By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Research suggests that a child’s knowledge of the alphabet is one of the best predictors of her success in early reading. Does this mean you should teach preschool children the alphabet before they enter kindergarten so they will have a head start on learning to read? Not at all. Young children learn letters, numbers, and concepts of all kinds on their own by playing around with them and using them in all sorts of ways—not by being formally taught.

Teaching preschool children to memorize all the letters is not developmentally appropriate. After all, it is not the alphabet itself that children need to learn at this age, but letters from the alphabet that they find useful. As Neuman (2000) points out: “. . . long before they go to school, young children can learn to spot letters important to them, such as the “S” in Sesame Street or the “Z” of zoo” (p. 65). Often the first letter of their name is the letter they recognize first.

Self-Discovery Play

Because young children learn through play, it is useful for the teacher to recognize the levels of “self-discovery play” all children everywhere seem to progress through on their own. We call these levels “the 3-Ms of Self-Discovery”: manipulation, mastery, and meaning. When children encounter new objects, say a toy telescope, they first of all manipulate it. They open it and close it, look through it backwards, roll it across the table, or even bang it on a pan as a drum stick.

When they finally discover how the telescope really works and what it can be used for, they pull it open, look at something through it, and close it. Then they repeat this action over and over. This is the mastery level, a sort of self-imposed practice. Finally, for many but not all youngsters, they progress to the meaning level where they make the object meaningful to them. Perhaps they go outside and look through it at a bird in a tree, or incorporate it into a dramatic play episode as a captain of a ship looking for land.

Can children play with alphabet letters like this? They can if you provide them with three-dimensional letters and give them an opportunity to experiment on their own. They may or may not use them as suggested below. They may manipulate them by standing them on end or piling them up. They may exhibit mastery by lining up the same letters over and over. They may display meaning by printing the letters of their name or trying to write a story.

Keep your eyes open for their own games and ideas. But don’t forget to comment on what you see the children doing with the letters. “Oh, Randy, what a great tower you built out of all the ‘A’ blocks!” Or “Jessica, do you know what you’re feeding your baby dolls? Beanbag letter sandwiches! I see a ‘P’ and an ‘O’ and a ‘T.’” Or “Jake, you have stamped a ‘J’ on your napkin. Do you know that’s the first letter of your name, J-A-K-E?”

It is up to the teacher of young children to supply the classroom with a variety of three-dimensional alphabet letters that they can play with. Remember, preschool children have not yet learned to identify many of the 26 letters by name. You also need to talk with them about the letters they are using.

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