How to Teach Your Preschool Child the Alphabet and Reading

When I think of the word teach, I picture a classroom with a teacher and assignments. When I am around preschoolers I think of playing. I like to approach learning from the viewpoint of teaching through playing.
Every toy that we place in a child's path teaches something. Keep that in mind when wanting to teach a specific skill. As a child I remember playing with painted wooden blocks. Each block had raised letters carved into it and I would love to trace my finger over the letters before I even knew what letters were. This was in the 1950's and I was probably exposed to lead poisoning from the paint, but I still have fond memories of playing with those blocks for hours. As I learned what those letters were, I began to build the blocks in patterns that formed words. Maybe that is why I enjoy games like boggle and scrabble to this day and cannot pass up a good crossword puzzle.

When I first set out to "teach" my daughter her alphabet, I invested in a little workbook that had the child tracing the capital letters and then eventually practicing them freehand on a large penmanship line. The book was some twenty-six pages long, a page for each letter in the alphabet. I thought it would take us a few months to go through the book and I even purchased extra paper for extra practice on each letter. To my surprise, my daughter sat down and finished the book perfectly in one sitting. I asked my daughter how she could do this book so quickly and accurately. The following were the building blocks that led to her knowing her alphabet so well without me knowing it and fun activities with reading that brought her to college level reading and writing by the eighth grade. You might say we "played" our way through learning the alphabet and reading.

1. The use of a keyboard on a typewriter or computer: When my daughter learned to walk, she loved to sit on my lap while I worked at my desk in the house. I had a typewriter on my desk and I explained to her that the typewriter was a tool and not a toy and that she was not allowed to turn it on. I did, however, allow her to touch the keyboard and examine each individual key. My daughter later told me that she loved to "draw" the letters in her mind as she touched that keyboard. When she was older she was allowed to use the typewriter and by the time she was twelve, she was learning HTML and programming basic web sites on a computer.

2. Basic drawing skills: Take time for drawing. Set aside a place for drawing or coloring even if it is only the kitchen table with a booster chair. Show children how to make silly pictures out of lines and circles with paper, crayons, and pencils which will aid in them being able to write and identify their letters by the time they enter school. Consider an alphabet border posted on the wall around the drawing area. See item #8 for more detail.

3. Audio Visual Aids: We watched "Sesame Street" together every weekday morning. I would sing all the songs with my daughter and copied the movements and expressions of the characters as they sang the various songs of the day. After the show we would sing the songs throughout the day just for fun. A simple television show turned into dancing, singing, and playing. When I began doing day care, I continued this pattern with the daycare children. Children love moving and this was a great way to get them moving and learning. I then would play a game with the kids involving the sound of the letter and thinking up words that went with the sounds. The sillier the words, the more fun we had. Explore songs and videos geared toward the alphabet and reading. We also enjoyed doing things like jumping rope and reciting the alphabet or counting.

4. Dr. Seuss's Books: "Dr. Seuss's ABC: An Amazing Alphabet Book!" by Dr. Seuss is a definite basic board book for the alphabet. Read the book with rhythm, animation, and silly voices. As your child ages, update the book to one with regular pages. My daughter chose this book for an assignment in her drama class for high school. Each student was supposed to read a book from childhood with rhythm. She was given an "A" on the project and shared how much she loved having this book read to her.
Don't limit yourself to just the Alphabet Book, though. "O Say Can You Say" by Dr. Seuss teaches a child the silliness of words and rhymes. As you stumble over the words, do it with joy so that your child will learn that if you make a mistake in reading, it's not time to quit. This book also encourages good pronunciation, which is important. A child will not recognize words on paper if they pronounce them different from how they are written. Watch how you speak to a child. Use correct pronunciation. Correct pronunciation will come in handy later when learning to read, spell, or give oral reports. A person with good diction will be able to communicate with those around them easier.

Books like "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish" by Dr. Seuss teach phonics by moving letters around. Point to the words as you read so that the child associates the pictures and sounds of the book with those funny markings on each page. Sound out a simple word or two. Do this almost as an afterthought. There will come a time when the child puts it all together. As you read, point out the similarities in the words. Act surprised, as if you found a buried treasure. Be careful not to overwhelm a child with instructions.

5. Gently teach a child to respect the written word. Give them books that are age appropriate. Soft plastic, thick cardboard, or material books are a good beginning. When a child first sits in your lap for reading, give them something else to teeth on while reading their soft beginner book. Help them pat the pages and point to pictures.

When reading a book with paper pages, as children get older, show them how they can touch the pages with clean hands but move the book out of reach if they try to crumple the page or rip it. Explain softly that that hurts the book and ask them not to do that. If the behavior continues, your child may be telling you that they are not ready for a more advanced form of reading. Stop the reading time and put the book up or go back to basic plastic or material books. Use reading time with your child as a bonding time. Talk about the books. Allow the child to ask questions and ask the child questions. When your child grows older, they will think of books as great companions because you have built a loving bonding memory. Reading will not just be something they have to do for school.

