Letters of the Alphabet: A How-To Guide for Helping Kids Learn Their ABCs

April 2, 2015

Resist the temptation to "school" your child into learning the letters of the alphabet. Instead, use fun tools you already have with this guide from the experts.

Do you know the secret for helping you child learn the letters of the alphabet? It's pretty easy -- just keep saying it over and over. Sing the alphabet, talk about it, write the letters, make the sounds and eventually, your little one will start to learn it. You can start teaching your child the alphabet at around age 2, though she won't be able to write letters until she is closer to 4. Here are some tips to help get you and your child started on letters.

  • First, Make a Proper IN-tro-DUK-shun
    Babs Bell Hajdusiewicz, Ms.Ed, is a career educator and founder of BabsyB. As a consultant for schools, parents and writers, she knows a thing or two about words and the symbols that make them -- the things we call letters. Symbols? That's right, says Hajdusiewicz. "These 26 letter symbols are mere placeholders, if you will, that represent the many, many sounds we hear and say in words," she says. "For example, we use the name 'A' for a host of sounds we hear and say, such as: 'a' as in 'apple'; 'ay' as in 'ate'; 'uh' as in 'ago'; 'ah' as in 'car.'"

    Hajdusiewicz says a great way to start teaching your child the letters of the alphabet is to break out the famous Alphabet Song. This is a fun and interactive way for your kids to start to make the letter sounds, if not recognize them on paper. Parents should repeat the famous alphabet song at least once daily. "Time yourself," she says. It takes less than fifteen seconds to get through the whole song, so try singing it in different ways to keep your child (and yourself!) interested.
  • Do a Little Every Day
    Teaching a child the letters of the alphabet is incredibly repetitive, but it's supposed to be! "Repetition is the key to developing oral language," Hajdusiewicz says. Set aside time each day to go through the letters, but don't make it feel like a structured lesson.

    Dr. Jean Feldman, an early childhood education consultant for more than 45 years, agrees. She says that helping kids learn the alphabet doesn't need a strict curriculum, but it does require your daily participation as a parent. "Kids need loving adults who will talk to them, read to them and sing to them," she says. "Take your child to the library instead of the mall. Read to your child instead of turning on a screen." Don't outsource the all-important job of teaching to a mobile app or TV. As you read, she says, point out the letters on the page and let your child do the same.

    For the best age-appropriate books to read aloud, check out Books for Kids Age 0 to Tween.
  • Know When to Expect Mastery
    By age 3, your child should be able to sing the alphabet song, with you or independently. Does this mean she's able to start working on her thesis? Not quite. Knowing to repeat those symbols is just the beginning. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, by age 4, she'll probably start identifying the symbols in print -- so practice finding the letters on road signs as you travel, on the cereal box during breakfast and always in books as you read to her. Her own name will be especially appealing, so talk about those letters daily and have her trace her name. As for the multiple sounds the letters make, don't expect that understanding until age 5, or even later. When a child starts to identify what a symbol may mean, then you've graduated from learning letters to learning words.
  • Have Some Fun
    One of Dr. Feldman's most popular games to help kids learn the alphabet is called "Phonercise," and this is how it goes:
    • Tell your child the plan."We're going to put our arms in the air and say a letter. We'll touch our shoulders and make the sound, then we'll touch the ground and say a word that starts with that sound."
    • Next, touch your head and say "A."
    • Then, touch your shoulders and say "Ah."
    • When you touch the floor, stay silent. Let the child use that second between the shoulder-touch and the floor-touch to mentally repeat the "ah" sound, running through her mental catalog of words that start with that sound.

If your child doesn't produce an "A" word when you touch the floor, offer to alternate: You demonstrate a successful "B" word, and let her try "C." Don't be discouraged if it takes a few tries. A great way to get your child really trying is to enlist the participation of a slightly older child. Older kids are a great encouragement to little ones, especially with educational alphabet games like this one.

Afraid you're oversimplifying things? Remember, you're teaching a toddler or preschooler, so there's no such thing as too simple. "The ABC song is a mighty easy over-simplification of an extraordinarily complex [system]," says Hajdusiewicz.

Bethany Johnson, a professional writer from Washington, D.C., specializes in the quirks of family life and relationships. When she's not writing, Bethany and her husband raise both free-range chickens and free-range children on their organic farm in the suburbs.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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