Top Tips for Teaching Toddlers LETTERS!

A little while back I wrote a post about using your child’s name to introduce letters. That post was called “It’s In The Name”. Think of that as the relative starting point for your toddler’s “learning letters” journey. Think of this post as the sequel to that post. Like an “adding on”, for what to do after you begin work with your child on their name.

I’m telling you…in fact, I promise you…that learning letters is more than just memorizing symbols and regurgitating songs. Learning letters is making connections between the spoken word and the written word. As a parent, it is one of your proudest moments. Or maybe in my little teacher heart at least I’ve convinced myself to believe it is one of your proudest moments. If it’s not, flatter me and just say it is!

And GUYS. There are so many fun things you can do with your child to make learning letters FUN. Yup, I said it. To make learning letters FUN. And no, it doesn’t involve flash cards and letter drills or spelling tests and literacy worksheets.

I’m about to list my top ten tips for making learning letters fun and meaningful for your child. But remember, it’s not a one size fits all model. Kids will learn at different speeds, in different ways, and with different tools. What I suggest may not work for your child. And that’s OK! It’s not failure. I will never say I have all the answers. I simply have suggestions.

So here goes:

Start with simple exploration…grouping and sorting by features. Getting kids to notice things like letters with sticks and letters with curves or letters with little curves and letters with big curves helps to teach them the language needed to talk about letters and their features. Talking about letter features helps kids better differentiate and distinguish between letters that may be very similar (like X and Y or b and d).

Meaning makes it stick. Teach in conjunction with letter sounds (and talk about letters and the sounds they make in context when encountering them naturally and authentically in print during reading)! I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. It will take longer (and be more confusing!) for kids to learn letters if they are learning them in isolation (think old school flashcards) than if they are learning them in conjunction with the sounds they make and in the context of books they read.

Recognition then formation. Recognition usually comes before formation, but it is ok to teach them simultaneously (i.e. if you have a letter of the week, it would make sense to focus on both recognition AND formation during that week). Teaching formation is also a great opportunity for you to use the “letter language” you established through exploration (go back to the first tip if you aren’t sure what I’m talking about!). If you are using “letter language”, then try to use the same verbal path every time too. For example, to teach D, you might say “Big stick down, back to the top, big curve to the bottom”.

Uppercase before lowercase. Teach all uppercase letters first, especially for formation. Once uppercase letters are mastered (or most of them at least), move to lowercase. There are some letters whose lowercase is the same as uppercase, so some of that comes easy once uppercase are learned. And it IS appropriate for kids to be writing in all capitals first before they learn lowercase letters – that’s why you see my son’s name in all capitals on all his work.

Models. And scaffold when needed. Have letters around you, in your environment, as models for your child to look at while attempting to form his own. Whether it’s letter puzzle pieces or magnetic/foam letters or a simple handwritten letter on a sticky note by yours truly, having a model for him to refer to is extremely helpful. And when your child gets frustrated or stuck, jump in to help without doing it for them. Go back to the verbal path, or pull out the model, or hand-over-hand.

Make and build, not just write. Deep learning occurs via the process of doing. Take riding a bike for example. You could tell your child how to ride a bike. Or you could try to explain it. Or you could even show them by riding a bike yourself. But the only way they really learn to ride a bike is by doing it. This is called kinesthetic learning, and it applies to letters too. Providing tactile, sensory letter activities (rather than paper and pencil practice every time) will move your child’s learning process along (and they’ll probably enjoy it more too!). Along these same lines, practice, practice, practice…and once a letter is mastered, don’t forget to revisit from time to time for maintenance (go back to the bike analogy if you need to: if you learn to ride a bike at age 5 but never get on a bike again until age 36, chances are you will be a little bit…or alotta bit…rusty – same goes for letters).

