Read the earlier articles in this series on teaching your child to read:
In previous articles in this series on teaching children to read, we learned to help children have god vocabularies, a wide range of life experiences, basic academic skills like shapes, colors, and matching. Today, we’ll tackle the alphabet, which is the final pre-reading skill.
You may find your child already knows some of the alphabet. To teach it informally, read alphabet books and find letters wherever you are. When my children were little, we used waiting times in doctor’s offices and other places to look for all the A’s, or all the B’s. Sing the alphabet song with your child, but slow it down when you get to L-M-N-O-P, because children tend to think that is all one letter with a long name.
Singing the alphabet is not the same as knowing the alphabet, just as reciting numbers isn’t the same as counting. It’s a good way to learn the order, but it’s likely your child doesn’t know what the song actually means.
Start with the lowercase letters. Don’t teach the capital and the lowercase at the same time, since this can be confusing. When your child can sing the alphabet, start teaching him to match letters. We learned earlier how to teach matching, and you can use the same methods to help your child match the alphabet. In addition, put large letters on a flannel board or other surfaces. Have your child practice placing a matching letter under each letter on the board. Say the names of the letters as your child does this, always saying “lowercase d.” Later, start asking your child what the letter is. If he doesn’t know, just tell him—remember, reading is fun, so no scolding or disappointment. It’s not a test. It’s a game.
Start playing with words a little during this time. Put a picture of your child on a bulletin board with his name in large plain letters below. Each day, help him “spell” his name by pointing to the letters in order as he says their name. At first, you’ll have to do the pointing and also coach, but in time he will learn it.
When teaching Primary (the auxiliary for Mormon children) I often have a word of the day for young children. I choose a key word from the lesson, such as Jesus, and write it on a large card. I let the children tell me the letters if they know them and then I tell them the whole word, running my fingers under the word. Throughout class, I stop and ask them what the word is. Of course, they aren’t really reading; they’re remembering. It’s a first step to reading and for some, it leads to learning to read, since they take the word home and some will keep practicing if they’re interested. For those who aren’t interested, there is no pressure. It’s just a game, not a test.
Once you think he’s ready for more structured learning, teach the letters out of order. Choose two letters that look very different from each other. I like to start with the letters in the child’s name, since those letters will have meaning for him in time. First have him sort the two letters, just as you’ve done in the past. Talk about the name of the letters as you sort them. He will most likely learn the names without any formal testing this way. If you want to do some type of testing, treat it like a game. Hold up a letter and ask him what it is, or hold up two letters and ask him to show you which one is D.
Once your child knows the names of the lowercase letters, help him notice the sentences in his books. Show him that the first letter in each sentence, and the first letter in names looks different than the letters he’s been learning. They’re called capital letters and they tell us to pay attention because something special is happening, like a name or a new sentence. Tell him every lowercase letter has a capital letter friend and you’re going to start learning them.
Set out five copies of the letter you want to start with—probably the first letter in his first name. Have five capital letters and five lowercase letters. Let him sort them as you say, “lowercase a” or “capital A.”
Your Child’s Name as a Teaching Tool
When he’s mastered this, teach the second letter in his name. Then put the two letters together, mixed up, and let him sort them by both letter and case. This is tricky and younger children might have trouble doing it.
When he’s learned all the letters in both cases for his name, help him spell his name with the cut out letters. Show him how to choose a capital for the first letter of each name and lowercase for the remainder of each name. You will probably need to spell it out yourself with additional letters and let him put the matching letters below.
Just for fun, teach him to spell his name. Set out his name in the cutout letters, but leave off the first letter. Show him it’s missing and ask him if he knows what letter goes there. At first he won’t know, but if you do it every day, he will eventually remember. Then you can move leave out the second letter, and eventually both letters. In time, he will learn to “spell” his name, which makes it easier to read it.
These little lessons shouldn’t last more than five to fifteen minutes a day. If your child isn’t having fun, stop right away and start again another time. If you’re teaching him before he goes to school anyway, he doesn’t need to know this. It’s just for fun, so make sure it really is fun.