Teaching Children about Letters

Teaching Children About Letters

When I say “teaching children about letters”, I am referring to letter identification, letter sounds, and the use of letters to make up words.

I know there’s a ton of information out there about teaching children letters!  I want to throw my two cents in, as well, based on my own teaching experience.  Below is my personal/professional opinion about how to teach children letters, with some specific examples.  At the very end of this post, I will include links to research and other blogs dealing with this topic.

Teaching Children about Letters

Engineer is busy using water to “erase” the letters I wrote in chalk on the sidewalk.

Some Background

I obtained my teaching certificate with an emphasis in early childhood education, which means I received extra courses and fieldwork in teaching preschool through grade 3.  I spent 5 years teaching kindergarten, was trained in Reading Recovery (working with first graders who needed extra reading help), and am in my 4th year teaching pre-k.

Teaching Children about Letters

Some former students reading their book boxes together. The book boxes hold books they’ve made and can also hold guided reading books.

How Children Learn

Young children love exploring the world around them, and they learn so much by doing just that!  I’m sure you’ve heard that kiddos are like “little sponges”, and that is surely the truth!  They absorb knowledge through observing adults and peers, playing, and using their five senses.  Real, meaningful experiences are essential to a young child’s learning process.

Teaching Children About Letters

Engineer enjoyed discovering the “secret messages” I had written to him. Incorporating literacy into art is one way to teach letters!

How Does This Apply to Teaching Children Letters?

Since kiddos need real, meaningful experiences to learn, such experiences should be provided when they’re learning letters.  This means that learning letters in a print-rich environment, with meaningful and contextual instruction, is ideal.  Use children’s names, their friends’ names, and environmental print as a starting off point for teaching letters.  Connecting letters to something children already know, as well as things that mean something to the kids, helps the process.  Classroom word walls, shared and interactive writing, class-made books, and favorite stories are also incredibly helpful.

Teaching Children About Letters

My students really enjoyed making a class book based on taste-testing different kinds of apples. Click here to read the original post {it contains a link to a free printable}.

Teaching letters in isolation, such as with “letter of the week”, just doesn’t make sense for how children learn.  In my opinion, “letter of the week” slows down how children learn letters and doesn’t help children make as many meaningful connections.  I know that many teachers use a letter a week because that’s within their comfort zones.  Just remember it’s always great to try new things, even as a teacher!  :)

Teaching Children About Letters

An example of a Name Book that would be included in a child’s “Name Kit”.

Some Specific Examples for Teaching Letters

READ, READ, READ.  Oh, yes, and read some more!

WRITE, WRITE, WRITE.  Write down the children’s dictations about pictures they draw.  Write a class thank you note for a field trip.  Help the children write their names.  Let the children help you write about their art work.  Incorporate writing everyday!

Make NAME KITS with the children.  Click here for more detailed information about name kits.

WRITE EACH CHILD’S NAME ON A SENTENCE STRIP.  Have the first letter in a different color, with the remaining letters written in block (so as to visually highlight the first letter of each name).  In small groups, or as a whole class, you can sort the names based on their first letter, how many letters are in each name, etc.  You can also play games with the names — have each child hold his name, then call out letters and an action (ex: “if your name starts with M, jump up and down”).  More information on name work here.

MAKE A CLASS (OR FAMILY) ALPHABET BOOK.  Have a page for each letter of the alphabet, with both the uppercase and lowercase letter represented at the top.  Over time, add children’s names in the book based on the letters in their names.  For example, my first name is Mary.  So my name would be on the pages for Mm, Aa, Rr, and Yy.

SORT MAGNETIC LETTERS with the children.  It sounds so very simple, but it really helps kids to focus on how letters are alike, how they’re different, and what shapes they are comprised of.  Ideas on how to sort the letters — by color, uppercase versus lowercase, letters with holes versus letters without holes, letters with straight lines versus letters without straight lines, etc.  Click here for more detailed information about sorting magnetic letters.

SINGS SONGS related to the alphabet.  Yes, of course, the ABC song is a great one to sing, but don’t limit it to just that one.  Sing the alphabet to different tunes and rhythms.  Also, check out people like Dr. Jean and Jack Hartmann.  They have fun, silly songs and dances for the alphabet (as well as many other concepts).

USE ENVIRONMENTAL PRINT.  Have children bring in pictures that represent stores and places around town that they recognize.  This could be cereal boxes, favorite snack boxes, ads from chain stores and grocery stores, pictures of road signs, etc.  These pieces of environmental print could be used for sorting based on initial letters/sounds, and they could also be made into their own bulletin board.  This would be a great resource to refer back to throughout the school day.

