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Teaching Letters Naturally
The Best (and Easiest) Way to Teach Letter Sounds
It’s easy to find letter of the week activities, printables, and crafts. Just hop over to pintrest and you’ll be drowning in them! And that’s great—we want our kids to recognize what letters look like and sound like; we want our kids to be able to print the alphabet… but where exactly do we start? How do we introduce the letters in the first place? Just print a bunch of worksheets, rattle off a few words that start with “A”, then hand the kiddos some crayons to start copying? I don’t think so.
Having looked at a variety of early reader programs, I am convinced I have found the best: a step by step guide to introducing phonics and letters in a way that is so easy, natural, and fun, that your children won’t even know that they’re learning. And the best part about it? Most of the activities can be done while you are cooking, cleaning, driving… or just relaxing on the couch for that matter!
So let’s get right into it. What is this fantastic program I am referring to?
Mommy Teach Me to Read, by Barbara Curtis, is a Montessori-based early reading program that utilizes the sensitive periods of a child’s development to introduce sounds and letters. For those who are not familiar with the concept of sensitive periods: Maria Montessori believed that as children grow, they enter phases where they are particularly sensitive to picking up certain skills; she wrote that during these windows of opportunity, children can learn almost intuitively, whereas if they are not introduced to the skill until after the sensitive period has passed, they have a harder time picking it up.
In most early reading programs I’ve seen, children are taught phonics by learning to associate certain sounds with specific written letters. The problem with this is that the sensitive period for learning letter sounds lies at an early age where abstract concepts (like squiggly lines on a paper) are difficult to process. So how do we teach letter sounds without using the abstract concept of written letters?
Learning with Games
We start with the sound game. As soon as toddlers know how to speak, they can begin to identify phonetic sounds within the scope of their vocabulary. “Can you think of words with mmmm in them?” “Can you think of words with ffff in them?” This simple game, which can be played anywhere with no materials or preparation, uses concrete concepts to lay the first foundations of reading for your child. In her book, Barbara goes into greater depth about how to introduce this game, and how to guide your children to correct answers when they make mistakes.
Once your child is comfortable with the concept of recognising individual sounds within words, it will be much easier to link those sounds to the written alphabet. In the next game, we begin by asking, “Do you want to see what mmm (or fff or aaa) looks like?” Suddenly, letters are no longer abstract squiggles on a page; rather, they are physical representations of the sounds your child has already learned to identify within everyday language.
As you follow along with “Mommy Teach Me to Read”, Barbara Curtis continues linking the abstract to the concrete with her step-by-step guides to simple language games. These games will prepare your child to read four and five letter words that follow basic phonics rules. The book has some tips for teaching more advanced reading as well, but does not go into great detail.
Inspired by Curtis’s method, I have created a series of phonics booklets that use fun rhyming verse to reinforce the connection between letter sounds and letter shapes. As children listen to stories about Alex Atwood’s magic transforming rabbit, or Daring Dave’s adventure deep down in the dragon’s den, they will become familiar with the phonic sounds through repetition. Once they are comfortable recognising which words contain the letter sound they are listening for, they can be invited to follow along on the page and see how the sound in question is represented by the bolded letters.