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Are you keen to help your toddler recognise those first letters but not sure how to begin? Find out about phonics, starting first letters and how to begin teaching the alphabet to toddlers.
When should a child recognize letters?
All children learn at their own pace. 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.
Before this just by having fun with letters in the toddler years, you will be preparing them to learn letters and read those first words.
As a guide (and bearing in mind that things vary greatly from child to child), scientific research has found that:
Early Reading Milestones
Baby’s First Year (0-1 years)
- Is able to recognise and imitate certain sounds.
- Respond to certain sounds.
- Engage with books by touching them or turning pages.
Toddler (1-3 years)
- Have some favourite books that they request.
- Is able to talk about the stories in the books they listen to.
- May point to words on the page.
- Talks about pictures in the book.
Preschool (3-4 years)
- Identify some letter shapes and make some letter-sound matches.
- Memorise and sing alphabet songs.
- Attempt to write out letters.
- Recognise signs as being whole words.
- Use known letters to spell out words.
- Recognise their name written out.
Year 1 or Kindergarten (5-6 years)
- Understand that print is read left-to-right and top-to-bottom.
- Recognize letters and letter-sound matches.
- Write all letters of the alphabet.
- Blend sounds together and read first words.
- Identify some words by sight.
- Identify rhymes and making up their own rhyming words.
- Begin to match spoken words with written ones.
- Write words they use and hear often.
Early exposure to books, rhymes, words and printed words all goes a long way.
How do I teach my toddler the alphabet?
Early learning is all about having fun and learning through play. Toddlers should be enjoying themselves so much that they don’t even realise they are learning.
Simple things like reading to them, singing to them and pointing out the letters all around them, can help.
It will make them more familiar with the different letter shapes and the world of words that surrounds us. We’ve included 10 fun and interactive ways you can get them started below. But first, a little about how to teach phonics.
Is it better to teach upper or lower case letters first?
This depends on which letter case your child’s school is using first, but we believe it’s best to start with lower case letters.
Lower case letters have different shapes to upper case letters. By teaching both at the same time, learning the alphabet becomes harder. Imagine that for your toddler there are now 2 shapes to learn for every sound, instead of 1.
Books are all written in lower case letters so we feel that they’re the best place to start. Hopefully they can begin to recognise the shapes of the letters in the books they read every day.
How do you teach phonics sounds?
Sound it out
Phonics is all about teaching your toddler the SOUNDS that letters make. For example for ‘a, e, o’ the sounds are ‘ah, eh, oh’.
These are different from the names of those letters, A, E, O which are pronounced Ai, Ee, Oh.
Keep the sound simple
Take each letter and show your toddler the sound it makes when it’s being read. For vowels this is quite simple as it’s a loud sound:
a – ah
u – uh
For consonants it can be trickier as they are quiet sounds. Our instinct is to say consonant sounds with a vowel. For example we would say ‘s’ is ‘suh’ or ‘c’ is ‘cuh’.
However, recent studies have found that the addition of ‘uh’ onto the end of the letter sound may not help in the long term. This is because you are giving 1 letter, 2 sounds: one for ‘s’ and the other for ‘uh’.
When they go to blend letters into words later on it can sometimes be confusing. So for consonants try to keep the sound as simple and as pure to the letter sound as possible. For example:
s – should be ‘sssss’ rather than ‘suh’
t – should be a short ‘t t t’ rather than ‘tuh’
m – should be ‘mmmm’ rather than ‘muh’
Name words that the letter starts with
Flashcards like the ones listed below can really help with this. Name the word that the letter begins with. Ask your toddler if they can think of other words starting with that letter. (Help them out with this).
e.g. ‘c’ is for ‘car’. ‘c’ is also for ‘cat’ and ‘can’ and ‘caterpillar’.
Maybe you can both spot some things around the room that start with the letter sound you’re exploring.
Blend the letter sounds (for older children)
After your child is very familiar with most of the letter sounds, they can start to combine these sounds together. This is how they sound out their first words.
They’ll start with 2 letter words and build up. For example:
‘a’ – ‘ah’ and ‘t’ make ‘at‘
So you can see that by teaching your toddler the letter sounds in the simplest and purest form, it helps them to combine the sounds together into words later on.
They can soon move onto letter blending and eventually reading words and even books.
Here are 10 fun ways to start teaching the alphabet to toddlers
Make a song and dance of it
There are lots of fun alphabet learning games, apps and online tools out there. Here we’ve included a clip of the group 1 letters from Jolly Phonics – one of our favourite phonics systems.
Here each letter sound 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“. Toddlers can sing this little clip while pinching ‘ants’ up their arm.
These fun little song and dance routines can make letters more memorable. Toddlers will have fun singing the tune, doing the action and ultimately remembering the letter sound.
Spot the letters everywhere
Letters are all around you. From the brightly coloured writing on the cereal box at breakfast time, to the letters on street names.