Have an ALPHABET CHART up for reference.  A good alphabet chart should have the letters in alphabetical order, should have both uppercase and lowercase letters listed, and should have picture cues for each letter.  Refer to the chart when you’re reading or writing (“oh, the word ‘run’ starts just like ‘r-r-rabbit’!”).  Run through the chart a few times a week, saying the letter names, letter sound, and picture prompt (“A, a, /a/, apple”) — this shouldn’t take but a few minutes.  {An affiliate link is included for your convenience.}

PLAY GAMES involving letters — letter bingo, letter matching games, letter memory, name bingo.

Teaching Children About Letters

This is one of the alphabet charts I use. Keep in mind that there are A TON of choices when it comes to ABC charts.

Obviously, the above list is by NO MEANS exhaustive.  There are so many ways to include letter teaching in a meaningful, contextual way!  Use what the children know, help them make connections between what they know and what you want them to learn, and keep it fun.  I would love to hear any questions you have, as well as how you like to teach letters to the children.

Teaching Children About Letters

Sorting magnetic is a great way for children to learn specific details about letters.

As promised, here’s a list of links related to this topic:

Teaching Children About Letters

Shared at Tuesday Tots, No Time for Flash Cards’ Link & Learn, Chicken Babies’ Mom’s Library, The Sunday Showcase, Reading Confetti’s Kid’s Co-opSun Scholars’ For the Kids FridayQuirky Mamas’ It’s Playtime, Sugar Aunts’ Share It Saturday, Cheerios & Latte’s Saturday Show & Tell, True Aim Education’s Mom’s LibraryPlaydough to Plato’s Alphabet RoundupActivities for Preschoolers, Discover and Explore

Comments

  1. momsquestions says

    Great ideas! I really like that name book. I’ll have to remember it so I can use it with my son when he is ready to learn his name.

      • says

        I’m a new teacher of older twos and younger threes. Is letter of the week really bad? I organize my lesson plans like that but I wouldn’t say that’s all I do to teach letters. We have all sorts of things that would contribute to a ‘name kit,’ and we discuss the whole alphabet, not just the letter of the week. I’m just curious to know other people’s opinions. It seems like they’re learning and comprehending a lot and enjoying themselves.

        • says

          I suppose “not as meaningful” would be the way I would describe it. Many teachers organize their plans based on letter of the week because that’s what works for them, and I am not judging that. It just makes more sense, in terms of how children learn, to relate letters to things they know. For the younger ones, I would think teaching the letters based on the initial letters in your students’ names would be the best place to start. Then add in environmental print and other names/words that are important to your students. Like you said, though, you’re not only focusing on one letter a week by itself (as some do). As long as the kiddos are playing, having fun, and progressing at an age-appropriate pace, that’s great! Perhaps pick one small way to step away from letter of the week and see how that goes for you? I love hearing other people’s opinions and thoughts as well! Thanks so much for stopping by, and I’m happy to keep up our discussion! :)

  2. says

    Thanks – these ideas are great! I absolutely agree that whole alphabet activities should be part of our children’s learning. Regarding your thoughts about Letter of the Week… I never used that sort of thing with my older two kids; they picked up their letters with very little difficulty, mostly after a lot of reading and talking about letters. However, my third child was not catching on, so I have found that the discipline of going through each letter with lots of meaningful activities (math-related, forming the letter, crafts, movement, fine motor, songs, books, etc.) has made all the difference for him. I wouldn’t want to say that Letter of the Week has to be a bad idea – but perhaps I don’t know exactly how you’re defining it. I would love to hear more of what you think on this. I would also appreciate your thoughts on what I’m doing for each letter (see my website). I have just begun this and would certainly be interested in improving it. (I am a former teacher, but with an early elementary focus, not early childhood.) I found your website through In Lieu of Preschool’s link-up Will be following it!

    • says

      Hi there, Anna! Thanks so much for taking the time to check out Fun-A-Day! :) I don’t want to say that Letter of the Week is a “bad thing” either. However, I firmly believe that working within meaningful, contextual activities is the best way to teach children about letters, reading, writing, etc. When I refer to letter of the week, I mean creating a week for just one letter and only really focusing on that letter throughout the week. I will come by this weekend and spend more time checking out your site (when my head isn’t so stuffy)! :) In my own opinion, if a child is having a difficult time grasping letters I would start with the letters in his/her name. Name books and tons of other name-related arts& crafts, tactile, and literacy activities would be my focus. There would be lots of little “mini-lessons” about the child’s name, what the letters do, the sounds they make, how they’re formed, and such. Also, the age of the child would play into any supplementary activities I planned. I’d love to talk more with you, so just let me know the best way to do so (email? here?). Thanks again!!

