Friday, March 03, 2006

Teaching a 3 Year Old the Alphabet

As my *ahem* regular readers already know, my wife and I are homeschooling our children. The first thing I want to do is to get my oldest son reading. He's only three so I am trying to find a balance between being lax and being heavy-handed. I don't want to turn him off to reading, but I don't want to let him think it is unimportant. He loves books, and will sometimes "read" by himself. It's a pleasure to hear him tell a story he's familiar as he looks at the pages, or simply describe the pictures on the pages.

My main task at this point is making sure he can correctly identify all of his letters. He can recite the alphabet, but his recognition of the letters is spotty. I want this to be the initial post chronicling my Max's journey to literacy.

As far as I can tell, Max has four categories or levels of recognition for his letters. As common sense would have it, they are 1) Always Recognizes, 2) Often Recognizes, 3) Rarely Recognizes, and 4) Never Recognizes. Just to get them in order in my own head, I am going to categorize the letters.

Always Recognizes

A, B, H, L, O, P, Q, R, S, T

Often Recognizes

G, M, N

Rarely Recognizes

D, E, I, U, X,

Never Recognizes

C, F, J, K, V, W, Y, Z

There doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to which letters he knows. Sometimes his mood plays a factor in which letters he "knows." If he was always cooperative I think at least 'G' and 'M' would be in the 'Always Recognizes' category.

Three of the letters in 'Never Recognizes' are there because Max confuses them with other letters. He always calls 'K' 'R', he calls 'V' 'A', and confuses 'W' with 'M'. He thinks it's upside down. The other five we haven't worked on very much.

I must admit my approach has been scattershot. At first I was too pushy, so we both ended up frustrated. My more recent approach has been to play with magnetic letters we have, periodically asking him to name certain letters. When we clean up, I'll purposely drop letters he is less familiar with and say, "Oh Max, could you pick up that 'F' for daddy?" or something of that nature. It has been helpful, I think. He learns to recognize them without feeling pressured to perform for me. I also ask him to name letters when we read at night, going back and forth between letters he doesn't know well and letters he knows very well (to review and bolster his confidence). I praise his successes, but try to avoid being too effusive.

In sum, we're making progress. I look forward to the day when that "Never Recognizes" category is empty, and even more so to the day when he will "Always Recognize" all 26. If anyone has any tips, I'm definitely listening!


Rowena said...

Hey Josh,

I'm the mother of a three year old too. My daughter in fact is almost 4. We live in India and as most parents do in India, I enrolled her into a "play school". She was given written assignments at the age of 3 and she almost detests writing now.
She seems to have similar issues as your 3 year old. My husband and I have planned an activity that we hope will help her identify all the letters of the alphabet and the numbers as well.
We thought we'll make colourful alphabet and number cards with chart paper and jumble them all in a basket. And we will play "the shopkeeper" game with her (She loves to go shopping). We'll exchange some fake money for the cards we ask for. This way she will not feel pressurised to learn.

What do you think about this activity? Can you suggest something else that will help her identify letters in 2 months?



Joshua Duncan said...


I'm sorry that the play school activities aren't helping your daughter. Some of the books I've read actually don't recommend learning writing for 3 year olds at all. In "The Well Trained Mind" by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer (one of my favorites) they say that many kids do not have the dexterity to begin writing at 3-4 years. They recommend just teaching the child to read and leaving writing to letter. Your situation is different, of course, because of the curriculum of the school.

I absolutely love the "shopkeeper" game. That's just the sort of thing that can make learning fun for a child. I have two other suggestions, neither of which are original with me. If you have magazines you are willing to part with, you could look through them with her, finding different letters. The larger and more colorful the letter, the better. My only other suggestion is to "immerse" her in the world of words. Point out words and letters as when you are at the grocery store. Read with her on your lap and drag your finger under the words as you say them. Beyond that, I'm not sure what else I'd do.

Rowena said...

Hi Josh,

Thanks for your suggestions. I will get that book too! The Grocery store Idea sounds fantastic! I am sure that Ally (My Daughter) will enjoy Learning is such a setup:-)

If it is going to be of any help to you, I went through a blog called dotmoms. Here's their Link

They may have something there that may interest you.

I hope I am not going away from the discussion here...If you don;t mind sharing, how do cope with behavioral Challenges with Max?


Nicole said...

Hi Rowena and Josh,

I am a Nursery teacher (3 to 4 years of age) and before I comment, let me say that I congratulate you both for how involved you are in your children's education (not too many parents are nowadays). As for writing, it is difficult to expect them to really write at this age given that they are still developing their fine motor skills. What you CAN do to help this process along is to do activities that will further develop just that. Activities such as drawing, playing at drawing with a lot of pressure and little pressure on the paper, using blocks, playing with clay etc. Now is the time when they start holding the pencil right and start to gain control over what they can do with it.

