If you were to ask anyone on the street where you should start “teaching” children to read, I’d be willing to bet the most common answer would be “the alphabet”. True, the alphabet is a pretty basic part of reading, and certainly important, but it’s just a small piece of a much larger puzzle. Nonetheless, let’s start there!
As we talk about emergent literacy, we are focusing on the importance of building fundamental literacy skills before children are even ready your basic primer. These basic skills are critical to future reading success, and are often taught through play, songs, interactive discussions, and other “covert operations”.
That said, I do believe in mixing in some direct instruction to ensure that you cover them all (it would be a shame to leave old Q out of the mix by happenstance). These instruction sessions should be very brief and dynamic. I like to use The Amazing Action Alphabet by Esther Kehl (you can see a sample page from this link) because the lessons are very short, and incorporate seeing, hearing, and doing. (Note: This is not a compensated endorsement, it’s just what I’m familiar with.) I like the interactive storytelling approach to the mini-lesson, but I don’t build my literacy program around it. I use it as a reference point, to make sure each letter has been introduced.
Including the emergent element to your literacy program adds interest and context, which provides for greater learning because the experience is more meaningful. Literacy is all about meaning! So it only makes sense that we must teach literacy with meaning! Here are some activities to encourage alphabet knowledge:
Provide a multiplicity of opportunities for children to manipulate, examine, and utilize letters. You can provide alphabet magnets, puzzles, texture cards, beads, and tiles, just to name a few examples. Manipulating and “playing” with these items, while you interact, helps the child become familiar with the shapes, names, and some of the sounds of the letters (as well as the distinction between letters and numbers, which shouldn’t be overlooked as a task in its own right!)
Challenge children to go on letter hunts whenever you find the opportunity. This might be while you’re reading a book, driving down the street, or killing time waiting in line somewhere. Challenge them to find a specific letter, or just to find their favorites and point them out to you.
Make it exciting by giving them props like magnifiers, magic wands, silly glasses, fly-swatters, or pointer sticks as they go about “hunting for letters”.
Laminate song charts and use dry-erase markers to circle letters, identifying them as parts of the words. “Hey, there’s a W in this song– in the word, Willoughby!” You can also use overhead sheets to lay over books to circle letters in a letter hunt (just be sure to clarify to the little ones that you can only write on the plastic page).
Letter Families (High Scope)
I read in this book about the concept of letter families. That is, sorting 2 different letters in a variety of fonts into the two letter families (say, D and S for example). This type of activity helps a child recognize the salient aspects of each letter form, so that they learn that a “Flowy Scripted D” is the same letter as a “Times New Roman D”. You can create letter family cards with your computer, or combine activities, and have your children help you create the cards by hunting out the letters in magazines.
It Takes Shape
Encourage children to get familiar with the letter forms by creating them! Rather than having children burn out in frustration as they repetitiously print letters on a worksheet (many youngsters don’t have the patience or the fine motor skills), allow them to create letters using different materials. Consider using yarn, licorice string, wikki stix, playdough, cookie cutters, soft pretzel dough, typewriters, stamps, even their own bodies!
I’m not sure where I learned about this activity…it may have been in the book I mentioned above. (Just trying to give credit!) Have children try to guess what mystery letter you’re writing as you slowly print one part at a time. For example: l (L? B? H?)-> P (P? B? R?) -> R (Ta-Da! It’s an R!) This type of activity, again, gets children familiar with the salient features of each letter, while also exercising their critical thinking skills!
In a nutshell, you want to get children familiar with the letters—their shapes, their names, some of their sounds, and their purpose in building words. Do this by surrounding them with print, talking about it, and playing with it!
How do you get kids excited about learning the letters of the alphabet?
Photo by Thad Zajdowicz.
You may also be interested in: Does Your Alphabet Chart Need to Be Recalled?
Cathy @ NurtureStore says
This is packed with ideas – thank you. One thing we are working on is a sensory alphabet inspired by things the children are interested in at the time. It’s here if you would like to see
Thanks for sharing the link! I love your sensory alphabet! What a great way to incorporate the senses. I also love the way you blend tiny moments of direct instruction into emergent learning opportunities!
Great ideas. The action alphabet looks interesting. We do our own version of this already, but their products look interesting.
Heading out of town tomorrow and won’t have Internet access for a few days, so will look forward to reading your blog posts when I return home.
Have a good one,
Enjoy your trip, Colleen!