Even car registration plates as you walk to the duck pond or the signs you see in shop windows have letters.
Once your toddler has learnt to recognise a letter, he’ll have great fun spotting it when you’re out and about.
Write out letters in fun ways
If your child learns the shape of a letter then you can practice writing it too.
This letter could be a nice easy one like ‘a, c or o’ or maybe the first letter of their name.
You could draw big letters with paint, or trace giant letter stickers on walls. It all helps them get to know the curves and lines of each letter shape.
Related: Find more letter writing activities here 10 Fun First Alphabet Activities for Toddlers.
Letter fun in the tub
Bath times are a great time for relaxed play. One way to make learning a part of it is to buy some alphabet foam letters.
Your toddler can have fun sticking them onto the tiles or the side of the bathtub. You can then say the letter sounds out loud together as he does.
When he’s done he can easily swipe the letters off, watch them splash into the bath and do it all again.
Play with alphabet toys
There are some wonderful alphabet puzzles and games that busy toddlers will love. We’ve included some of our recommended toys in a list at the bottom of this article.
Again, at this stage it’s about enjoying play and learning through it.
They might spend a happy half hour popping the right letter into their alphabet jigsaw on their own.
Other times you can join in and talk about the letters in their game and the sounds they make. Maybe say things like:
You’ve picked up an ‘mmmm’ and put it on top of the picture of a ‘mmmonkey’.
Make it all about their name
It’s the best first word to start with.
Start by teaching them the first letter in their name. Then show them their full name written out in different ways.
- Hang or stick their name to their bedroom door.
- Spell out their name with a toy or decoration.
However you display their name, read out the letter sounds to your toddler when you pass by it. They can also trace the shape of the letters with their fingers.
Write out their name on their drawings
Write your child’s name next to their drawings before you hang them on the fridge or wall.
Over time they’ll begin to recognise the shape of the letters and associate them with their name.
Spell it out with letter fridge magnets
Fridge magnet letters are a great way to spell out your toddler’s name. They’ll see it there every morning and may learn to recognise it.
They can also just play around with the letter magnets. Put them on the fridge together and practice the sound of each letter as you do so.
Don’t underestimate songs and rhymes
Songs are a great way to introduce toddlers to rhymes. Rhyming words are really important for developing reading skills in years ahead.
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. In 2018 the Department for Education (DfE) launched programmes worth over £13.5 million to boost children’s language development at home.
Their projects provided advice to parents on how to help their child learn new words. This was 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.
And above all…books
One of the best things that you can do is to read books to your toddler every day.
A story a day
Have daily storytimes. Maybe even read a few books at bedtime together.
Have lots of books for them to look through and ‘read’ themselves. These could be plain word books or touchy-feely books. We love educational books like the ones in our list below, as they have so many different pictures for them to flip through, all categorised by colour.
Weekly trip to the library
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 the pictures.
Point out the letters
You could use your finger to point to words as you read them. Or you could show your child certain letters and make its sound. It all reinforces that these letter shapes make these sounds.
Talk about the stories together
Discuss what’s happening in the story and in the pictures in the book. Answer their questions and see why they think certain things happened.
Include alphabet books too
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 your toddler will hear letters sounds over and over again. Soon some letters will start to be familiar to them.
In the meantime it’s all about letting them get immersed in play, a bit of repetition and making reading and story time great fun!
Learn to Read Books and Toys
We love these interactive alphabet tracing books:
Alphabet trace-and-flip book
Good for: learning to write letters.
Trace letters in the grooves of this book as you read it.
Learn the colours board book.
Good for: learning colours, learning names of different objects, learning to put things into groups (here it’s by colour).
One of the few puzzles with lower case letters.
Good for: learning lower case letters, tracing the letter shapes, learning objects that start with those letters.
Nice chunky pieces that make this puzzle easier for little hands to put together.
Good for: learning letter shapes, sounds and first words.
Flip the card to match the letter to the animals.
Good for: Learning both upper and lower case letters, learning what sounds animal names start with.
Alphabet flash cards and wooden letter puzzle
Good for: learning upper case letter sounds and shapes.
Match upper case to lower case letters and letters to objects.
Good for: First toddler puzzles, learning both upper and lower case letters, learning words that start with different letter sounds.
Learning their name with a room sign.
Good for: beautiful room name signs, recognising their name.
Fun alphabet letters and numbers for bathtimes.
Good for: great educational bathtub toy for toddlers.
This one comes with net organizer and is BPA FREE.
Related: For another fun phonics game to play in the bath you could try our Rubber duck phonics game.
- Early Reading Milestones, Red Apple Reading Blog
- Let’s stop teaching letter names and start with letter sounds
- Parents to receive advice on teaching nursery rhymes in bid to close disadvantaged children’s word gap, The Independent
- The importance of music and singing in early development cannot be underestimated, TES
- Typical Language Accomplishments for Children, Birth to Age 6 — Helping Your Child Become a Reader, US Department of Education