Lastly, FUN. Make it fun. This is a rule for learning in general. But really. It’s easy to go to the bookstore and pick up a few workbooks, or to search the internet for a printable worksheet. Or invest in a deck of letter flashcards. But easy does not equal engaging. Go the extra mile to make it fun when you can, and you’ll see the payout sooner (cost benefit analysis for all my business people out there). For the record, engaging doesn’t always mean complicated either, take the sticker letters below for example. No prep needed, simple materials. Done!

I’m sure I missed some other tips, but this is enough to at least get you started! Do you have any good ideas or activities for letter recognition or formation? Send them my way…I’m sure the bruises would love some new and creative learning tasks thrown into the mix! Happy letter learning!

It’s In The Name

This post is a little tricky for me because it’s hard for me to paint the whole picture of literacy when I start talking about things in isolation. As in, I would never want someone to think activities I suggest are random and disconnected. All of my activities have context, and are done as a piece of a bigger picture. Think of the literate child as a giant puzzle. There are lots of pieces that go into that puzzle, and those pieces work together to create the masterpiece. Each individual puzzle piece doesn’t have a lot of meaning on its own, and they don’t have a lot of meaning if they aren’t put together correctly.

One of the pieces of the literate puzzle is letter recognition and formation. (I’ll do a different, more detailed post on this later and I’ll also do a separate post on language development and the foundations of reading.)

One of the ways I’ve begun work on letter recognition and formation with my own kids is through their name. In fact, I’ve done and still do a lot of informal and casual work with my toddlers around their name. Why? Well, two reasons. The first is more philosophical, the second more practical.

  1. As you begin to teach toddlers letters, you want the letters to mean something. Think about it. Toddlers are in an extremely egocentric stage of life. There is NOTHING more meaningful to a toddler than their name. And you don’t just want them memorizing symbols with no understanding of what they actually mean. As toddlers get older and pass through the stages of emergent reading, they’ll build a foundational understanding that letters (graphemes) are the symbols we use to represent sounds (phonemes) in our language, and sounds are put together to form words or chunks of words with meaning (morphemes).
  2. As a parent, god forbid my kids are ever in a situation where they’d need it, I want them to know their personal information. Start with first name (recognition and formation), then move to last name, then address, town, phone number, etc. Remember though, all of this takes months and years of work – you’re not just teaching a kid his first and last name, address, and personal information in the span of a week or two. Go slow. You want it to last.

Where To Start

Not sure where to even begin? Start with talk, start with modeling it, start with environment, start with recognition. Talk. Talk about your child’s name with him. Talk about the letters in his name, talk about the sounds the letters in his name make, especially the first one. Show his name to him, write it for him. Point out when you see his name, point out when you see the letters in his name…around the house, in the car, at the grocery store, anywhere! Noticing print in the environment is fun and peeks curiosity, and also helps kids begin to understand that letters and words have meaning. Once you make this type of talk more of a habit, you’ll notice it just kind of embeds itself into your daily conversations and play, making it a naturally occurring part of your child’s life. And as your talking about it, casually help your child begin to recognize it.

“Oh my gosh, I found your name on your art project! Let’s look. Do you see any place with letters? What letter do you notice? L? I notice L too and I know Luca starts with L. Yup, you found it, that’s your name! Now let’s read your name. Oh my gosh you can read! Look at that, you just read your name. Do you know any of the other letters in your name?”

The best part of name recognition activities is kids don’t have to know the other letters in the alphabet yet. Here are some examples of some more formal (but not very fancy!) name recognition activities.

Before you write it, build it.

Once you’ve noticed your child more successfully finding and recognizing both the individual letters in his name and his name as a whole, you might start building the bridge between recognition and formation. Before you jump to formation, consider the middle ground. Provide lots of opportunities for your child to build his name before he’s forming it independently. There are so many good toys and tools out there that allow for this type of work. But you don’t need anything fancy either. Most of the time either I make the materials we use for name building or the kids help me make the materials. We’ve used everything from painted rocks to popsicle sticks to cut up squares of paper to foam or magnetic letters. I’ve been dying to get my hands on some letter beads lately too! (And these are all the same things you might use for word building later on down the road.)