      • says

        Hi Mary!
        I’m sorry I missed this reply that you wrote so long ago. I checked a couple times and then forgot! Thanks for commenting on my blog today. I appreciate all your thoughts about Letter of the Week as well as the name idea… that’s a good one. My little guy is pretty young – not yet 3. He is starting to pick up his letters and numbers pretty well now — just not at a rapid pace. He enjoys doing the projects and activities I plan, but opts out when he’s not up for it.

        • says

          No worries, Anna! :) Glad to hear your little man is having fun. Moving at his pace is a great idea, especially since he’s not even 3. No need to stress him (or you) out — playing is the name of the game! :)

  3. says

    Hi! These are fantastic ideas for learning letters! I am also a former Reading Recovery Teacher. I see a lot of Marie Clay’s influence here as you are “following the lead of the child”. Love it!
    I am now co-hosting Mom’s Library and I featured your ideas on my round up of Learning Letters in Meaningful ways!
    Can’t wait to read more of your blog… Happy to have discovered it through Mom’s Library.
    Thanks!
    http://www.ready-set-read.com/2013/02/tips-for-learning-letters-in-meaningful.html

    • says

      Thank you so much! That is a huuuuuuuge compliment about seeing Marie Clay’s influence!! :) I have been checking out your blog and I am loving what I’ve seen so far. I can’t to read more and keep up with sharing ideas. :)

  4. says

    I just came across this awesome post – I love it SO much, Mary Catherine! I wasn’t planning on introducing any organized letter recognition activities yet with my twins (they are only two), but my daughter has been showing a pronounced interest in letters and numbers recently and can already name quite a few letters along with their sounds (to my great surprise), so I am going to start incorporating some fun alphabet activities into their play. These are such great ideas- what a wonderful resource!
    Stephanie@Twodaloo recently posted…Magic Fairy Painted Rocks and Storage TowerMy Profile

  5. says

    Thank you for the mention in this post, I appreciate it. Your specific examples of letter learning are spot on. Have you read Literacy Beginnings by Fountas and Pinnell? We did an online book study on it two years ago on the blog- fabulous read on this topic. The authors specifically address LOTW and why it’s not considered a best practice in emergent literacy. As a fellow RR and preschool teacher you will find it a good read :)
    Vanessa @Pre-K Pages recently posted…Printable S’More Trail Mix RecipeMy Profile

    • says

      Hi Vanessa! Thanks so much for taking the time to stop by and leave me a note! :) I actually haven’t read that specific Fountas and Pinnell book — but I have read a variety of other books they’ve written. I will definitely check it out shortly! I adore reading Pre-K Pages and am so tickled you stopped by.

  6. annie says

    Hello,
    I came across this post as I am starting my first year teaching first grade. I found this post and links informative because I also believe children need to learn in context . The similar way in how sight words are taught. What are your thoughts on teaching that? I am worried about reaching especially my lower performing kiddos. Most of the basal instruction books given to us for intervention are meaningless. Any ssuggestions would greatly be appreciated.

    • says

      Thanks so much for the kind words, Annie! I have a few ideas in “draft form” when it comes to sight words, so I’ll be sure to email the links to you when they’re done. I definitely agree that words need to be meaningful too, even more so for kids who are struggling. I’ll try to keep it brief, but here are some suggestions —
      Lots of reading and writing together, even if you’re doing most of the reading and writing.
      Keep a list of known words for each child, as well as a few words you want to work on with each child.
      Make emergent readers on your own that contain the needed words. Have the child help you, and it will be more meaningful to him.
      Use those magnetic letters — have the child make a word with you, then mess it up and make it again (kind of like when using the name kits).
      I hope some of that is useful!

  7. says

    I totally love this! I am sharing it with my blog Regarding Nannies for our creative nanny wednesday tomorrow September 4, 2013. Can’t wait to do some of this with my 3 year old nephew! Love the blog!

