One of the first things we think about as our toddlers are rapidly growing and learning is when can we start teaching them to read. We want to make sure that they are ready for school and want to make the transition as easy as possible. Naturally, our first step in doing this is thinking about teaching toddlers the alphabet.

There are many opinions about teaching your toddler the alphabet at such a young age. I personally feel that as long as you are taking your child’s lead and following some of the guidelines I explain below, your child won’t feel pressured at all.

After reading this post, you will learn:

  • How to create a literacy-rich environment at home and why that’s important
  • Why exposure to the alphabet should be your first step in teaching your toddler
  • Why play is crucial when teaching your child anything
  • How to know if your child is ready to learn the alphabet
  • Simple, effective strategies for teaching toddlers the alphabet
  • Engaging alphabet activities to do with your toddler
Teaching toddlers the alphabet; toddler sitting on deck with colorful letters.

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Should We Really Focus on “Teaching” Toddlers the Alphabet?

In a nutshell, no. BUT…there are some really crucial steps that you can take to ensure that they will learn with ease.

Formal teaching of letters and sounds at such a young age is just not developmentally appropriate. Despite the push to have your child reading before Kindergarten, it is actually appropriate to learn the alphabet anywhere from ages 3-6.

So it’s okay if your 2-year-old doesn’t have all 52 symbols and 44 phonemes tucked away in that growing brain of theirs yet.

What is important (and what should be your main focus) is creating a literacy-rich environment and providing a lot of exposure and opportunities to interact with print.

How to Create a Literacy-Rich Environment

One of the first and best things you can do to prepare your child to become a lifelong reader is to create a literacy-rich environment at home. Here are a few simple ways you can do this:

Environmental Print

Environmental print is the print you would find on popular logos, labels, and signs that surround you in your everyday life.

“Reading” these labels or logos will be the first kind of reading your child does.

Children are able to easily recognize that box of Cheerios or the sign for their favorite restaurant. This is their first experience with reading…and although they aren’t actually reading, they are participating in a very important prerequisite to learning to read.

They are noticing that print conveys meaning.

You can boost this skill at home by pointing out the environmental print around your home. Have your child practicing “reading” this print by showing the label and asking them what it is.

Point out environmental print while going for rides in the car. Your child will be eager to find signs that they know and recognize and share them with you.

Books on Display

You probably have already started to build your child’s library, but just having the books isn’t enough.

Children's books on a shelf

You should be displaying those books in multiple places around your house. Have a shelf in your toddler’s room, a playroom, and the living room. Show your little one that books can be anywhere and read any time.

Display them so that your child can easily access them. They shouldn’t be out of reach, but should be somewhere that your child can explore them and play with them.

Literacy Materials

Having literacy materials around your child’s environment is also a must. Bathtub and magnetic letters are an easy way to provide exposure to the alphabet from a very young age. ABC books are also a fantastic way to provide a print-rich activities.

Tools like these play an important part in the beginning stages of literacy, especially when your child is exploring and making sense of the world around them.

Woman and daughter reading together and teaching toddlers the alphabet

You as a Role Model

The most important component of your child’s literacy-rich environment is you.

You should always be modeling just how important literacy is to you. Let your child see you reading and writing. Let them share in your joy as you read aloud your favorite childhood story with them.

Your child will want to be just like you do and will value what you value. Make sure you make time to demonstrate the value of literacy.

The Importance of Exposure When Teaching Toddlers the Alphabet

You can expose your child to literacy and even the alphabet from when they are just an infant. And there is no reason why you shouldn’t! So why exactly is exposure so important…especially with toddlers? Let’s talk about how exposure is key when teaching toddlers the alphabet.

What Exposure Does

Exposure to the alphabet through your literacy-rich environment can actually lay a very strong foundation to learning those letters and sounds.

When you think about it, the process of learning the alphabet is actually just memorization. Your child is memorizing a label for a symbol. Just as they would learn the word for banana and associate it with an actual banana, they are learning the “name” for a letter and associating it with that letter.

