I’ve written several times about teaching math for littles (here, here, here, and here), but never about teaching reading. What in the world? Everyone needs to read! Right now, I’ve got one avid early reader and one preschooler in the learning-her-letters stage. So far, so good. So. How do I teach kids their letters? Do I advise any particular curriculum?
“When you read, you begin with—“ Maria the governess
“ABC!” –Gretl von Trapp
My advice is this: just start. Start now. There’s nothing wrong with doing a clever letter-of-the-week theme or a curriculum, if you want to, but I didn’t. I like to de-escalate the whole process by teaching letters constantly through play as our default setting. Kids appreciate stories and playing, so I’m extending that natural tendencies, giving them a word-rich home to play with. Learning your letters should not be this stressful and unnatural big deal.
I start by talking to my kids with words and singing the ABC song. Odds are, you’re doing this already, even if you have mommy brain and have also perfected communication through sound effects and dramatic gestures. Whenever life with a toddler gets dull, I either count something, sing the alphabet song, or start making animal noises. (I’m fun at grown-up parties. They let me use “MOO” in Scrabble last week.) All that faithful exposure to language adds up. Your kid will never even know it’s educational.
Then, we read books, bought and borrowed and free. Again, this is pretty intuitive – if you want your kids to know written words, you should make sure they’re around written words. The hardest part of this for me is the part where I actually sit down and read them. Sometimes when I get tired of reading aloud, I get books-with-CD from the library, start the CD, and throw the book into the backseat. Then the girls have something to look at while I concentrate on traffic.
I let my girls play computer games and apps that connect letters with the sounds they make. They feel like they’ve scored because they get screen time, and I feel like I’ve scored because they’re reinforcing the alphabet and phonics. One of my girls’ favorite apps is Abby the Monkey’s Phonics Island. I expect there are better apps out there, but that’s what we’ve got.
We watch TV shows that put words together. I am persuaded that SuperWhy was formative in teaching Meg to read. Word World is another show that tries to do that, but I don’t actually like Word World, so they only watch it while we’re shopping at Gymboree. But now (ha!) everything we watch reinforces reading, because we discovered the subtitles setting on our TV.
I especially like it for catching dialogue on grown-up movies when the girls are totally not asleep yet, but we keep subtitles on for the kids’ shows too. I’m loving it, actually. The kids see that EVERY WORD can be written out. Also, it’s entertaining to see some of the subtitles’ descriptions. For instance, Peter Pan’s shadow engages in “derisive humming.” Now you know.
In the spirit of constant education, I try to keep my eyes open wherever we go. There’s an entire world full of signs to read out there: Chick-fil-A. Target. Michael’s. STOP. Exit. Feel free not to read the graffiti. If you wear a logo T-shirt, help your little one sound it out. You can always identify letters out and about, informally. Kate’s favorite letter is K, although sometimes Ks are tricky and disguise themselves as Xs, but whenever she notices a K she is thrilled to tell me that K is for Kate. Yes!
We keep alphabet toys available. It’s all experience. There’s an alphabet puzzle. We have a magnetic fridge toy that sings a little song for each letter. I have this set of cork letter manipulatives that I picked up for 80% off at a craft store. Sometimes, I sit down with the girls and make words, and other times, they just play with them. We’ve also got a complicated Little People toy with a play mat and 26 matching animals you can line up along the little letter trail, if so motivated, or you can just play with the animals and accidentally step on “L! Lion! RAWR!” in the night. That’s memorable, too.
The last thing I have to do is remember to occasionally go through the entire alphabet to make sure we aren’t missing any letters. We usually are. What, child, you never saw a Q before? Maybe I should fix that. Reading alphabet books helps a lot, because most alphabet books remember all the letters. There are many alphabet books in print, which helps keep up maternal interest.
At some point, your student will recognize all the letters, be able to make a very reasonable guess what sound they make, and likely still won’t put them all together and read words. This is the point where mommy competition will not be helpful at all. Meg knew all her letters for a good two years before she was reading, and several of her friends started reading before her, and you know what? That was FINE. She hadn’t failed and neither had I. We kept up with letters, gently, and I intentionally didn’t push. And she took off like a rocket when she was developmentally ready.
Of course, there are some things you can do to help your student read. My whole next blog post is on that, so stay tuned.
 There will be plenty of things to enforce discipline over. Ahem. Let’s not start that any sooner than necessary.
Photo Credit: First image graphic design by Charity Klicka; all other images courtesy of Carolyn Bales.