You don’t need letter of the week to teach the alphabet to kids. Read below about how (and why!) to use fun and meaningful activities to teach children about letters.
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 professional (and personal, for that matter) opinion about how to get children learning about 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.
Let’s Talk About How Kids Learn
In case you’re wondering, when I say “teach the alphabet” I am referring to letter identification, letter sounds, and the use of letters to make up words.
A Quick Look at My 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 taught pre-kindergarten for even longer than I taught kindergarten.
So it probably doesn’t surprise you that I’m passionate about early literacy, especially when we’re talking about children between the ages of 3 and 6.
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.
Why Is This Important When We Talk About How to Teach the Alphabet?
Since kids 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 when you begin to teach the alphabet to kids. 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 letters in isolation, such as with the classic “letter of the week”, just doesn’t make sense for how children learn. In my opinion, it slows down how children learn letters and doesn’t help children make as many meaningful connections.
I know that many teachers use letter of the week because that’s within their comfort zones. Just remember it’s always great to try new things, even as a teacher!
So How Do We Teach the Alphabet in Preschool?
Now that I’ve shared why it’s important to use hands-on, meaningful lessons to teach the alphabet, let’s look at some specific examples.
READ, READ, READ.
Oh, yes, and read some more!
Being read to shows children that words (and the letters that make up those words) have meaning. It also shows children the correlation between our oral language and our written language.
Looking at words on a page, as they’re hearing the words spoken, provides an enormous amount of background knowledge for kids when it comes to letters, letter sounds, and words. This is true even if the kids don’t know how to read those words yet.
WRITE, WRITE, WRITE.
Write down the children’s dictations about pictures they draw. Work with the kids to 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.
Reading and writing go hand-in-hand, so teaching reading and teaching writing should as well. Learning to identify letters and comprehend letters sounds can easily be integrated into writing letters. It’s another way for children to experience the alphabet and really see it in action. Which leaves you so many opportunities to teach the alphabet to your students.
Plus, writing involves movement which helps children to explore the learning in a different way.
Related: Free Printable Class Sign-In Book
MAKE NAME KITS.
Put together a name kit with each child in your class.
Keep the name kits in your reading or literacy center so children can work on them throughout the school year.
WRITE EACH CHILD’S NAME ON A SENTENCE STRIP.
Have the first letter in a different color, with the remaining letters written in black (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 kids’ names. Here’s one to try – Have each child hold her/his name, then call out letters and an action (ex: “if your name starts with M, jump up and down”).
Related: 15+ Name Activities for Preschoolers
MAKE A CLASS ALPHABET BOOK.
As I keep mentioning, names are a wonderful starting place for teaching so many concepts to kids. Combine a child’s love for her name with her curiosity about her friends’ names while teaching the alphabet with a class name 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.
It sounds so very simple, but sorting magnetic letters 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.
SING ALPHABET SONGS.
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, and break out many different alphabet songs.
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.
USE AN ALPHABET CHART.
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”). Don’t overdo this, as it really shouldn’t take but a few minutes.
SET UP A CLASSROOM WORD WALL.
Word walls in preschool don’t need to be complicated, and they are a great resource for teaching the alphabet.
Set yours up with each letter of the alphabet, and make sure to add photo prompts. Start the year out with the kids’ names on the word wall. Compare the word wall to your alphabet chart and encourage the kids to read the word wall with pointers!
Consider adding environmental print for even more bang for your buck as you teach the alphabet.
PLAY ALPHABET GAMES.
When you’re planning to teach the alphabet, don’t forget games involving letters! There are so many games you can play. Letter bingo, letter matching games, letter memory, and name bingo are just a few ideas to start you off with.
Obviously, the above list is by NO MEANS exhaustive. There are so many ways to teach the alphabet 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.
Teach the Alphabet with Done-For-You Resources
Save some time as you plan your alphabet instruction by using resources from Preschool Teacher 101. We have a variety of items that are ready to go and perfect for teaching the alphabet to young children:
More Reading About How to Teach the Alphabet
After I wrote this post, I went searching for more to share with you. Here are just a few of the articles I read that share more information about how to teach the alphabet in a meaningful way:
“Whatever Happened to Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Literacy?” by Susan B. Neuman and Kathleen Roskos
“Reading Instruction and Play Go Hand-in-Hand” by Linda Ingleson
Alphabet and Phonics Instruction” by Janice Wood & Bronwyn McLemore
No More Letter of the Week by Vanessa of Pre-K Pages
Originally published February 5, 2013. Updated with more photos and information.