As for writing, the farthest I've gone with my class is tracing their names. Write down the child's name with dotted lines, and have them follow it with the pencil. Congratulate any efforts (unless you KNOW they're underdoing it to get it out of the way), even if it is sketchy or not very much along the lines. At this age they love positive reinforcement (congratulations, pats on the back, "good job", "great job", "wow, that's great"). It might be a bit stressing because it takes a while, but slowly, as they master their grasp of the pencil, they get better at their "writing" skills.

As for reading, letter recognition is a good start. You can start singing the alphabet song (so they get familiar with the sound) and work a letter at a time. My kids love their name's first letter and often refer to it as MY letter. It's a good start because they see it often. This takes time and a lot of patience. Making sounds and guessing words that can start with that sound (as well as playing word games) is a good approach at them not feeling overwhelmed. You can also have them draw the letter, paste on the letter, trace it etc.

I hope this is of help!!

Kind regards,

Nicole said...


As for your question related to behavioral challenges Rowena I have a couple of techniques. I majored in Psychology and during my masters I took a great course called "Parental Assessment" regarding how to address your children in certain situations. As you must already know, at the age of 3 they become quite confrontational and very uneasy. Here are a few pointers to deal with that:

- Give them the illusion of an option: When you want the child to do something, and he refuses, negotiate by offering to do something first and then that, or helping them start and having them finish or giving them an extra minute of what they're doing as long as they compromise in doing YOUR activity. The point is to give them the IDEA of a choice, but in the end, ALWAYS getting YOUR way. (They love being able to choose because it gives them a sense of control over themselves)

- Ignore the conducts you dislike and reinforce the ones you want to maintain. A big problem today is that we spend more time saying "No" than saying Yes. So instead of scolding the next time the child does something you dislike, suggest the opposite action and give them appraisal for doing it.

Also congratulate behaviours you like without placing any personal emotional weight on it. By this I mean avoid comments like "mom is happy when you" or "I'm sad when you". This gives the child a very big burden, imagine being responsible for mom's feelings!!

Instead just say, "wow, I love what you're doing" or "that's a very good job you're doing there" or "I don't like that conduct".

- Find out what your kid loves and try to make those activities educational. If your child loves building blocks, you could paste letters on them or order from big to small (math) or sort by colors (math).

Ok, I'm rambling!! I have some other tips and material regarding tantrums and other behaviours. If any of you are interested feel free to email me at :)

Hope this is of help!

Anonymous said...

Hi Josh,
Funny I ran across your site. My 3year old is right where your son is as far as her letters go. I chose to start this week with "the letter of the week" I am still working on ideas but here is the preliminary plan. First week letter V (her initial) paint a LARGE outlined V, Create a V with popsicle sticks and glue pom poms to it. Play play dough and make V's, Bake cookies and cut out a bunch of V's and decorate them. That is what popped into my head after much prayer on the topic. The basic idea I think is to have a fun activity based around the letter being taught. Eventually she will come to recognize these letters after much "fun" repetition. We will change to a new letter each week and reinforce the previously learned letters (i.e. cutting shapes of all letters learned) My girls love crafts which is what makes this sound like it will work. Let me know what you think? I notice where you study. I wonder if you could offer some advice for teaching the Bible to a 3 year old and 5yr old beyond just reading it. Fun activities etc. You could email me at if you like. Good luck with the letters.

Anonymous said...

Hi Josh,
I was thinking more on the idea of the "letter of the week" and it might make more sense to do the "the letter of the day" and rotate through the alphabet with different crafts/activities. One letter per week would take many weeks before we get back to A again. Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

Dear Parents of 3-year-old toddlers,
My son is 3 yrs and 4 months old. He cannot "do" sentences. He does not ask what and why questions. Or who questions. He is (i think) hyperactive. Yes, it is frustrating. Especially seeing kids his age talking to their parents, i mean, conversing with their parents. The thing is, he has mastered his alphabet and numbers. He can recite and write and arrange his blocks from A to Z without error. He can write his name "Raj" and his brother's name "Ram". He can pronounce the sound of each letter and say the word starting with that letter (except Q and X of course). If anybody knows what disorder my child has, please reply to this. Yes, he has eye contact and responds to his name. He calls me mommy and his dad, daddy. mommy monet

Anonymous said...

My daughter is 2 and 6months. I found an online activity website wich helped her learn the alphabet. Shes only played on it for about 3 months but already recognizes so many letters. The only ones she has a real difficulty with is P,B and D. Mixing them up. Also since were in the UK and the website is American the accent is quite different. Im just hoping this wont confuse her when she has to go to school age 4.
Another thing I have to mention is, we have a touch screen we can either interact with her while she plays or we can leave her to do it on her own, wich aparently helps with their confidence and independancy. Not sure how different it would have been with a "non touch screen".