My Child is Having Trouble Learning Letters
Is your child having trouble learning letters?
“My son gets mixed up when I show him more than one letter. He also confuses lowercase and uppercase letters and letter names and letter sounds. I’m already going super slow, and repeating the same letter activity is getting really boring.”
When you see that your toddler or preschooler is struggling to learn letters, you might catch yourself thinking…
"I'm not sure I'm cut out for this."
"I don't think I'm doing this right."
"Am I doing enough?"
The worst part is when you start to worry that your child is falling behind.
So let’s fix this, ok?
I have some good news.
It’s not your child! It’s your STRATEGY.
Most likely your child is having trouble learning letters because you’ve missed a critical step in the learning sequence.
It’s easy to skip a step or get sidetracked with random alphabet activities when don’t have a roadmap that outlines the learning sequence and tells you what to focus on right now. You end up trying to piece it together yourself based on alphabet activities that you find on Pinterest.
So let’s back up and think about WHY you’re helping your child with learning letters.
I’m guessing it’s because you want your child to get ready for learning to read.
The alphabet letters only have meaning because we’ve all agreed that a certain written symbol represents a sound in our spoken language.
To be able to read, your child needs to learn the code between speech sounds and written symbols.
This is what “phonics” means.
Children who have a hard time learning to read often have difficulty identifying individual speech sounds.
The ability to hear and play with speech sounds in spoken words is called phonemic awareness, and it’s the best predictor of how well children learn to read.
Phonemic awareness is what really matters for reading readiness!
As your child develops phonemic awareness, he or she will be able to:
hear and identify the speech sounds in spoken words
understand that spoken words are made up of sounds in a row
blend sounds to make spoken words
segment spoken words into their sounds.
By focusing on phonemic awareness FIRST, the letter symbols will have meaning for your child when it comes time to associate them with the sounds in spoken words.
Plus, blending sounds and segmenting words at the spoken language level prepares your child for decoding written words using phonics knowledge.
You can begin to develop phonemic awareness by playing sound games to draw your child's attention to the speech sounds in spoken words.
My free SOUND GAMES Quick Start Guide makes it easy to get started with phonemic awareness activities. I created this guide because I don't want you to make the mistake of focusing on learning letters without laying the foundation for it first. Click below to download it now!
Your child might be having trouble learning letters if you’ve also made it more complicated than it needs to be.
This happens when you focus on too many concepts at the same time.
When you search “learning letters” on Pinterest to find alphabet activity ideas, It’s easy to think that you’re supposed to teach uppercase and lowercase letter names and letter sounds.
I get that there's a lot of pressure for preschoolers to learn letters and sounds before kindergarten.
But here's the truth.
Knowing the names of the letters doesn’t prepare your preschooler for learning phonics.
In fact, knowing letter names can sometimes interfere with learning phonics and beginning to decode words.
When sounding out a word, some children will say the letter name instead of the sound that the letter represents. Then they cannot hear the word when they blend it together because it doesn’t make any sense.
For example, if a child sees the word “cat” and sounds out “see ah tuh” it doesn’t make sense because they said the letter name for “c” instead of its sound.
Letter names become more useful when your child shifts away from inventive spelling in the early elementary years. There’s no rush!
I also focus only on lowercase letter sounds in the early stages of phonics.
This is because most letters in written words are lowercase, not uppercase.
It's OK to postpone uppercase letters and sounds! They really aren’t that relevant until your child is at the stage of decoding sentences which begin with an uppercase letter.
It’s also possible that your child is struggling with learning letters if you’ve started too early.
One common mistake is thinking that your toddler is ready for learning letters when he or she starts pointing to letters and asks, “What’s that?”
The truth is that this “interest in letters” is actually just an eagerness for language. Toddlers simply want to know the names of everything to build vocabulary.
Young toddlers do NOT understand the abstract concept that letters are symbols that represent sounds in our spoken language.
It won’t be until your child has developed some phonemic awareness that he or she will begin to understand that words are made up of sounds in a row.
Most children are ready to begin becoming aware of the initial sounds of spoken words when they are around 2.5 to 3 years old.
So there’s not much point trying to get your 18 month old to learn letters by buying a bunch of alphabet toys and puzzles, stamping letters into play dough or making letter crafts.
Sure, some young toddlers can memorize letter names and sounds. But that’s no more impressive than naming any object!
You can really simplify learning letters when you focus on phonemic awareness before you start letter recognition activities.
Otherwise your child is just memorizing letter names and sounds out of context and in isolation with little understanding of what the letters actually mean.
For some children, it’s just too much when you try to teach uppercase and lowercase letter names and sounds all at the same time.
If your child is having trouble learning letters (or you want to avoid this scenario), here’s my best advice. FIRST play sound games to help your child hear the speech sounds in spoken words, and THEN map each speech sound onto the letter symbol.
About the Author
I’m a Montessori teacher and creator of The Playful Path to Reading™ preschool phonics program. Learning to read can be a joyful process of discovery for 3-6 year old children who have solid pre-reading skills. I’ll show you how to make this happen at home for your child using my child-led learning framework and developmentally appropriate phonics activities.