Set a good example by taking good care of your own books. Put your books away when you are done reading. Keep them out of children's reach when they are small. Use bookmarks instead of bending pages or leaving the book open when not reading. Handle a book with clean hands and try not to drop food or drink on written material. If you must mark or highlight a book, it is advisable to not do this in front of a small child when you are trying to teach them that they should not write, color, or draw in books. As the child gets older you can explain book marking and highlighting. Remember that children are always watching you and copying what you do.

6. Take a trip to the local library. Get involved in a story time for children. When your child is approximately four years old and you have taught him or her to respect books, explore the children's section of the library. Direct your budding reader to sections that they have shown interest in. Let your child pick out some books and then add a few of your own picks of subjects that will open their world perspective a little wider. I have found a few subjects in the children's book section that even caught my personal interest. One in particular was a basic book on Roman numerals.

7. Be aware of reading levels. Ask your librarian how you can identify the reading level of a book. Usually a reading level is written on a book cover or spine and can range from beginner to a middle school level. When a child begins reading, always pick a book or two that is above your child's reading level that you will read to them. This will expose them to new words that they will be reading soon. Ask your child if they know what a new word means. If it becomes clear that they don't know the meaning, explain the meaning and how it is used in a sentence or two, then continue with the reading time. Try to keep an elementary or beginning dictionary in your book stack in case you need to look up a word. This will afford a definition that is more at the child's level than an adult level. Show your child how to use a dictionary when they appear interested. An indispensable guide for reading aloud to a child of any age can be found in "The Read-Aloud Handbook" by Jim Trelease. He gives wonderful suggestions for reading to your child and many suggestions on good books at various reading levels.

8. Visit your local teacher's store or search the Internet. You will find posters for almost any school subject. There are printed alphabet borders and posters that you can use in your child's room or play area. Arrange them around sleeping areas so that as your child falls asleep or wakes up, they will see the alphabet. Choose the basic alphabet in printed form for preschoolers. Make sure you have something with both the upper case and lower case printed alphabet along with pictures. Do not use cursive letters for small children. The capital letters are usually more inviting to children but they will learn to read mostly with lower case letters. If they can see the association between the two cases, this will help them in identifying the alphabet and words.

To preserve these items for more than one child, a quick trip to the local copy store to get the posters and/or borders laminated will be well worth it. When you are not using the posters or borders, store them in a large flat bag behind a china cabinet or sofa. Use "Dak Fun-Tak Reusable Adhesive" or a similar putty product to mount the posters on the wall to avoid tape marks. If you are artistic, try making your own posters, but make sure you use the same letter style and sizing that teachers use in the classroom. Zaner-Bloser is a good source for properly printed alphabet materials.

If you would like to check out an Internet teacher's store, Google "teacher's store" and then click into one of them and search for posters or charts under alphabet or language arts. I went into and looked up the following items. Just enter the item code in the search box. Click on the item when it comes up on the screen and it will enlarge to a readable size so that you can make a good choice. I have never ordered anything from this web site as I shop locally for my items, but this will at least give you an idea of what I am recommending. Keep in mind that these prices are subject to change:
  • A. Item #DAP01201: Dap Fun-Tak Reusable Adhesive, 1 oz. pack for $2.18
  • B. Item #T-38026: (17"x22") Chart Alphabet for $1.99.
  • C. Item #T-8090: BB Set Manuscript Color Splash Zaner-Bloser Preschool-second grade Alphabet Border for $9.99
  • D. Item #CD-6236: Preschool Alphabet Poster (17"x22") with colorful photographs for real-world connections for $2.49
  • E. Item #T-38157: Chart Alphabet Fun Preschool-Grade One for $1.99
  • F. Item #T-85029: Bolder Border Alphabet for $3.99

9. Use your creative juices. You can get ideas from the teacher store site on possible games and other learning activities that can compliment your adventures into alphabet and reading fundamentals. If you cannot afford to buy off the shelf, consider making your own games and flash cards from some of the examples you run across. You can buy blank flash cards from most teacher's stores. Consider computer learning games if you own a computer. You can even look at possible workbooks, but keep in mind that they are called "work" books for a reason.

In conclusion, when you mix teaching with playing, patience, and love, you and your child will share many adventures. Always speak highly of reading and learning. Set the example by doing a lot of reading yourself. If you struggle with reading, you may want to personally try some of the suggestions listed above. Remember that learning is a process. It happens over a period of years. By the time my daughter reached the eighth grade, she was testing out in reading and writing on the college level. This was in spite of the fact that she and I both had a severe problem with dyslexia.

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