I have been reading your blog faithfully for about 6 months now, and have learned a lot! Thank you for making your expertise so accessible to so many.
I have a question; maybe you’ve answered it before, and I just haven’t gone back far enough into the archives. In talking about letter formation, how important is it that preschoolers learn to follow the recommended stroke order?
If they are recreating letters free form, like with WikkiStix or playdough, I suppose they will aim at replicating what they perceive, rather than care about letter stroke order. When it comes to writing with a pencil, again I suppose they will do the same. So, I guess my question is more along the lines of when is it appropriate to reinforce stroke order in the early childhood classroom? (I’m thinking specifically, too, about tactile letters made with sandpaper that have a dot for indicating where to begin.)
In the classroom I work in, writing instruction consists of introducing a letter stroke by stroke, and having the children imitate that process. But, some children will, for example, make a “p”, drawing the stem bottom up and then add a circle on top. So, is the point of writing instruction the mechanics or is it identification that symbols have meaning?
And, if you know, how difficult is is for children to change up what they’ve reinforced themselves by repeated practice when they go off to elementary school and must adopt a specific style of writing?
I would appreciate hearing your thoughts on this.
Thanks for reading, Chris! The short answer to your question is that it’s always easier to learn something right the first time than to relearn it after developing bad habits. Now the long version. (I can never stop with the short answer!) I wouldn’t worry quite so much about the order as they build out of playdough and the like, but as they stroke the letters (feeling a card, tracing a big letter with a dry paintbrush, writing in the air with “magic pencils”, etc — anything that mimics actual writing) have them go in the right order. Having them sit down with tiny pencils and work on penmenship is not developmentally appropriate. Because of that, I think we hesitate to do anything that resembles penmenship, but we can still take the parts that are appropriate and pertinent. If your children are starting to make letter strokes in other activities, point out the correct order. Getting the stroke order and formation correct is good practice and prepares them for future success.
Thank you for these posts! When I was teaching my very, VERY favorite thing to teach was reading. I love reading and even love reading about teaching reading. I have enjoyed reading your posts on it as well as articles you’ve linked to and books you have referenced (keep ’em coming!). I am an elementary educator and so the early childhood portion of learning to read is new territory for me and I love reading and learning about it.
To answer your question . . . I started with doing a letter of the week idea in mind. I decided to start with “A for Ant”, C for Caterpillar, and B for Butterfly. I had these ideas to do all these “letter” activities, but, as I’ve mentioned before, when I checked out the non-fiction books from the library my “unit” activities ended up revolving around the Ants, Caterpillars and Butterflies- their life cycles, body parts, food, etc. The only work with the letters themselves were: pointing them out in the titles (because all the non-fiction books had ANT in big print and in different fonts- a bonus), a dot-a-dot coloring of the letter and cutting out a big letter on construction paper to color and put in our alphabet book. I remember at one point, as I looked back and thought about our letter “C” activities, I thought, we haven’t really done all that much with the actual letter! Instead, we have inadvertently focused on what the letter is “for”. I kind of just said to myself, “oh well, this has been more fun for them and me to learn about chrysalis’ and thorax, etc.” However, the children learned each letter very well. Their “letter consciousness” (I don’t know if that term actually exists, it’s just what I call it) was also incredible. Without prompting they would excitedly point out C’s, A’s, B’s of all sizes and fonts. Now, after having discovered your blog and doing some reading on literacy, I feel that there was that tiny bit of direct instruction (although I would now like to include the letter sound) but since we were making meaning by studying things they were interested in that happened to have the letter- I think that has been most exciting to them.
Sorry I am so long winded and thank you for your wonderful blog that I love. I feel like another commenter said it well when she said it (your blog) blends roles as an educator and as a mother. I love it!
I love reading how your strategy evolved! You must be brilliant because you naturally moved toward the more ideal method. 😉 Letter-of-the-week is a popular way to go, but leaves your unit disjointed (b is for butterflies and bears and beans and what were we talking about again?). Creating a thematic unit–as you did– and pointing out letters in a meaningful context–as you did– creates a more cohesive learning opportunity. Not just for the letters, but for all that rich science content as well! Thanks for your compliments, and for reading. And you never have to apologize for long-windedness with me….I’m right with ya!
Ha! I wish I were half as brilliant as you, I don’t think accidents count towards brilliance 🙂 Thanks though, for the compliment- deserved or not.
I love your blog, just thought I’d say it again.
thanks for the wonderful site.