Teaching Kids Letters and Sounds

I’ve spent a LOT of time over the last 17 years teaching kids letters and sounds. Between my time teaching in the classroom and now homeschooling my own kids, I’ve picked up many different ways for kids to practice! Read on to get my tips for teaching kids letters and sounds – without a specific curriculum or workbooks!

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How do you know your kids are ready to learn letters and sounds?

There’s no one age that tells us kids are ready to learn letters and sounds. Some kids are ready at 3-4, some kids aren’t ready until 7-8. The traditional educational system has made us believe that there’s a magic number and that once our kids turn four, we need to begin rigorously teaching them letters and sounds. This is not the case!

Kids need to be developmentally ready to read and write, and forcing them to do it before they’re ready doesn’t help them learn faster. Kids who are pushed too early often get frustrated and struggle. Sometimes they even push back and refuse to learn! So before you begin, step back and watch for signs your child is ready to learn letters and sounds.

Signs of reading readiness:

  • They are showing interest in letters
  • They are asking about letters or beginning to recognize them
  • They are interested in reading, either asking to learn or pretending to read
  • They can hold a book properly, understand how to turn pages, etc.
  • They are mimicking letter sounds (ex: when you say “B says buh” they can repeat the sound).
  • They are beginning to recognize rhyming sounds

We tend to think of reading and writing hand in hand, but one may come before the other. Here are some signs of writing readiness:

  • They have begun drawing lines and circles
  • They can hold a pencil (this doesn’t mean they have to hold it perfectly!)
  • They can begin to trace lines or shapes

Workbooks, flashcards, and rote memorization are a common way to learn letters and sounds, but they aren’t the place to begin.

Where do you start when teaching kids letters and sounds?

  1. Exposure to letters and words — make sure they have plenty of opportunities to see letters in many different situations. Books, fabric or wooden letters, alphabet posters, etc.
  2. Pointing out letters when you see them — on signs, in stores, at restaurants, in books, or anywhere else you find them. Get them familiar with seeing letters in use – not just isolated on a flashcard.
  3. Tracing shapes and lines — let your kids practice the motions that come along with writing.

    These tracing pages are a great place to start:

Once your kiddos are comfortable tracing lines and shapes, move on to letters. Don’t just buy a workbook, keep it fun! If your kids want to be outside, practice with chalk on the driveway or draw in the mud with a stick. “Paint” letters onto a chalkboard with water. Build letters with sticks, blocks, or a letter construction set like this:

These ABC tracing cards are a great way to practice, but don’t push your kids to sit for long stretches, unless they really truly want to do so. Let them work on it at their pace – when they’re ready.

4. Play — learning about letters works best through play! Pretend play like making alphabet soup with toy letters, foam letters in the bathtub, pretending to write a menu for a play restaurant, and building words with wooden or magnet letters are great ways to begin learning about letters.

This Early Learning Pack has some fun hands-on letter games:

5. Using the senses — drawing letters in sand or salt trays or shaving cream, textured letter cards, make letters with playdough, sensory bins with letters hiding inside, etc. The more senses your kiddos can use, the better!

6. Use songs and actions to recognize letter sounds. The program ABC Hear See Do combines motions with letter sounds. We also love the movie The Letter Factory for learning letter sounds – the catchy songs help kids learn them in a fun way. Sing rhyming songs, read nursery rhymes, and recite silly poems that help your kids get familiar with language and letter sounds. Have fun with it!

This FREE letter work mat is a great tool for teaching word building in a hands-on way.

7. Use familiar words — instead of starting with sight words, start with words that are meaningful or important to your child. Words like mom, their name, siblings’ names, pets or animals they love, etc. have a connection with your child. Write out your child’s name and have them trace over it (I like to do this on a laminated page or in a dry erase pocket so they can trace and erase with a dry erase marker). They will start to recognize the letters and connect them with the sounds of names that are very familiar.

9. Read, read, and read some more! The best thing you can do is keep reading with your kids. When your child is ready, they’ll let you know. Move at their pace and listen to their cues. If they are getting frustrated, pull back and wait. You can read more about this and why early isn’t always better in this post about teaching kids to read.

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