Teach toddlers the alphabet? Surely they are far too young? Next you’ll be saying they should start school in nappies…
There are loads of ways you can start to introduce letter sounds through play and as you go about your everyday lives. Learning letters can be fun and just another exciting part of your toddler’s day as they look, listen, play and soak up all the new sounds and sights around them. If toddlers see letters and hear their sounds from a very young age they will have a great head start when in comes to learning phonics in school.
Sound it out
Phonics is teaching your toddler the sounds that letters make instead of their names. So, instead of teaching the traditional alphabet names of A, B, C (ay, bee, see) teach the sounds they make (ah, buh, cuh). This will make it much easier for them later on, to work out how to read and write new words. Let us give you a quick example:
Take a simple three-letter word, such as ‘cat’. If you know the names of the letters it does not help you read the word. In this case the names put together ‘cee – ay – tee’ do not sound anything like ‘cat’. It actually spells out the word’ Ceeaytee’.
If, however, you know the sounds of the three letters you are well on your way to cracking the code and being able to read the word. You can say each sound and join them together. Putting the sounds together ‘Cuh – ah – tuh’ helps you to read the word as ‘c – ca – cat’. Bingo!
Of course, in the toddler years, your child is not yet ready to blend these letter sounds together to make the word ‘cat’. However if you teach them the sounds of the letters of the alphabet, you are actually introducing them to early phonics and giving them the building blocks to eventually reading words.
Make a song and dance of it
There are lots of fun alphabet learning games and tools out there like this one from Jolly Phonics. Here each letter is combined with an action and a song to help toddlers remember it. For example the letter ‘a’ become ” ‘a-a-a’ ants on my arm” which toddlers can say while pinching up their arm while having fun singing along to the song. These fun little song and dance routines will make the letters more memorable and your little ones will have a great time doing them.
A lovely activity for older toddlers (2-3 years) is to write a single large letter, their name or a simple word in white crayon on a piece of paper. Them give them a pot of watered down paint and a thick paintbrush and let them paint the entire piece of paper until the letters magically appear. As they do you can say each letter sound so that they become more memorable.
Writing big letters in fun ways
If your child learns the shape of a letter (maybe his or her initial or pick a nice easy one such as c, o or l) then you can practice starting to write it too. Try taking a bucket of water and a giant paintbrush outside and painting a nice easy letter on the path. Or roll ‘worms’ of play dough and help them make the letter shape out of it. You can even cover a table with flour and ask your child to try writing (or copying) a letter with their fingers. It’s all about trying and it’s all about fun at this stage with no pressure to get it perfectly right.
Alphabet puzzles and games
There are some lovely alphabet puzzles and game that are fun for busy toddlers. Again, at this stage it is about enjoying play and learning through it. They might spend a happy half hour popping the right letter in their alphabet jigsaw in independent play and, at times, you can join them and enrich their play by talking about the letters in their game and the sounds they make. ‘You’ve picked up an ‘Mmmm’ and put it on top of the picture of a monkey’.
Letter fun in the tub
Bath times are a great time for play. One way to build letter learning into them is to buy alphabet foam letters, which your toddler can have great fun sticking onto the tiles, while you say the letter sounds out loud. Then they can swipe the letters off, watch them splash in the bath and do it all again.
Focus on their name
When it comes to learning letters the most significant one of all for toddlers is the one their own name begins with. It’s likely to be their favourite letter of all. Make the most of this by sticking the letters of your child’s name on their bedroom door (you can buy lovely decorated wooden letters or stickers) and you can read out the letter sounds when you pass by. They can also trace the shape of the letters with their fingers.
When you have the paper and crayons out you can write your child’s initial and name next to their drawings, before proudly hanging them on the fridge. Over time they will begin to recognise the shape of the letters and associate them with their name.
Letters are everywhere
Letters are all around you, from the brightly coloured writing on the cereal box at breakfast time, to the letters on street names and car registration plates as you walk to the duck pond or the signs and posters you see in shop windows, while traveling on the bus. Once your toddler has learnt to recognise a letter (maybe his own special letter of his name) then he will have great fun spotting them when you are out and about.
Books, books and more books
One of the best things that you can do is to read books to your toddler every day. As well as daily story times have lots of books for them to look through and ‘read’ themselves. You can go on weekly trips to your local library to keep a constant supply of new and exciting books for them to explore. Toddlers love listening to stories and looking at pictures in books.
You could use your finger to point to words as you read them or show your child certain letters and make its sound. There are plenty of alphabet books that you can read together too. Toddlers will especially love those with silly rhymes or funny illustrations. Over time they will hear letters sounds over and over again and some may begin to be familiar. Right now, it’s all about immersive play, repetition and making reading and story time great fun.
Songs and rhymes
Songs are a great way to introduce toddlers to rhymes and this is a really important reading skill. You can sing all sorts of songs, action songs and even alphabet songs to your child. Singing songs and nursery rhymes is such a crucial part of early language development that in 2018 the Department for Education (DfE) launched programmes worth over £13.5 million to boost children’s language development at home with projects that provide advice to parents on how to help their child learn new words through reading, learning the alphabet and nursery rhymes.
Amanda Spielman, Ofsted chief inspector says:
“Humpy Dumpty may seem old-fashioned, but children who can sing a song and know a story off by heart aged four are better prepared for school.”
There’s no rush
Early learning is all about having fun and learning through play. In the toddler years children should be having so much fun that they don’t even realise they are learning. Reading to them, singing to them and pointing out the letters around them will immerse them in a world of words and help them develop early language and communication skills.
All children learn at their own pace and you should not be worried if your toddler doesn’t seem to be learning many letters or sounds . Most will begin recognising letters at age 3 or 4. All the fun and practice in the earlier toddler years is useful exposure and practice for this. As a guide (and bearing in mind that there is wide variation), scientific research has found that:
By age 3-4 most babies or toddlers may be able to:
- Identify some letters and make some letter-sound matches.
- Use known letters (or their best attempt to write the letters) to write or put together meaningful words like their names.
At age 5 most children may be able to:
- Recognize letters and letter-sound matches.
- Show familiarity with rhyming and beginning sounds.
- Understand that print is read left-to-right and top-to-bottom.
- Begin to match spoken words with written ones.
- Begin to write letters of the alphabet and some words they use and hear often.
Early exposure to books, rhymes, words and print in the toddler years will set your child on the right road to learning their letters, sounds and words as they grow older. So just have fun and enjoy introducing your toddler to their A,B,Cs.