At such a young age, your child is a sponge and constantly trying to make sense of the world around them.

Providing lots of opportunities for your child to see these symbols in their environment through repeated exposure will help them to start recognizing that these are important symbols that they should learn just like the other items in their environment.

As you practice and help your child label the world around them, their vocabularies will grow exponentially. You want the alphabet to be a part of that vocabulary!

Tips to Provide Exposure

There are a few things you can do to ensure that you’re providing your toddler with a lot of exposure to prepare them to learn the alphabet.

>>>>First and foremost, read, read, read! Showing print in context is a powerful way to support the idea that those letters/symbols represent words and convey meaning.

>>>>Use bathtub letters for bathtime play. You don’t even have to do anything with them at first except let your child purely explore play with them. When your child starts showing an interest in them, you can do some bathtime alphabet activities to support your child in the process of learning their letters.

bathtub letters to help teaching toddlers the alphabet

>>>>On the same page as bathtub letters, magnetic letters are a great way to start exposing your child to letters. I highly recommend getting magnetic letters that are the actual shape of the letter so that your child can explore and memorize their shapes. Sorting letters by their characteristics is a great way to introduce discriminating the small differences between all of the letter symbols.

magnetic letters to support teaching toddlers the alphabet

The Importance of Play When Teaching Toddlers the Alphabet

Play is a crucial component of any learning your toddler does.

It provides opportunities for your child to develop a multitude of skills such as critical thinking and problem solving, while also developing their self-worth and confidence.

Therefore, when thinking about teaching your toddler the alphabet, you shouldn’t be thinking about how to help your child memorize the alphabet.

You should be trying to flip the narrative to how you can provide opportunities for your child to learn letter during their play.

Play can absorb your child’s attention, allowing them to focus on the task they are doing. Since play is fun and engaging, you know the opportunities you provide for learning the alphabet through play will be strong experiences your toddler will remember.

How to Know if Your Toddler is Ready

Your toddler might be showing signs that they are interested in learning more about letters. Since you have been providing lots of exposure within a literacy-rich environment, you will notice that your toddler is becoming more aware of letters and their meaning.

All children learn at a different pace and in a different way. Some toddlers may be eager to learn the alphabet at 2, while others may not show an interest until 4 or 5. Wherever your child is, respect it and continue immersing your child in a literacy-rich environment and exposing them to literacy through play.

If your child is more eager to learn, then definitely start sprinkling in some more formal ways of teaching your child letters and sounds during play as well.

Does Your Child Show an Interest in Letters?

The first way to know if your child is ready is to notice if they show an interest in letters. Are they asking you questions about what letters are and what they are for?

Maybe they consistently want to use their magnetic letters during playtime and seek letters out to use in play.

The eagerness to have letters around them is a sign that your child wants to learn more about them.

Does Your Child Understand that their Name Can be Represented with Symbols?

One of the most important things your child needs to understand to be a successful reader is that when letters are found in clumps together, they make words which convey meaning.

The most interesting and engaging group of letters to your child is the group of letters that form their name.

Their name is personal to them provides them with a feeling of ownership and self-worth. When your child realizes that their name can be represented with letters, they have the foundation for understanding that other words can be represented with letters too.

This is a great time to start teaching them the letters in their name!

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    Strategies for Teaching Toddlers the Alphabet

    There are many strategies that you can use when teaching toddlers the alphabet.

    The Exposure Strategy

    If you are starting out with exposure, which I highly recommend that you do, make sure that you have letters everywhere for your child to see. These can be bathtub or magnetic letters like I mentioned earlier that are part of their play. You may also have letters that are part of your decor such as your child’s name in block letters over their bed or your last initial as part of a gallery wall. ABC books and songs are also perfect for exposure as well. These things create that print-rich environment your toddler needs.

    The most important factor of the exposure strategy is to consistently label letters for your toddler.

