing interest in print (books, recipes, newspapers, etc) will demonstrate how important print is to you. To grab your little one’s interest in the alphabet, you may want to start modeling writing for them. You can write their name, labels of their favorite animals, or names of loved ones and friends. Show them how letters are important for writing and give them a purpose for learning them and using them.

    The more they see you engaged in literacy, the more it will become an important and essential part of their lives as well.

    Next Steps in Letter Knowledge

    As there are different stages in teaching your child the alphabet, you need to know where your child falls to understand where they are going next.

    Young Toddler

    As a toddler who isn’t speaking yet, you are probably providing a lot of exposure to the alphabet either during play or during reading. You may be pointing out letters and labeling them so your child can start recognizing and differentiating the different names for the different letter symbols. You may be sharing what sound they make as you are labeling as you would when you are talking about the sounds that animals in your environment.

    Older Toddler

    Toddler boy wearing glasses pointing to magnetic letters on a board; teaching your child the alphabet.

    As your toddler gets older, you will start interactively playing with them and the letters of the alphabet. You may play games or sorting activities. Or you may focus a lot on your child’s name and how those special letters are very important to them. You may ask your child to find you a letter and/or tell you what sound that letter makes.

    Preschooler

    When your toddler grows into a young preschooler, you may see that your instruction becomes a little more formal and more complex. You may do a letter study where you find that letter in the books you’re reading or find things around the house that start with that letter. Your focus is simultaneously on the letter name and sound and you may even have your child start sounding out very, very simple words.

    What’s most important to know about teaching your child the alphabet is to go at your child’s pace. Do not rush or force them. It is developmentally appropriate to learn the alphabet and letter sounds between the ages of 4 and 7. So if your child doesn’t have it all down by Kindergarten…that’s OKAY. The key is to make it fun, engaging, and something they can’t wait to do with you.

    Your turn…what do you feel is most important to know about the Alphabetic Principle? Please tell me below and don’t forget to share!