Learning the ABCs lays the foundation for all future reading skills. Memorizing letter names and letter sounds (known as phonemic awareness) at a young age is the BEST way to ensure that children are good readers down the road. Children who know their letter names and sounds automatically will find learning to read fun and easy, but children who struggle to memorize letter names and sounds will find learning to read laborious and difficult. This is something I have seen as both a classroom teacher and as a parent, but don’t just take my word for it.
Alphabet Knowledge Predicts Later Reading Ability
The research shows that children who start kindergarten with a strong foundation in their knowledge of the alphabet and early literacy skills will find learning to read to be easy and fun, but students who start off already behind will find learning to read difficult and discouraging.
The findings of Developing Early Literacy Skills: A Meta-Analysis of Alphabet Learning and Instruction (a peer reviewed article at NCBI – US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health) show that,
“Children’s knowledge of letter names and sounds is the best predictor of their later reading and spelling abilities,” (Hammill, 2004; Scarborough, 1998; Schatschneider, Fletcher, Francis, Carlson, & Foorman, 2004).
They also point out that,
“Preschool and kindergarten students with poor knowledge of letter names and sounds are more likely to struggle with learning to read and be classified as having reading disabilities,” (Gallagher, Frith, & Snowling, 2000; O’Connor & Jenkins, 1999; Torppa, Poikkeus, Laakso, Eklund, & Lyytinen, 2006).
By creating a language rich environment with lots of opportunities for oral language development, helping children to memorize important vocabulary words, and teaching them letter names and letter sounds, children will have a strong foundation in literacy that will make learning to read easy, natural, and fun!
Age to Start
In my experience, the ideal time to start teaching children the alphabet is between 6-8 months of age. Are you thinking, “Really? Why so young?”
Children’s brains start EXPLODING with growth at 6 months of age. This continues until the age of about 3 when synaptic pruning occurs at a rapid rate. Think “use it or lose it”.
So when you start teaching your child the alphabet at a young age, their brain will put knowledge of the alphabet at the center of its framework and build everything else around it. But if you wait until your child is older, they will have to find a new place to put this information. The best way to commit new information to long term memory after synaptic pruning has begun is to connect it to existing knowledge. If there is no existing knowledge, repetition (especially with movement) is the only way to make sure the new information is stored long term.
What this means is that if you start teaching the ABCs when your child is young, you can teach a little bit over a long period of time, but if you start when they are older, they will require more repetitions and the repetitions need to connect to prior learning whenever possible.
How to Teach the ABCs to Babies and Toddlers
Teaching babies and toddlers the alphabet is easy because they are very interested to learn it. Once you show them what these “symbols” mean, and then they identify them in books, on signs, in the kitchen, and everywhere, they will feel like they can connect to and understand the world around them.
- Teach the letter name, letter sound, and word simultaneously. Teaching all three simultaneously shows children how intrinsically linked all three are.
- Allow for a silent period. If you start teaching your child the ABCs between 6-8 months of age when they aren’t capable of producing speech, it may take them 6-8 months or until they are able to vocalize what they are learning. This is the silent period of language acquisition where children are observing and taking it all in. (*Note: The silent period is something I learned about in my linguistics classes referring to a child learning a second language, but I have observed it in my own children learning their first language as well.)
- Praise any right answer. If your child vocalizes the letter name, sound, or word associated with that letter praise him or her for getting the answer right because each answer is right! This praise will motivate children to continue with more vocalizations.
- Watch a variety of ABC videos. I certainly hope that you enjoy my homemade ABC Video, but I highly encourage you to create a playlist on YouTube of your child’s favorite ABC songs.
- Fill your house with ABCs. Posters, rugs, magnets, books, toys…you name it, just fill your house and make the ABCs a fun and engaging part of your little one’s day. Listed below I have a section called Additional Resources where I share some of my favorite resources, check out my blog: 10 Best Resources for Teaching the ABCs, and of course check out my teachers pay teachers store for flashcards, videos, and more.
- Read lots of ABC books. Go to the library often and pick out a ton of ABC books, find which ones your children enjoy the most, then buy a few sturdy ones to read over and over.
- A little bit over a long period of time is best. Don’t worry about teaching the ABCs every day, just try to fit it in a few times a week or even just a few times a month when the timing is right. Wait until your child is happy, in a good mood, and ready to learn. I love using feeding time for teaching. You may find that there are periods where your child wants to learn about the ABCs every single day, but then will completely lose interest for a few months and that’s okay too.
I started teaching Ophelia her ABCs with a crude homemade set of flashcards when she was about 6 months old, and she loved learning her letters! (I’ve since updated them, and they’re available here.)
How to Teach the ABCs to Preschoolers and Older Children
If you wait until your children are older to teach them the alphabet, the knowledge they need to learn will still follow the same progression, it will just need to look different to fit the needs and interests of an older child. Also, starting at the age of 3, synaptic pruning occurs, so if you’re teaching the ABCs to a 4, 5, or 6 year old, they will need many more repetitions to help rewire their brains to make room for this new information.
