While it’s important to teach your toddler the alphabet, these 5 key skills are important to focus on first. These 5 skills will provide the foundation needed to make the jump to literacy and succeed in school. The stronger they are, the easier the jump to literacy will be!
There’s something a little stressful about school being ‘just around the corner,’ right? It’s as if there’s a standard our kids have to meet before they’re ready for this big milestone.
We think we have to ‘get everything sorted’ before school. And more often than that, this involves drill work in ABC, going over and over the alphabet until your child can rhyme it off.
But here’s the thing. I’m a Speech and Language Therapist working in education. For me, teaching your toddler the alphabet is not a top priority.
How to Teach Your Toddler the Alphabet by Building the Foundation Skills
We learn language naturally– it’s inherent to us as humans. But although it comes naturally, we still need to provide lots and lots of language modelling for kids to develop strong language skills.
Kids learn language by listening to it through different contexts and everyday experiences. They will need to hear a word many times before they understand the meaning and eventually can use it themselves. Children are like sponges!
Literacy, on the other hand, is not something that we learn naturally. It’s the result of explicit instruction. Think of the painstaking hours you spend learning to read and write in school. It’s totally different from the natural way we learn language- there are no childhood memories of rote learning irregular verbs, right? We just absorb it as we hear it!
For this reason, moving from language to literacy is a huge transition.
It makes sense that when a child has strong oral language skills, they will be able to make the transition to literacy much more easily than a child with weaker language skills. Language and literacy are strongly linked. This is crucial to understand in order to successfully teach your toddler the alphabet.
Yes, learning to read and write is so important- but getting a great foundation in oral language is the priority!
Children will not be able to read or write words that they are not yet able to understand or say for themselves. But this is exactly what we are expecting from our kids when we insist on them learning the alphabet. Without strong language skills, the alphabet is meaningless!
It’s very likely that with enough practice, a child will learn to say it regardless. But unless you have built up their language ability, simply being able to recite the alphabet will not be enough to help them to make that important jump to literacy. They will have huge difficulties.
To frame it in a different way, the stronger your child’s language skills, the more easily they will transition into literacy and the further they will be able to go with it.
Here’s What I Suggest Instead
So, if your kids don’t know the ABCs before school, what should you do?
Well, instead of trying to ‘close the gap’ by teaching your toddler the alphabet, do this instead:
1. Don’t Rely on ABC Books
Instead of going over and over ABC books to get them into your toddlers’ head, use engaging books with interesting characters, stories, and lots and lots of vocabulary.
Use these books as a platform for fun conversations about characters’ perspectives (‘why was he worried? Have you ever been worried- what did you do?’), and ask your child to predict what will happen next in the story.
So many kids’ books build in these amazing and fun opportunities to predict what’s over the page. “Uhoh- he dropped it- what’s gonna happen??’
Check out more tips to teach your toddler to read.
2. Don’t Focus on Teaching Letter Names
Forget about letters of the alphabet- focus on teaching kids Phonological Awareness Skills. Put simply, this is a broad term for the skills that are required to understand and be able to manipulate the sound patterns of language such as being able rhyme words, being able to break words down into syllables, and being able to identify and manipulate the sounds in a word.
Strong Phonological awareness is well-researched to make the transition to literacy much easier. Strong reading skills in turn have a fantastic impact on the whole curriculum. There comes a point in school when children are expected to read to increase their learning in almost all subject areas.
3. Develop Fine Motor Skills
Instead of teaching kids specifically to form letters, give them opportunities to develop their ‘fine motor skills.’ Encourage lots of coloring and drawing, and lots of activities such as threading beads, cutting and sticking, and even building towers. This is all super fun and it develops their ability to manipulate items (including their pencil grip) which are foundational skills in their ability to form letters when they got to that stage.
4. Provide Play Opportunities
Encourage your kids to play A LOT! Join in their play and extend their imagination and thinking. This is an awesome time to grow their language too! Any game you could possibly think of is possible here- whether it’s getting on the bus, running a shop, or traveling to a distant planet.
Use play to coach them around social skills (e.g. sharing and negotiating) and also to help them to develop problem-solving- ‘uh oh, our shop is out of change- what could we do?!’
Learn more about how to use play to teach crucial life skills.
5. Develop Their Mindset
Help your kids to develop ‘grit’ and a ‘growth mindset’. Praise their effort, persistence, problem-solving and thought processes. Give specific praise when they come across a problem and don’t give up, or when they show independence in figuring something out or giving it a go. These qualities and a growth mindset will help them throughout their whole schooling and beyond!
Ways to Teach Your Toddler the Alphabet
Does this mean children shouldn’t read until school? No of course not! Reading is amazing and important, and I strongly believe that books and stories should be a central part of a child’s life from the very earliest stage.
BUT I believe that a child entering school with fantastic language (both in their ability to use language to express their want and needs and to understand the language that others use) and strong Phonological Awareness skills will be far more beneficial to them in their transition to literacy, than simply rote learning their ABCs!
- Move your focus from teaching letters to exploring sounds– notice sounds in words and play games to change words around- to add and delete sounds from words. This is a hard thing to do but this will make the jump to reading so much easier for your kids! Pick one time in the day when you will build these skills with your child. It could be when you are in the car. Start by helping your kids to listen out for the beginning sounds of words. Play games like ‘I Spy’ but say the sound instead of the letter. ‘I spy something that begins with puh‘ (p).
- Help your kids to set up one imaginative play situation each week. Add problems and help them to problem-solve, add in specific vocabulary, coach around social skills, and extend the game and their thinking.
When you do these simple things regularly, you will build up your child’s play skills, language skills and Phonological Awareness which will be a massive benefit to them when they start school.
When you focus on the foundational skills needed to teach your toddler the alphabet, your child will have the skills to learn to read, make strong friendships, and know how to problem-solve and persevere.
These crucial skills will knock-on effects for all of school- both socially and educationally.
And the best thing? It’s fun! These games are more fun than rote learning ABCs, and you will love watching them grow in confidence and ability!
Want a little more?
Grab your free copy of the Speech and Language Strategies Essential Cheat Sheets. Print off and use to help with these strategies to boost your child’s speech and language. Enjoy!
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These fifty exercises are designed with one aim: to get your toddler talking! Whether you want to help them to say their first words or to give their language a boost, these exercises are just what you need.
This guide will give you lots of easy ways to get your child talking. Whether you have a toddler who isn’t saying much yet, or an older child, these ideas can be easily adjusted for any level! This is the parent’s guide to speech and language therapy- an essential parenting tool to support your child’s speech and language development.
(Early Chapter Book)
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