I get it…you’re frustrated. You’ve searched the Interwebs for hours, Googling and Pinteresting “how to teach letters”, but all you’ve gotten are some fluffy and generic suggestions like read books, sing songs, and play games.
Those are great ways to EXPOSE your child to the alphabet, which I talk all about in my post How to Teach Your Toddler the Alphabet.
But what you want is a step-by-step guide for exactly how you should introduce and review letters so that your child can actually apply their letter knowledge to reading. Mama, I got you! After reading this post, you will:
- understand how exposure is different than purposefully teaching your child letters
- learn what age children start to learn the alphabet
- get my specific strategy for how to introduce and teach each letter and sound
- learn activities that get your child practicing and applying the alphabetic principle
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How to Teach Letters through Exposure
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. Your focus shouldn’t be how to teach letters at this young age, but how to create more opportunities for exposure.
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!
What Age Should You Start Teaching Letters?
It is developmentally appropriate for your child to start learning the alphabet anywhere between ages 3 and 6.
That’s not to say that your child won’t be able to recognize and name letters in the alphabet sooner than 3 or maybe later than 6. All children are unique and learn in unique ways.
Follow your child’s lead and start teaching them letters as soon as they show signs that they are ready.
What Age Should a Child Be Able to Recognize Letters?
Typically, on average, children will start recognizing letters around ages 3 and 4. Depending on your child’s language acquisition, this could be earlier or later.
Remember that learning letters is memorizing a name for a symbol just like learning that a cat is called a cat.
Keep exposing your child to letters so as they learn new words and want to label the world around them, letters will become a part of that vocabulary.
How to Teach Letters and Sounds
There is a very specific process that I use to introduce a new letter. I believe in teaching letters and sounds at the same time and in a certain order so that children can apply what they are learning faster.
My method of how to teach letters is a mixture of many different research-based strategies from my personal literacy heroes, but the most important part of my method is that it is multisensory.
Multisensory instruction is an amazing way to help your child learn any concept. It involves using multiple senses to involve a child in learning. So in my method, I have children use visual, auditory, and kinesthetic inputs to support their learning and transfer learning to their long term memory.
I’m going to break down my steps and what each component does. Let’s say our target letter is “s”.
Step 1: Connect Phonological Awareness
Connect phonological awareness to your target letter. You can do this by simply saying a sentence where each letter of the sentence begins with the target letter sound.
Since my target letter is “s”, my sentence might be something like “Silly Sally sold salty sandwiches.”
Have your child listen carefully and tell you what sound they hear in the beginning of each word.
This helps your child hear the sound the target letter makes in context. In addition, this preps them for the letter they are about to learn.
Step 2: Introduce Letter and Keyword
Use letter cards that have a specific keyword picture for that letter on them.
A keyword picture serves as a reminder for your child what the letter is and the sound it makes. It is another visual input to support their memory and retention.
This introduction might sound like (FYI: when I type /s/…that is the symbol for the letter sound):
“Yes, you’re right! All of those words started with the /s/ sound. This is the letter s. S, /s/, sock. Can you say that with me? S, /s/, sock.“
This quick introduction helps your child assign a name for the letter and engrain that keyword as a reminder for what that letter is.
Step 3: Sky Write Letter
Let’s get moving!
Guide your child in writing the lowercase letter in the sky. Show them how to do it and practice with them. While you are “sky writing”, say the letter name and sound!
This might sound like:
“Let’s practice writing the letter s. First, start at the top. Curve to the left. Then, curve to the right. S, /s/, sock. Try it with me.“
I love sky writing because it involves movement, imagination, and supports gross motor development. This is especially great for kiddos who don’t have the fine motor skill to practice letter formation with a pencil yet.
Step 4: Play and Write
Grab some sensory material and play! I love using sand, hair gel, shaving cream, or rice to get messy and fun while learning letters. For some edible fun, crush up some cheerios=)
Create a smooth, even surface using one of these materials. Show your child how to draw the lowercase letter in the material with their index finger and middle finger together.
Once you have modeled, have your child try. If they need help, you can place your hand over theirs and guide them as they write.
The key to this piece is that as they are writing, they need to say the letter name and sound again. So as they are writing the letter s, they would say “s, /s/”.
Again, the multisensory piece adds multiple sensory inputs, which supports learning and retention. And your child will love playing in the different sensory materials.
Activities that Support Letter Learning
After you have done the 4 step process above, you will want to start practicing identifying that letter and its sound over the course of a couple of days.
The following are activities that you can do that will support letter retention and will turn your child into an alphabet pro!
House hunter is a quick hunting game where your child will search around your home for items that begin with the target letter.
If your child is having difficulty finding things on their own, you can lead them to a specific area and give them clues as to what starts with the target letter.
You could also gather a bunch of items already for your child and have them pick out the ones that start with the target letter.
Since my target letter is s, my child might bring me around the house and find soap, socks, sneakers, and a spoon.
The key to reinforcing what your child has practiced is by having them say the letter name and sound and the name for each item they find.
This might sound like, “S, /s/, soap” (you’ll probably have to model this a couple of times before your child gets the hang of it).
When you’re thinking about how to teach letters, it is important from day 1 that your child understands that letters combined together form words and those words convey meaning.
So we want to take that knowledge and make sure children are applying it as soon as possible. Which is why you will want your child to identify your target letter within the pages of a book.
The next time you’re reading a book with your child that has larger print and not a lot of words on a page, try to have them find the target letter.
If they have a hard time finding it within the page, narrow down their search by pointing to the word that the letter is in. Sometimes a lot of strange symbols can be overwhelming, so don’t expect them to find it right away. This is why it is okay to narrow down their field of vision and why we use larger print books.
This may sound like, “Oh my word, I see the letter s hiding on this page. Do you remember what the letter s looks like? Can you find it hiding here?“
The Letter Wall
Take about 20 index cards or post-it notes. On 4-5 cards write both the uppercase and lowercase target letter. On the rest of the cards, write different uppercase and lowercase letters.
Have 2 spots labeled on the wall: One that says yes and one that says no. You can also do a thumbs up or thumbs down or you can have the target keyword picture and then the picture with an x through it. Your choice!
Scatter all of the cards on the ground. Have your child pick each one up and place it on the wall under the correct column.
I hope you found this post on how to teach letters helpful! I have worked with many kiddos using this and have seen them pick up reading very quickly because of this method.
If you are wondering how often you should introduce a new letter, I don’t have a hard and fast rule. You should take your child’s lead.
Some letters your little one may get within a couple of days, some letters may take two weeks. I don’t believe in the letter of the week philosophy because you should always be teaching a new letter when your child is ready and constantly reviewing letters previously taught. You shouldn’t just focus on one letter for a significant amount of time.
What do you do when you teach a new letter? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!