Preparing the Ground for Independent Reading, part 2

One of the first things you will find yourself teaching your child is the alphabet.  This may come about in a number of different ways.  Some children will start demanding what on earth those funny squiggles are meant to be as early as 18 months or so.  Others may get to four and show no interest, prompting concerned parents to start deliberately teaching letter recognition so as to prepare them for school.   To be honest, although technically there is no need for a child to know the alphabet before they start school, I would be inclined to encourage them to learn that in advance as it can only be an advantage for them.  Certainly they should at least know how to recognise the letters in their own name.

Good ways of teaching/introducing the alphabet:

Puzzles.  Wooden puzzles where you have to put a shaped letter peg into a hole.  These are good because the focus is on a single letter each time, and although the layout can be in alphabetical order the child can put in their most familiar letters first, helping to expand their knowledge bit by bit.

Wooden letter blocks.  An attractive traditional toy.  These can be nice, especially when well done.  The best have the lowercase letter and the uppercase letter on opposite sides, as well as examples of things that begin with that letter.

Letter frames.  Again, these can be manipulated one letter at a time but the letter can be seen within the alphabet as a whole.  Usually these have an object on the other side of the tile and spin to reveal it (in a similar way some puzzles have an object underneath the relevant letter).

Sticky bath letters.  Foam letters that float in the bath.  They have a flat side that when wet sticks to the side of the bath.  They are very cheap and widely available, and if you are brave enough to throw in the whole lot then the bath becomes entertainingly like alphabet soup.  Each letter can be picked up and fully handled to appreciate its shape, and the different colours help with initial recognition.  Spelling names around the side of the bath is fun, and my four-year-old has been known to label herself with them (arm down one arm, leg, etc)  As they progress, you can use them for bath spelling and letter games as well.

Megasketcher or similar.  A good letter game with slightly older children is to draw a letter and have them say which it is.  My eldest daughter enjoyed this from about 18 months but she was unusually fixated on letters; I think in general whenever you think they have a good grasp of a majority of letters is a good time to see if this is popular.  Obviously you can do this on paper, but erasing the letter and drawing a new one for some reason makes it more fun…

Playdough or plasticene.  Making letters out of dough is good fun and a good physical way of learning.  Letters like c , e, and o are particularly easy and it’s a good way of cementing that i and j have dots.

Letter frieze.  Lots of parents put up posters or friezes in their child’s room with the alphabet on.  This is a good thing in the sense that it increases familiarity with letters but unless you regularly refer to it then otherwise it’s very passive, and can just blend into the background. ‘Interactive’ methods are likely to be much more effective, and more fun.

Games.  Again for slightly older children, between two and a half and three, there are lots of good alphabet-based games out there that can help.   Orchard Toys have excellent products including an alphabet lotto and a floor puzzle.

Key things to note:

You want to teach your child lowercase letters first.  Capitals are more complicated and far less useful for reading.  Get the lowercase alphabet secure first, then go for the uppercase ones that are different.

Look closely at the examples given, if objects are linked to each letter.  You want something that connects accurately to the sound of each letter.  If A is Apple and E, Elephant – why would I be for Ice-cream?  C is another one – cat, cot, both fine – circus less helpful.

It is absolutely up to you whether you teach the letter names (A, B, C – Ay, Bee, Sea) or letter sounds first.  But if you do teach the sounds, you need to teach them properly, and that leads us on to


These days in schools most children are taught to read via synthetic phonics.  You can find a basic introduction to that concept here at the Jolly Phonics site (although there are plenty of similar ones) but the general idea is that children learn the sounds of the English language, and how to blend them into words.  This is more than just the alphabet sounds, it includes digraphs such as ‘ch’ and ‘sh’.  There is a huge  and acrimonious debate about phonics teaching in UK schools but I don’t really wish to get into that at this point.  Where phonics is taught well and properly the vast majority of research suggests it is the most efficient, effective way of teaching children to read and builds the decoding and spelling skills on which literacy is based.   (In part 3 I will try and enter into an explanation of the relative relevance of phonics and word recognition to the emergent reader, as I do think the distinction is important and personally believe in encouraging the co-existence of those skills, so if interested pop back for that.)

However, phonics is about sound.  As I said above, it doesn’t matter if you chose to teach letter names or sounds first, but at some point they need to know both.  And they need to know the right sounds.

(For the sake of simplicity, if you see a capital letter (M) in what follows, read it using the letter name (Em).  If you see a lowercase letter (m), read the sound (mmm))

There is a tendency amongst parents, taught to read during the 80s, to sound out letters like this: ah. buh. cuh. duh.  But these are not the sounds the letters make if you put them into words.  M for example is not pronounced ‘muh’.  L is not ‘luh’.  If you sound out the letters of the word ‘bell’ like that you hear ‘buh. eh. luh. luh’.  Not bell – but bella.  The sound you need to make is the sound you hear the letter make in a word.  So M is ‘mmm’.  L is ‘(u)l’ or ‘ll’.  Try saying the sound for D.  First, say it as ‘duh’.  You will probably find your jaw drops slightly to fill out the sound.  Now try saying d – keep your jaw still and use your tongue to keep the sound clipped.  You can probably hear the difference, even though it is subtle.  Of course this is extremely difficult to explain in writing, so I would suggest visiting a site like Jolly Phonics or similar to listen to their examples, or looking at this excellent clip from the BBC’s Alphablocks programme which takes you through the sounds of each letter of the alphabet.

The Alphablocks goes further than merely familiarising children with the alphabet however (effective as it is for that purpose) as it also introduces the idea of reading and spelling basic words.  As such, a more detailed description of it can be found in Part 3 where we will look at the process of starting to blend words together and reading simple words.

To recap: if you are looking to introduce your child to the alphabet before school, choose a variety of fun methods to familiarise them with the letters.

  • Don’t push it.
  • Don’t teach them by rote (the alphabet song, whilst cute to hear, is of very little use to a child who has no idea what the sounds they are singing refer to).
  • Don’t drill them.
  • Make the letters available to them and follow their lead.
  • Make it fun.
  • Stick to lowercase letters before you even start to think about capitals.
  • If you are doing the letter sounds, get to know the right sounds and teach them properly.

Notice that there is no age guidance on here beyond the suggestion that learning the alphabet before school is an advantage, if not an necessity.  Otherwise if your child is interested, however young, support and encourage them, but let them dictate the pace.   And don’t be surprised if they show an interest, learn their alphabet and later forget it – let them come back to it in their own time.

Also see the addendum, here…

In Part 3: blending, reading first words, and where to go next.

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