Because we were in the middle of a lot of life changes when Elliot was young and also due to his personality and not being able to sit still and focus, we didn’t really start using flashcards and videos to teach the ABCs until he was about 3-4 years old. He actually started learning alongside Ophelia when she was first starting to learn at 6-8 months. After about two years of exposure, Elliot started reading at the age of 5. He is currently in the 3rd grade and at the top of his class reading at a 6th grade level!
One of the things he LOVED doing was making ABC books. We would sit at the computer together and find print outs for each letter of the alphabet. He loved it when we would personify the characters and make them talk. 🙂
- Play ABC videos in the background. YouTube has many ABC videos geared for older children that feature things like these alphabet transformers and Minecraft characters. Use what your child is interested in to custom make your own ABC playlist. Don’t expect your child to sit and watch the ABC videos with full attention, but if you play them in the background when he or she is quietly playing, you would be surprised how much is absorbed.
- Make it physical and fun! Spread ABC flashcards on the floor, pretend the floor is lava, and then jump from one letter to the next (shout the name or sound of the letter as you step on it) going from one part of the room to the next. Make hopscotch letters with sidewalk chalk outside. Place all flashcards upside down on the floor, flip a card over, keep it in a pile if you know it right away, and get a prize for how many cards piled up (small candies or minutes of choice time). Go to Pinterest, use your imagination, and have fun with it!
- Use technology. Children can be very motivated to play educational games if you limit screen time. There are many great apps and games for older children who are learning the alphabet that you can find by looking in the app store. Starfall has some amazing resources many of which are free. Check out my blog: Best Teaching Apps for Children 0-6 for some more app ideas.
- Read to your child. Many of the simple ABC books will be too babyish for your child, but you can find some great ABC books geared for older children like this Star Wars ABC book and this Superhero ABC book. Also, go to the library often and read piles and piles of books with your child. As you’re reading, you can point out certain words and the letters they start with.
- Teach someone younger. If your child has a younger sibling, friend, pet, or even stuffed animal, have your child be the teacher. He or she can use flashcards, videos, and books to help teach their pupil!
- Make it kinesthetic and tactile. If your child has the dexterity to start writing letters, this can help to reinforce learning the letter names and sounds. Get a large baking sheet and cover it with shaving cream or sand. Then have your child trace the letter with his or her finger.
- Use white boards and dry erase markers. Either write the letters yourself and have your child erase them, or have your child write his or her own letters. You could also do a letter search by writing 5- 10 letters and then have your child try to find the ones you call out. Write-on-wipe-off ABC books are fun too.
- Use sign language. When children are a little bit older, they can start manipulating their fingers to make sign language letters. This will be just challenging enough for them to be exciting. Here’s a great video to use!
- Separate capital and lowercase letters. Focus on using capital letters for letter names and lowercase letters for letter sounds and spend more time working on letter sounds.
- Try to do something every day. Children starting at an older age will need more repetitions and have a shorter amount of time to master letter names and letter sounds before they start to read so try to set aside time as often as you can for learning to occur.
My ABC Flashcards
I created these ABC flashcards because I couldn’t find what I was really looking for anywhere else. Each of my flashcards features the upper and lowercase letter (using my own hand drawn font), a simple and easily identifiable picture, and the word associated with that picture. In addition, the vowels are all short, the /k/ sound is used for the letter c and the /g/ sound is used for the letter g, and there are no confusing digraphs, diphthongs, or r-controlled vowels as you will find in so many other flashcards on the market. I have created these flashcards in a variety of sizes and have many more flashcards and videos on my teachers pay teachers store, so check it out!
- ABC Flashcards (4 per page)
- ABC Flashcards (2 per page) – These are my favorite!
- ABC Flashcards (1 per page) – These are great to put around the ceiling especially near the diaper changing table.
- Black and White ABC Flashcards (4 per page) – Have fun coloring your own set!
- Black and White ABC Flashcards (1 per page) – These would be fun for preschool age children to color.
- ABC Poster
- ABC Video
Materials to Make My Flashcards
You can certainly just print these flashcards out on card stock and use them as is, but babies love to chew on things, and laminating them and putting them together with some rings will ensure their durability. *Before and after laminating, I cut the corners so they are rounded.
- Printer – A good basic printer like this will do the job, but if you’re going to be doing a lot of printing, I would recommend something like this.
- Card Stock – I like to make sure I always have plenty of this around for all of my flashcards, posters, and other needs.
- Laminating Sheets – I like having this in stock at all times because not only is it great for laminating flashcards, but for making favorite things books and saving favorite pieces of art work.
- Laminator – I have a basic laminator like this, and it works great for all types of paper and projects. When laminating, you want to leave at least an eighth of an inch of laminate around the edges so it won’t peel.
- Paper Cutter – You will LOVE having this around for cutting school pictures and so much more, but it’s great at cutting 4-5 pieces of card stock and 3-4 stacks of laminated card stock.