  8. says

    Awesome post! Thank YOU! We homeschool- and I was wondering if you have any advise on a 6 year old (nearly 7) that is having difficulty retaining? No matter what we try (computer/ hands on/ writing/ coloring/ singing/ crafts/ food, etc) – she STILL can not retain them. We focus on them – and she “has it”- then the next day we are back to square one and she don’t remember what it is or what it says. She loves dictation- but she don’t know the letters or their sounds. I’ve had her evaluated – and apparently she has anxiety- but I think their might be more (maybe auditory processing, etc??) She is EXTREMLY visual. I’ve tried Alphabet Tales (make the letters “into” a character and the story goes with it)- but then she says that “b” SAYS “Bear Brothers” (not the “b” sound). I’m at a loss.

    • says

      Thank you so much for your comment, Janiece. So sorry for the delay in replying — I didn’t see this until now. I am sorry to hear that your child is having some difficulty retaining information about letters. Since I don’t know her, I can’t really speak specifics. I would focus on activities and things she’s interested in, then try to relate literacy back to those things. Her name is always a great place to start, in my opinion. Additionally, I would get some specific information based on the assessment you had done previously. I know you homeschool, but it wouldn’t hurt to talk to your local elementary school for more information regarding how to best help her succeed. There are often resources they can point you to, as well as additional assessments. I hope my general response is somewhat helpful!

  9. nnekie says

    hii Mary,
    I just came across this page and im so eager to learn more from you. my 3 years old son is having trouble identifying sounds and matching sounds to the right objects. i also just noticed he is not great with identifying colours. please i need your guide through this process of teaching him all this. please help. he is too playful to even sit and learn. i guess i have to utilize playful means in teachinh him as well.

    • says

      Thanks so much for stopping by! You obviously know your child the best, so my suggestions would be just that . . . suggestions. For a 3-year old, I definitely think you need to keep it simple, fun, and quick. I would definitely start with the first letter in his name, as names are so important to children. Talk to him about the first letter and the sound it says in a conversational manner. There’s no need to sit down to learn this . . . just use it as part of a conversation. For example, if his name is Bob, you might say, “Bob, let’s see if we can find 2 of your toys that start with the b sound. Hmmm . . . does train start with your sound? Noooo . . . what about ball? Yes! I hear it .. .. b b b . . . ball!” Super simple conversations while playing are a great way to start!
      Mary Catherine recently posted…Snowman Fingerprint OrnamentMy Profile

      • annie says

        Hi,
        I was wondering your thoughts on teaching sight words? I have 3 of my lowest who can decode, but sight words are low. They are on level C. I came across sight word books on the reading az website, but they’re not leveled. I want to be able to teach them other strategies to.increase their reading levels. Do you have anythoughts? Reading your blog has been helpful.!

        • says

          Hi Annie! Obviously, I don’t know your kiddos like you do, so I can only speak in a general sense here. I need to put a post together about this exact topic! Creating books that are meaningful to the children, and that include the sight words they need to work on, can really help. Having a word wall that you slowly add words to is another suggestion. Doing fun activities with the words can help — rainbow write the words, make them using magnetic letters, write the words in sand, etc. And, of course, tons and tons of reading to the kids — picture books, large shared reading books, all kinds of books. I hope I’ve helped a little bit. :)

  10. says

    Thanks for this! I had a panic attack when I saw a bunch of “letter of the week” posts on Pinterest. I’m too scatterbrained for that! I’m relieved to know that it’s not necessary. I like your alternatives much better!

  11. Connie says

    I am so thankful I came across this post! I have been teaching Pre-k for 4 years and have been doing “letter of the week” well because that’s just what you do :) I always felt I wasn’t challenging them enough. I tried to fin other ways of teaching but nothing stood out until I read your blog. I appreciate your knowledge and thought into teaching letters.
    Our director is feeling pressure from our parents regarding “academics” and has told us that she wants to add Handwriting without tears to our program. Do you have any thoughts on this program?
    Again, thanks so much for this, I’m so excited to start implementing some of your ideas starting on Monday! :)
    -Connie

    • says

      Connie, thank you so much! I have heard good things about “handwriting without tears” and I know some of it is based on research. I don’t completely believe everything they say about developmentally appropriate practice, but I’ve heard it does a good job! I still firmly believe that academics are best taught through play, so you can still focus on it in a way that’s meaningful for kids. :)

  12. says

    This is a really great. Having the lessons incorporated with their friends names will really help them remember it well, and these activities will give them meaningful memories that will help them develop the skills in reading and identifying letters.

    Thanks and I hope you won’t mind me sharing this to other people.

Trackbacks

  1. […] is one of my go-to resources for early literacy activities. A couple of my favorite posts include Teaching Children About Letters, Name Kits, and Icy Fizzing Letters  (she has lots of great sensory play ideas, too!). Be sure […]

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