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Kids & School

Teaching Letters and Sounds at Home: Start With What They Know

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This is the second in a series of guest posts by Lexington Mommy contributor Holly Winters (who btw is pretty much a genius at teaching and mothering), reprinted with her permission from her personal blog, Abiding With Me.

I am so glad my last post on teaching your child to read (by actually reading to them!) was so well received! Thank you so much for all of your positive feedback! Literacy is my passion, and my kids are my heart. So this is truly a labor of love for me. I hope this installment will not disappoint. Tonight we will talk about teaching letters and sounds.

I mentioned last time that letter of the week activities are so important and helpful, but so often taken out of context. The whole-part-whole theory is critical to learners, particularly early learners, who need to see WHY and HOW letters and sounds work in action before being asked to digest a bunch of squiggles and funny sounds. Check out my discussion of whole-part-whole here in case you missed it.

So rather than be too verbose here at the beginning, let’s start with another video. This one again, is my sweet Ryan, age 3, working on her ABC book. You’ll see that it isn’t fancy. It’s a $0.50 spiral notebook from Walmart. You could be fancy if you want. You could string up an alphabet chart around your living room if you want. This is what works for us. So… take a look. Here we are learning about letter D.

A note on the two videos. A) My camera girl is 9, so the video is partially sideways and a little shaky. It’s not so bad, so I doubt it will make you seasick. B) The video cut off in the middle so that’s why there are part 1 and part 2; I didn’t have enough memory on my phone to finish video 2, but you’ll get the point from the part you see. Hey, I never said my videos were professional quality!

Ryan Reads Letter D (part 1) – click here if video below doesn’t work

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Ryan Reads Letter D (part 2)

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What did you notice?

Did you notice how carefully I selected the items for her to glue beforehand? This is important. I selected them for a reason. She isn’t ready to actually name things that start with D yet, or any letter for that matter. She’s just at the point that she’s learning to actually HEAR different sounds. So I did that part of the work for her and chose words that begin with D so she could concentrate on actually hearing the sound. Why these words? These words were not chosen at random. I carefully thought about what my child knows. If I had given her a picture of a baseball DUGOUT for her to name, she wouldn’t have been able to recognize or name it because that’s not in her world. We aren’t a baseball family and don’t interact with dugouts so there is no way she would have known that. I chose D words that represent things that she enjoys and are in her world—think food, restaurants, places she goes (maybe your family visits Domino’s Pizza sometimes… if so, use the logo for that), names of family and friends, games, characters, etc. These are all things that are in her schema.

Now, maybe I shouldn’t get all fancy on you and explain schema, but I strongly believe you gotta know what you’re doing and WHY. Schema isn’t a complicated theory. Schema is like a giant filing cabinet in your brain of all of your experiences, past and present- everything. You have schema for how to drive a car, how to check out a library book, what color blue is, how hard it is to wake up in the morning. Schema is what you know. Schema theory says that when we learn new information, our brains try to link it to existing schema. Basically, your brain is searching for the right “drawer” of the filing cabinet. So when Ryan saw the doughnuts, her brain thought “HEY, I know that! Krispy Kreme!” So the new information (letter D) must go with that! She’s made a connection. Your brain constantly searches to make those connections to existing schema. So rather than a filing cabinet, maybe a better analogy is a gigantic spider web! So here’s the nugget you need to take away from this: START WITH WHAT THEY KNOW. The letter D will mean so much more when it’s Daddy’s letter than just random picture of a dugout or dolphin (my kid thought the dolphin was a whale, so rather than confuse her, I left that one out). The letter R means a lot to Ryan because it’s HER letter. C is the letter for her sister, Carson. I am working hard to try to assign the “meaning” of letters to very very familiar people and objects in her life. I want to use what she knows and interacts with on a daily basis.

What else did you notice?

Did you notice that I am asking her to read her letter page? I’m asking her to point to the right words as she reads. Is she really reading the words? That’s debatable, but every time she looks at the picture, the word, and says the word out loud, she is increasing her interaction with that word, thus aiding to secure a place in her memory.

Do I expect her to ALWAYS know letter D? No, of course not. Again, learning is a process and for these littlest learners, it takes repeated interactions with this kind of learning.

We turn letters into a game. Always and everywhere. You saw last time how we approached letters and sounds during the bedtime story. I was thinking that it’s pretty easy to do when you read an ABC book, right? So maybe you’d like to see the same strategy with a different type of story. Well, if so, here you go. Us, reading Mama Cat has Three Kittens by Denise Fleming.

Bedtime Story- Mama Cat Has Three Kittens

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Other ways we play with letters…puzzles, Super Why on PBS, squirting letters on the sidewalk, a neighborhood scavenger hunt, singing ABCs while we swing, and on an on and on. But please, like I said before, be careful not to over teach! We do these things right now because RYAN leads me. I may suggest we sing the ABCs from time to time, but she’s at a point now where she is ready to soak up every single thing. She wants to do these things and leads me in them. If your child isn’t showing those signs, do one thing, every day, every once in a while, until he is ready and showing you.

Fun Stuff! Write the alphabet on your sidewalk or driveway and have your child squirt the letters you call out with a water gun or squirt bottle. Our adventure turned into painting the letters.


Finding letters as we go about our day. When she sees a letter, she folds down the tab. EASY!



I found these pony cards online for free. You’d be surprised at what you can find online. Try searching for totpacks or preschool packs. There are tons of themes and characters, and I’m sure you’d be able to find something your child is familiar with. My kid LOVES ponies. She was ecstatic to be able to recognize and read their names and the letters of their names.

So there you have it. That’s the way I teach letters and sounds at our little homeschool. Please note, that I do not teach vowels in this way. I think vowels can be terribly confusing because of all the sounds they make. I may teach them letter recognition for vowels, but I really don’t do a “vowel” page in the ABC book or really spend a whole lot of time with vowel sounds right now. That comes later on in kindergarten and/or first grade. And those are taught through word families.

I’ll make the point again to teach lightly. My daughter is 3. If she wants to do these things, we do. If she doesn’t, we don’t. But by making the activities fun, meaningful, in context, and relatable to things she likes, she is more willing to play along with me. And we know that for children, playing equals learning.

So, go play around with letters. Make some play dough letters, draw them in the sand at the beach, shoot them with water guns. Use your imagination. It’s supposed to be FUN. For you and for them!

I’d love to have your questions! Still planning a blog post later on in a week or two that answers your questions about reading to kids. It can be related to this or just different literacy question. I am keeping a list, so if you’ve already asked, stay tuned, its coming!!!

For next time: My Kid’s Favorite Books!

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