- Three Hole Punch – This hole punch is really sturdy and can handle a whole stack of paper. I like angling my flashcards so I get right in the center of each of the top corners.
- 1/2 Inch Loose Leaf Rings – When making flashcards, I have found it’s best to use two rings on top to keep everything organized and easy to flip through, and this size is best.
In addition to my homemade resources, these are the things I have purchased that have made a HUGE impact on my children’s learning. I recommend the first three at least as MUST HAVES. If you use these resources often, your child will learn the ABCs so fast it will make your head spin! (Check out my blog: 10 Best Resources for Teaching the ABCs for a more detailed and comprehensive list with pictures.)
- *Preschool Prep – This company makes REMARKABLE videos and I HIGHLY recommend purchasing the whole pack. They have a wonderful letter name video and a letter sound video that is highly engaging for little ones and really enforces learning all of the letter names and letter sounds.
- *ABC Bath Letters – Making the letters a toy is a great idea! During bath time you can talk to your little ones about letter names and letter sounds in a fun and silly way. (For example, “Look at my dancing A, she likes to stand on my head!”)
- *Starfall – This amazing online resource has everything you need to teach your child pretty much everything he or she needs to learn pertaining to reading and math through grade 2. I love starting out with the interactive ABCs that are great for teaching letter names, letter sounds, and vocabulary. This part is free, the rest of the site is $35/year, and SOOOOOOOOO worth it. Here’s a video of Ophelia using Starfall. They also have numerous apps.
- Leapfrog Fridge Magnet Set – This is great for children starting at about 12-18 months, or whenever they are walking and developing fine motor skills.
- Alphabet Apple – This a fun way for young children to reinforce learning the letter names and sounds in a way that makes them feel like they have their own computer.
- Robot Letters – If you are teaching an older child the ABCs, especially one who likes robots and transformers, this is a great resource!
- Dr. Suess’s ABC – This book has been an absolute favorite with each of our kids (probably because I love it so much). Find whatever ABC books YOU love to read, like Chica Chica Boom Boom, Elmo’s ABC Book, this textured ABC Alphabet Fun book, Sandra Boynton’s A to Z, The Alphabet Book, or anything else you can find at garage sales, thrift stores, and hand-me-downs.
- Endless Alphabet App – I would say that this app is best for children 2 and older and is a GREAT way to reinforce letter names and sounds.
- Storybots – My kids LOVE these videos! They are great for older children and reinforcing letter names and words that start with that letter. They have a great ABC app and tons of other great learning videos.
*Consonants with More Than One Sound Flashcards
I originally included these flashcards in my blog #7-Unlock the Final Stages of Reading with Advanced Phonemic Awareness, but I thought it would be helpful to include them here as well in case your child was ready earlier. I find that the best time to talk to children about consonants that make other sounds is when they are curious or when they make a mistake. For example, if you ask your child what sound the letter c makes, and they say /s/ as in “circus” instead of the common sound of /k/ as in “cat”, you can say, “Yes, the letter c can make the /s/ sound as in circus, but usually it will make the /k/ sound as in cat. That’s why we call it a copycat letter. It actually doesn’t make its own sound but either borrows the /k/ sound or the /s/ sound.” Click here to visit my teachers pay teachers store for this resource and more.
Teaching your children the ABCs (especially at a young age) is one of the best gifts you can give to them. In doing so, they will have a solid foundation in the skill of reading which will make it that much easier to develop a love of reading. Children who love reading can access the entire world, they can follow their passions independently, and they can be free to unlock the doors to any destiny they desire.
For More Information
You’ll find everything you need to teach your child to read at my teachers pay teachers store which includes flashcards, videos, posters, and more.
How to Teach Your Child to Read in 5 Simple Steps (Keeping it Simple)
- Language Rich Environment: Use oral language at the child’s level (Get down on the floor and play together!) and help them memorize vocabulary words. (Tell them the names of things!)
- Phonemic Awareness: Teach one sound for each letter of the alphabet. (Start with short vowels.)
- Phonics: Tap out sounds in three letter words to teach how sounds come together to make words.
- More Complex Phonemic Awareness: Introduce long vowels, digraphs, other vowel sounds, and complex consonants.
- Reading Comprehension Strategies: Use quality literature to interact with books and ask questions before, during, and after reading to make sure your child is understanding what is being read.
Teach Your Child to Read Blog Series (Digging Deeper)
- #1-Oral Language Development Lays the Foundation for Reading
- #2-How Engage Your Baby or Young Child with Reading
- #3-Learning How to Read Begins with the ABCs
- #4-Memorizing Words (Before Sounding Them Out) Leads to Reading
- #5-Building Vocabulary with Numbers, Colors, and Shapes
- #6-Teaching Phonics with Three Letter Word Families
- #7-Unlock the Final Stages of Reading with Advanced Phonemic Awareness
- #8-Reading Comprehension Strategies Lead to Independent Readers
- #9-Reinforcing Reading with Writing