Teaching your child to recognise the letters of the alphabet (and other sounds like sh and oi) isn’t hard once you know what to do.
The basic steps are these:
Show them the letter.
Tell them what it says.
Demonstrate writing it.
Ask them to suggest some words that start with the new sound.
Ask them to say the sound and write it.
Practise recognising the sound over and over.
And repeat for all 40 something sounds in our language.
Teaching kids to recognise letters of the alphabet is a pretty simple and repeatable process
Those really are the steps you need.
After a few letters, you’ll start blending – reading words that include the letters you’ve taught.
And you keep on going.
It’ll become automatic for both of you.
But the problem is, when you do the same thing 40 something times, it can get a bit boring.
Maybe it won’t – some kids can’t get enough of learning new sounds – but it might.
Especially if it’s a case of another day, another worksheet.
So let’s make it more fun.
How to teach your child to recognise letters in fun, hands-on ways
If you’d like a more thorough walk-through of how to teach your child the letters of the alphabet, you can find that here >>
But for right now, let’s take a look at some work-sheet free options to inject some fun into your letter learning, whether slime or sand’s more up your street.
(And worksheets aren’t a bad thing – in fact, they’re great for recording learning and for finding useful activities to do with your kiddo – and I have tons of them in the printables section of this site.
They’re just not the only option.
And if you gave me the choice between playing with slime or doing a worksheet to learn the exact same thing, I know what I’d want to do. Just saying.)
So let’s check out a few options…
Hide the letter in slime
Yes! Let’s get messy right away.
Take a few letter tiles or magnetic letters of the sound you’re working on and dump them in a bowl of slime.
Make it a bucket if you really like mess.
For added interest, throw in a few things that don’t belong – but also won’t be damaged by being dunked in slime. My go-to option is plastic toy dinosaurs.
Then let your kiddo sort the letters from the toys – and tell you which letter it is, of course.
Once they know more than one letter, the activity only gets more interesting, because you can include more letters and sort them – and even create slimey words once you get on to blending.
Or why not pop in your focus sound plus a bunch of things that begin with that sound. A red herring is always fun here too.
And if slime is too messy – or you don’t happen to keep buckets of slime lying around – then go for sand instead.
Hide the letter in sand
Any old sand will do for this but we love kinetic sand the best.
It’s such a delicious sensory experience.
Bury letters deep in a heap of kinetic sand and then let your child dig and squeeze and let the sand fall through their fingers until they find them.
Or work together to make sand eggs with letters in and squish each one in turn. To make it even better, have one blank tile in there – or a random different letter – and guess where the rogue letter is hiding before you start squishing.
Sand alphabet moulds
And as if that wasn’t enough sandy letter recognition fun, you can also find letter moulds that make the most perfect sand letter sculptures.
Great for learning the alphabet – and indulging your inner perfectionist.
If you don’t have moulds, alphabet cutters will work too. Cutters are also great for working with playdoh, speaking of which…
Mould or write or cut playdoh letters
Playdoh letters could be a whole post in itself.
Download playdoh mats for the letters of the alphabet, print and laminate them or pop them in plastic pockets of you don’t have a laminator.
Now let your child get to work making each letter by following the mat. They can squish bits of playdoh down to fill the letter in or roll out a long playdoh snake and bend it into position like this one below.
Either way, they’ll be practising recognising letters, forming them and getting some fine motor work in manipulating the dough too.
Create letters by printing or pressing objects into playdoh
And that’s not even a ‘real’ playdoh mat. I just wrote a big S on a sheet of paper – because it was quicker that way.
Don’t forget that you can also create letters in playdoh in lots of different ways.
Why not try buttons, craft jewels or beads, dinosaur footprints – or plain old dotting with the tip of a paintbrush?
Most of these ideas will work with your kinetic sand too – so do both. The more your child practises their new knowledge in different ways, the better their understanding will be.
If you’re keen to teach your child to write letters, check out my post about fun letter formation ideas too.
Less messy, low-prep ideas
But what if you’re short on time and you don’t want to dig out the craft beads and playdoh (and then pick dried playdoh out of the beads after)?
Don’t worry – there are lots of simple ways that you can practise recognising sounds on the go with little to no preparation.
Pick the sound out in a book
One of the easiest ways is to hunt for the letter that you’re teaching in books that you read together.
For example, when you’re reading a bedtime story or as part of your reading lesson together, choose a favourite book and ask your child to point to all the times they can see that particular letter on a page.
Challenge them to find a certain number of instances of the letter – or tell them how many you can see, but not where they are.
You can do that as much as you and your child want to – so if they’re enjoying it and they want to do it on every page and find all the letter Ss in the entire book, that’s great – but if they’ve done it five times successfully, you don’t need to keep going if you don’t want to.
As you progress and your child knows more sounds, you can ask them to find 2 Ms and 3 Ds – or even entire words – on the page.