A couple things to keep in mind when helping your child navigate the building phase: At first, provide a model. Have your child’s name written and displayed in a place where they can see it while they work their way through building it, matching and checking each letter as they go. As they get better and better, you can remove the model slowly so they are building it on their own. Also consider only giving them the letters from their name at first (i.e. if I want Luca to build his name, I’m only going to give him an L, U, C, and A first – I’m not going to mix in any other letters of the alphabet yet). Each time they build their name, have them tell and touch each letter in order, and then run their finger under the entire word while saying it. (L, U, C, A, Luca.) “Tell and touch” and “Run your finger under it and say it” become good strategies down the road for reading other words too, not just one’s name.

One At A Time

When you’re ready to move from building to forming, aka writing, go slow. Introduce one letter at a time, beginning with the first letter and going in order. Provide lots of different opportunities for your child to practice that same letter again and again over multiple days and even multiple weeks. Scaffold for your child if needed. Scaffold means to provide your kid with a just-right amount of help (not too much so it’s too easy, and not too little so it’s too frustrating) for them to be able to start connecting the dots on their own. Examples of scaffolds for letter formation include providing a model for them to refer to, doing hand-over-hand letter writing, tracing, giving start dots, and using the same verbal path every time when describing how to write the letter (the verbal path for L might be “big stick down and little stick across”). Make the opportunities as kinesthetic as possible – don’t just use pen and paper every time. Use chalk, paint, play doh. Write with your finger in sand, in play doh, in shaving cream, in dirt. Write with pencils, write with crayons, write with markers, write with sticks. Be creative. It doesn’t get boring if you’re changing it up constantly, and the research behind kinesthetic writing is SOLID.

Maintenance

It’s so important to not just “one and done” it. When he’s mastered a letter or he’s mastered his name, you’ll want to revisit it often. Like the saying goes, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.” [Side note…is that how the saying goes? I’m not sure I got that right and if I didn’t, well it’s my saying now.] And also don’t be surprised if, as you begin to introduce other letters, you see regression. (N?! That doesn’t look like an N and you were just doing N’s perfectly last week!!!!) That’s ok! Think of how many things that little brain is trying to keep track of. As you add new things, other things get squeezed and moved around. Everything needs ongoing practice to not get rusty or smushed out! Lots of ways you might do maintenance activities, from quick rainbow writes all the way to fun crafts and art projects involving your child’s name.

Accountability

Once you’ve considered a certain letter or word (in this case, your child’s name) mastered, you now should hold them accountable for reading and writing it regularly. In a sense, accountability is just another strategy for maintenance. And remember, you only ever hold a kid accountable for something you KNOW he knows and can do easily. Right now, I hold my 4 year old accountable for his first name because he knows it and has mastered it, even if each letter isn’t formed perfectly every time. I don’t hold him accountable for his last name yet because he hasn’t mastered it. He has mastered the first letter, but still sometimes mixes up other letters and has trouble remembering proper formation of all the letters. So if he has to write his full name, I hold him accountable for writing his first name, then I jump in and write his last name for him. We’re at the point now where I’m beginning to hold him accountable for the first letter of his last name, then I fill in the rest from there.

Ultimately, you should be able to see how a lot of these suggestions go for any letter learning. You might see some of these things show up again in future posts. If there’s one thing you remember, it’s that we start with names because names have meaning. If you’ve ever taken a biology class or a cognitive psych class, you may remember Bartlett’s famous experiment. Anyone? Bueller? Anyone? Well, long story short, Bartlett helped us (or maybe just me) understand “schema”. Schema are a set of preconceived ideas that your brain uses to perceive and interpret new information. While schema are better known in terms of how one views the world, they apply to learning too. Your toddler is literally being pummeled by a million bits of new information on a daily basis. How your toddler’s brain decides what sticks and enters his schema and what bounces back (to be absorbed hopefully on another day) is based on what has meaning to him. How do we begin to make letters stick? Start with a name because NAMES HAVE MEANING!