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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? Not if we want to give our children the best start possible.
I don’t claim to be an expert on all the early reader programs and methods available, but I have done my fair share of research on child development, and I believe the best way to introduce any new concept to young children is to relate it to the concrete reality with which they are already familiar.
The Montessori Method: From Concrete to Abstract
The process of leading children from concrete concepts to abstract understanding is a primary principle of the Montessori method. Maria Montessori believed that as children grow, they enter phases where they are particularly sensitive to learning certain skills. She taught that children can learn more intuitively during these windows of oppurtunity; whereas if the sensitive period for a skill passes, kids have a harder time picking it up. This concept is generally accepted, though it isn’t always stated in as many words—everyone knows that it is easier for a toddler to learn a new language than it is for an adolescent or adult.
Maria Montessori also taught that the best way to introduce new concepts, during these sensitive periods, is to help the child “come to an abstract understanding of a concept by first encountering it in a concrete form.” This is why she supported teaching letter sounds first, before letter names. A child’s first experiences with language come through listening and speaking: i.e. the concrete form of sound. When those familiar sounds are used as the bridge to inroduce the abstract squiggly symbols we call letters, learning comes much easier.
Discovery-Based Learning Through Play
For many of you, this is old news. Sure we want to introduce letter sounds first, but what exactly is the best way to do that? I believe it is by leading our children along a path of discovery, from hearing words, to hearing the sounds within words, to recognising the same sound within many words, to that great “aha” moment of discovery that the sound can be represented on paper by a special symbol. When sounds and letters are linked in this way, learning becomes an intuitive progression of ideas, rather than a forced process of memorization.
I first learned about this method from “Mommy Teach Me to Read” by Barbara Curtis (which I highly recommend for those new to, or interested in, the Montessori method). In her book, Curtis shows parents how to teach their children to read with a variety of discovery-based games, many of which can be played while you are cooking, cleaning, driving… or just relaxing on the couch. The first of these is the sound game. Curtis suggests you play with your toddler by asking, “Can you think of words with mmmm in them?” “Can you think of words with ffff in them?” This super easy game helps your child recognise that every word is made up of a sequence of sounds. Of course, the vocabulary of a child might not be very varied, making it harder to think of words that contain examples of the less common sounds. This is why it can be helpful to collect a set of language objects: these are objects whose names include sounds from every letter of the alphabet.
Another way to help children recognize letter sounds and connect them to the letter shapes, it to read through a collection of short stories which has been written for this very purpose…
When I learned about the letter sound method, the first thing I did was search for story books with letter themes. When I unearthed the Barenstain’s B Book, I knew I had found what I was looking for: a fun story that is filled with recurrences of a specific letter sound. Unfortunately, I could only find this style of book for that one letter. And so began my quest to create my own.
Inspired by Curtis’s method, I have weitten 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 featured sound is represented by the bolded letters.