Use environmental print
Another simple, on-the-go activity to build letter recognition is finding sounds in environmental print.
Environmental print is a fancy way of saying ‘the words all around us’ – signs in the street, supermarkets, roadsigns and text that you see on the TV screen for example.
Do exactly what you above, but instead of a reading book you’re challenging your kiddo to find S (or whichever sound you’re working on) wherever they can in their current surroundings.
Maybe spotting the S in the fish counter sign at the supermarket, or the upper case letters on a car license plate (this is helpful for ensuring they know both upper and lower case.)
Magnetic letters on the fridge
As soon are you’re confident that your child won’t shove them in their mouth, put some magnetic letters on the fridge or another accessible metal surface.
Lower case is best, if you can, because that’s probably what you’ll teach first.
You can have those sticky letters there from when you’re little one’s two years old (again, assuming they won’t try to eat them – safety first) – but at that age, you won’t be asking them to remember or recognise them.
Instead, it’s a long-term play. They see the magnetic letters, they play about with them. They ask questions about them.
Maybe you show them their name and yours. It’s about building interest.
Then, once they’re actually learning the alphabet, you change strategy. Instead of a mish mash of any letters, you put out the sound you’re teaching right now.
And then you add to it as you learn more – and leave them available so your child sees them and thinks about them daily.
Foam bath letters
In the same way as you can use magnetic letters for no-pressure alphabet practice, you can also keep foam letters in the bath.
There’s no need to turn bathtime into a phonics lesson – and feel free to ‘discourage’ well meaning relatives who ask your two year old if they can write their name in bath letters.
(Most people have absolutely no idea what it’s reasonable to expect of little kids.)
When your kids are preschool, bath letters are for fun – for experimentation and for them to ask you questions.
Once they’re actually learning their letters and sounds, you can conveniently have only their focus letters available – but beware of sucking the fun out of bathtime by making it feel like work.
Instead, you could create a water tray where you can play and practise recognising S or whatever letter you’re learning during the daytime as part of your playing and learning.
Write letters on toys or building blocks
Letters written on building blocks work in multiple ways.
They can just be there, hanging out, waiting for your kid to show an interest.
Or they can be used in a lesson, where you make up a bowl of lettered blocks like these and ask them to pick out all the examples of a certain letter as fast as they can. Bonus points for making it a race.
Even more bonus points for having them build the letter into a wall or more elaborate creation as many times as possible.
(And once they progress to words, they can build word walls too. Am I the only one who finds that exciting?)
Play and create challenges with alphabet tiles or magnetic letters
If your kids are anything like mine, they love a challenge – especially if it means a chance to prove you wrong. (My kids seem to live for that.)
Luckily, it’s easy to use that to your advantage to sucker them into doing all sorts of activities that they might not want to do….
I bet you can’t find 5 Ss in this bowl of letters.
I can’t find an M on this page / in this box. Can you?
Who can grab the most Ts before the buzzer goes off – you or me?
Can you sort these letters so all the Ss are together and all the As are together?
When in doubt – or if teaching is a bit of a chore because they’re not in the mood, sprinkle in some competition or an “I bet…” and it usually gets easier.
Carrying on the theme of competition and urgency, try playing SNAP with your child.
You can get alphabet snap cards quite cheaply – or you can download my alphabet flashcards, print 2 or 3 sets and use those.
You can even include a rule that they win an extra card every time they shout out the sound as they see it.
Another easy game to play for sound recognition is bingo.
You can download phonics bingo games – but it’s easy to create your own with a dry wipe board or a sheet of paper and that way, you know the game only includes sounds your child has worked on already.
Write the sounds your child is learning on a simple grid and have them match up objects beginning with those sounds – or letters if you have magnetic letters or letter tiles available.
Making progress with learning sounds
As you introduce new sounds, whatever order you choose, you’ll repeat these same activities to practise recognising the new sounds and also to make sure that your child still knows the ones that you’ve done already.
So even though you’ve learnt SATPIN, you’ll still go back frequently and practice recognising those sounds. That’s just to make sure that that everything you’ve taught is staying in your child’s brain and they’re building on it all the time.
Alphabet recognition can become a solid foundation for learning to read – but if they’re struggling to remember which letter they’re looking at that’s going to make reading anything take much longer and be much harder work for them.
So to make letter recognition automatic, you’ll want to spend plenty of time practising recognising letters in different ways.
(That said, as time goes on and you teach your child more sounds and begin to read words, you’ll spend less time on individual letters because they’re practising using them every time they read. But for now, at the beginning, go back regularly and revisit sounds you’ve covered until you’re right through the alphabet.)
More resources for teaching your child to recognise letters
My Kiddiesaurus Instagram account has lots of practical ideas for teaching your child at home in fun, easy ways – and we have a lot of letter recognition ideas on there too.
Another great way to practice recognising letters is to practice writing them as letter formation and letter recognition go hand in hand.