Yay! You’ve decided to teach your child to read. It’s a big task because reading isn’t one skill – it’s a whole bunch of them all working together. Kind of like driving – and teaching your child to recognise and write letters and sounds is a big step in that process.
But how to do it? What do you actually need to do and say with your child to get them from not knowing the alphabet at all to confidently identifying letters and sounds that you show them or they see in the world around them?
This post will show you how to teach your child a new letter of the alphabet – and it’s a repeatable process so once you know what to do, you can repeat it for all the other sounds your kiddo needs to learn.
Where to start with teaching your child the alphabet
So start with A, right? Well, you could. It feels like the logical thing to do – start at A and work right through to Z. The problem with that approach is that it’ll take a while before your child knows enough letters to practise reading short, simple words. That’s simply because the first few letters of the alphabet don’t make so many variants of 3-letter words as other letters do – I explain this more in the video below:
So you want your child to be able to start reading little words as soon as possible because of the sense of success and achievement that’ll bring – which is a great motivator.
For that reason, as the video says, you’ll want to teach these letters first:
s a t p i n
Those six letters open up so many 3 letter word options for your child to try blending. But we’re not ready to start blending yet (that’s the skill of reading ‘s-a-t’ and saying ‘sat’) so let’s get on with Step 1 of learning a new letter of the alphabet.
But let’s call it a sound – because sounds are what we really teach when we teach phonics. The sounds that make up our language – and some of them are written as one letter but others are represented in text as several letters, such as ‘ay’ and ‘igh’.
Step 1 – tell your child the new sound they’re going to learn and show them what it looks like
Let’s imagine it’s Day 1 of teaching your child the alphabet and you’re starting with ‘s’.
Tell them that you’re going to teach them a new sound – a letter of the alphabet – and show them what it looks like.
If you have alphabet flashcards, that’s great – but a magnetic letter s will work just fine or simply draw it on a sheet of paper and show it to them.
Talk about what the letter s looks like – say that it looks a little bit like a slithering snake and ask them if they can hear the s sound at the beginning of ‘snake’.
That’s it – you’ve introduced the new sound and your child can recognise it – today. If you’d like them to keep on recognising it tomorrow and the day after – and learn to read it in words, then it’s time to show them how to use their new knowledge.
Step 2 – think of more words that start with ‘s’
The easiest way to start using a new sound that you’ve taught is to think of examples of words that begin with that sound.
You’ve got snake already so now ask your child to think of a few more – and help them out if it’s not tripping off their tongue.
Sun, star, sausage, step, seat, sweater, spoon, stool, sand.
Make a list – even though your little one can’t read the actual words yet, they’ll see the ‘s’ at the beginning of each word.
Then it’s on to writing ‘s’ for themselves.
Step 3 – teach your child to write the letter ‘s’
Show your child how to make the shape of the letter ‘s’ themselves.
Start by air-writing giant ‘s’ shapes – talking about what you’re doing:
We start at the top and come back this way / left, then curve round, then across and curve back the other way.
They might need to practise air writing a few times to get the shape flowing – and feel free to grab their arm and guide them if they need it.
Now you’re ready to get that letter ‘s’ written down.
Use a pencil or a paintbrush or a crayon or whatever you have to hand – a finger in the sand at the beach works fine. What matters is teaching your child to write the letters of the alphabet correctly.
Have them write it over and over – challenge them to make a big ‘s’, or giant ones, teeny tiny ones – or five ‘s’ shapes all in a perfect line – but make it fun so they want to join in and do what you’re asking.
Step 4 – do a follow-up activity
You’ve introduced the new sound, found examples and taught your child to write it correctly. Now you’ll give them a follow-up task that uses the new letter or sound. There are many different ways to do this – and all of them will make your child practise using ‘s’ either by recognising the letter or writing it.
So hide a bunch of magnetic letters in sand and have them hunt for all the ‘s’s. Or go on an ‘s’ hunt around your home, looking for the letter ‘s’ in books or in other print around you.
Or make it a hunt for things that start with ‘s’ – either search your house with a magnifying glass (great prop for little detectives) or gather a tray of items, some of which start with ‘s’ and some of which don’t, and have them sort them into two sets. The ‘s’ pile and the ‘no’ pile.
To practise writing ‘s’, give your child paper and ask them to draw something that starts with ‘s’ and write a big ‘s’ beside it. Roll playdoh sausages to form into an ‘s’ shape or let them write with a wet sponge on a chalkboard.
One or two of these activities will probably be enough work on your new letter for one day – so move on to something new when you can see they’ve had enough or they’re losing interest.
Before you finish, remind them what they learned and tell them you’ll be coming back to ‘s’ again tomorrow (or next time).
Because coming back to what you learned is step 5 and it’s very important.
Step 5 – return to the sound you taught over and over
Congratulations – you taught your child a letter of the alphabet and how to use it.
There’s just one problem. Kids forget stuff. No – everyone forgets stuff.
You can’t teach your child a sound once and expect that they’ll remember everything perfectly tomorrow – or even in an hour.
To make sure your child learns – really learns – each new sound so that it’s fixed in their memory to use in the future, you need to keep coming back to it.
If you stick around, you’ll find that this is a common theme.
It’s essential to return to what you already taught – so come back to ‘s’ the next day if you can.
Show them the letter and ask if they remember it. Ask them what things start with ‘s’ again.
Then do another – different – task. So if you dug in the sand for ‘s’ yesterday, then maybe write it in 20 different colours today, cut out ‘s’ with playdoh cutters or cut out a wiggly ‘s’ snake. If you’re reading them a story, ask your child to count how many ‘s’s they can find on a particular page – or shout ‘bingo’ whenever they hear a word that begins with ‘s’.
The task should keep the shape and sound they’ve learned fresh in your child’s mind – and it should be at least a little bit fun.
A few more tips for teaching the alphabet
Once you can see that your child can recognise and write ‘s’, you and they’ll be keen to move on to the next sound. How soon should you do that?
That depends a lot on your child’s ability and motivation – and on how much time you have for teaching them.
If they’re learning quickly, a new sound a day is fine so long as you also return regularly to sounds you taught already. Once you’ve taught a few letters and sounds, you can use flashcards to review them quickly and easily through simple games.
Snap and ‘Go fish’ are fun and simple games that you can play with alphabet flashcards.
And, of course, once you’ve taught all of s a t p i n, your child’ll be ready to start blending and doing some ‘real’ reading with short words.
You definitely don’t have to teach your child the whole alphabet before you try them with words.
But that’s a topic for another day.
For now, let’s take a look at some fun, hands-on activities to practise those letters.