    For example, let’s say you are playing with bathtub letters during your nightly bathtime routine. Whenever your child picks up a letter, you should name it and talk about it. This might sound like, “Yay! You found the letter d! Can you give me the letter d? Let’s put the letter d on the wall and try to get bubbles on it.”

    toddler boy playing with bathtub letters

    When you are naming and talking about letters, you’re providing context for your child to be able to learn and recognize that letter in the future. It is the same process for when your child was first learning to talk and you repeated words you wanted them to learn consistently for them to be able to use them!

    The Focused Strategy

    When your child begins to show an interest in learning letters and wants to be actively engaged with them, there are a few things you can do to assist your toddler.

    Instead of letters being an inactive part of their play, the focus should now shift to letters being the focus of the play. What I mean by this is that during the exposure stage, your child could be playing their own games and using letters to make a tower or as cargo in their dump truck.

    Now instead, you are going to create games about letters.

    This strategy is perfect for when you want to start teaching your toddler the alphabet a little more intensely than the exposure stage because they are showing signs of interest. Let’s take a look at how you can do this below.

    Alphabet Activities for your Toddler

    Here are some great ways to teach toddlers the alphabet using the focused strategy. I always recommend starting with the letters in your child’s name first before you go outside to other letters. Don’t forget to check out more simple ways to teach your child the alphabet here.

    Matching

    Matching is a great way to get your child recognizing and remembering letters.

    You will need 4-5 sets of magnetic letters or letter cards (or even letters written on index cards/post-its), but only 5-7 letters at a time.

    Have your child match all of the same letters together in separate piles. So the a’s go with the a’s and the m’s go with the m’s. As your child matches, it is important to remember to consistently label the letters for your child so that they are learning letter names as they are learning to recognize the letters.

    teaching toddlers the alphabet through matching

    Matching can be done with lowercase to lowercase, uppercase to uppercase, lowercase to uppercase, and eventually letter to sound.

    Find the Letter

    Once your child has a couple of letters in their memory bank, you can play this quick game.

    Use post-its to put up the entire alphabet along an empty wall within your child’s reach. Only write one letter per post-it. If the entire alphabet seems too much, you can start with 5-10 letters and build your way up.

    Call out a letter that you have been working on with your child. Have your child go get that post-it and bring it to you.

    If your child only knows a couple of letters, you can simply stop after you call those couple of letters and rearrange the letters on the wall to play again.

    Sometimes your child may forget letters that you have been working on and that’s okay! Simply support them in finding that letter by showing them that it is 1 of 4 letters on the wall. With a smaller range and a little hint, the task should be a little simpler for your child.

    Letter Book Hunt

    Use your child’s favorite books to create a little letter hunt.

    Think of letters that you have been working on with your child. Once you are done reading a page with one of those letters on it, say, “I see a letter “d” hiding on this page. Can you find it?”

    teaching toddlers the alphabet through a letter book hunt; mom pointing out something in a book to toddler

    If your child seems to have trouble with this, only try it with texts that have one line of print with only a couple of words on a page. Then if there is still trouble, you can point to one word and say, “I see the letter “d” hiding in this word here. Do you see it?”

    Use an Alphabet Chart

    Alphabet charts are a great tool to play some really powerful games.

    Using an ABC chart to teach toddlers the alphabet

    >>>>Use an alphabet chart to play a mini version of the Find the Letter game above. Just have your child point to the letter instead and narrow it down to one row if your child is having difficulty.

    >>>>Cover one of the letters with a toy or a card. Have your child try to guess what letter is missing. Make sure you are choosing a letter that your child has been practicing!

    Next Steps for Your Toddler

    teaching toddlers the alphabet; toddler sitting on the floor with colorful letters

    Once your child is starting to recognize multiple letters, you will definitely want to start introducing letter sounds. This is the gateway to the alphabetic principle, a crucial early literacy skill.

    The key is to always follow your child’s lead. You may notice that they are picking things up quickly so you want to add in sounds a little earlier. Or you may notice that your child is taking longer to memorize a couple of letters so you want to keep focusing on just the letters in their name.

    Either way, your efforts matter and will really make a difference in your child’s development.

    What are some of your favorite ways to teach toddlers the alphabet? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below.