How to Teach the Alphabet using Language Objects
Teaching the Alphabet using Language Objects
One of the biggest mistakes parents make when teaching the alphabet is focusing on the names of each alphabet letter.
It's easy to get all excited when your toddler starts pointing out alphabet letters on signs and in books and asks, "What's that?" Almost on autopilot, we give the name of the letter and think we need to start singing the alphabet song!
But... knowing the names of the alphabet letters does not prepare your child for later writing and reading!
I'm going to walk you through an approach to teaching the alphabet that's (very) DIFFERENT and makes so much more sense.
When it comes to teaching the alphabet, it's the sound each letter makes that's essential for toddlers and preschoolers to learn first.
Knowing each letter sound means the letter symbols will have meaning for your child. The letter symbols won't be so abstract. You're child will think: "That's not just a curvy line, that’s the sound /c/ as in cat."
You want your child to understand that each letter symbol represents a sound that he or she already knows. This way you’re building on existing knowledge, and it's simply a matter of associating each sound with its alphabet letter.
Ultimately, you want your child to be able to blend the sounds /c/, /a/ and /t/ to make the word "cat" versus naming the letters as "see", "ay" and "tee".
The first step is to play sound games to teach alphabet letter sounds.
An easy and engaging way to teach alphabet letter sounds is by playing sound games using language objects to draw attention to the sounds in words and help your child understand that words are made up of sounds in a row.
Usually children who are around 2.5 to 3 years old are ready for sound games.
Click here to learn how to start a collection of language objects (including lots of ideas for language objects you can find in your home!) and how to say the alphabet letter sounds. You'll also get a step-by-step script for playing sound games using language objects.
Once you've gotten in the habit of playing sound games daily, then come back here to learn what to do next!
The next step is to associate each letter sound with its alphabet letter using lowercase tactile letters.
Once it’s clear that your child understands that words are made up of sounds in a row and he or she can consistently identify the sounds in words, then it's time to associate each letter sound with its alphabet symbol using lowercase tactile letters.
Children learn best through hands-on experiences that involve the senses and movement. Tracing a lowercase tactile letter and saying its sound helps your child develop muscular, visual and auditory memory of what the alphabet letters look like and sound like.
You'll want to start with lowercase tactile letters because only a small percentage of the letters we write and read are uppercase (capital) letters, but you'll need to decide if you want to introduce the cursive or print version of tactile letters.
Many children find the cursive letters easier to write because it is more natural to make loops and they don’t need to take the pencil off and on the page so many times. All cursive letters start at the baseline rather than at some random spot, and there are fewer cursive letters that look alike to be confused with one another compared with print letters. But if it's not important to you that your child learn cursive, then it's certainly ok to just introduce print letters.
You'll also need to decide if you want to buy or make lowercase tactile letters.
Montessori sandpaper letters are available in lowercase print or cursive letters with blue wooden boards for the vowels, pink wooden boards for the consonants and green wooden boards for the 16 key phonogram sounds. You can expect to pay about $40-$50 for an A-Z set. Didax makes a similar sandpaper letter product for about $15 that features just the lowercase print letters.
You can make your own tactile letters by cutting out lowercase letters from sandpaper or felt and gluing them onto individual boards. Another method is to trace an outline of each lowercase letter onto individual boards, fill the outlines with glue and sprinkle sand or glitter onto them.
How to Play the Sound-Letter Association Game
Select three lowercase tactile letters that look different and sound different. Place them face down on a table along with a small box or basket that contains several language objects. Ideally you'll have about three language objects for each of the sounds represented by the letters.
The "Naming" Period
- "I’m thinking of some words that start with the sound /m/. Mmmarble starts with the sound /m/.” Continue with some other words starting with the same sound: "Do you hear /m/ in mat?" Invite your child to think of a word that starts with that sound.
- Turn over the tactile letter for that sound and say "This is what /m/ looks like." Show your child how to trace the letter and then say the sound the letter makes. Trace and say the sound twice.
- Invite your child to trace the letter and say the sound twice. Then turn over the letter and set it aside.
- Repeat for the other two letters. Don't mention the name of the letters!
The "Show Me" Period
This step makes the process of associating the alphabet letters and sounds into a fun game. First turn over all of the letters and place them in front of your child.
- Invite your child to "show me the /m/" and "touch the /s/" and "pass me the /f/" and so on, making the sound each time and always inviting your child to trace the letter and say its sound. Repeat with each letter a few times in random order, moving them around on the table.
- Then place one language object in your child's hand and name the object. Invite your child to say the beginning sound of the language object and then match it with the letter that makes the same sound. Repeat with all of the language objects.
- Return all of the language objects to the box or basket and tell your child you're going to play one more game.
The "What Is?" Period
Gather the letters into a pile and place them face down on the table. One at a time, turn over a letter and say “Please trace this.” After your child traces it, ask “What is it?”
On another day, introduce three new tactile letters. Once your child knows about 10 vowels and/or consonants, include one of the 16 key phonograms as one of the three tactile letters. The order doesn't matter.
Your child doesn't need to master each letter or phonogram before moving on to new ones because you can keep cycling back. Engaging your child with other activities using the tactile letters, including matching games with language objects, will reinforce learning and offer lots of opportunities for repetition.
When your child knows most of the tactile letters, it's time to introduce a moveable alphabet and show your child how to build words with it. You’ll continue to help your child learn the rest of the tactile letters concurrently.
In The Playful Path to Reading you'll learn more activities to do with your tactile letters and an easy way to keep track of which ones you've presented. You'll also learn exactly how to help your child take the leap from word building to reading phonetic words, phonogram words, sight words and then phrases and sentences!
About the Author
I'm Lisa, an AMI-trained Montessori teacher and the creator of The Playful Path to Reading. I help parents and early childhood educators use Montessori activities to make learning to read and write fun for preschoolers.