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.

Alphabet Books

Alphabet books for children of preschool age (3–5) are much more abstract than the three-dimensional letters they are playing with. This means that after reading them, you should do something playful with the letters and ideas presented by the books. The books should be bright, lively, and tell a fast-paced story if you want children to look at them. Letters should stand out and be clearly related to objects that the children are familiar with.

These books present preschool children with an entirely new concept: that a letter of the alphabet represents an object. It is a concept not easily understood by young children at first, yet they do seem to memorize the fact that “A” stands for “Apple” because you say so. They may wonder “why should it?” since “A” does not look or sound anything like Apple. Remember, most preschool children are concerned with the sounds of the names of letters (ay), not the sound the letter makes. That will come later when they begin to recognize words.

If you have one or two alphabet books in your classroom, you should read them to one or two children at a time. Then they can sit close enough to see the pictures and begin to catch on that letters represent objects or actions on the page. Later they can look at the books on their own. Use each book (not worksheets) as a lead-in to three-dimensional activities based on it.


  1. Read Alphabet Under Construction. (Fleming, D., 2003, New York: Holt) Mouse works his way through each huge letter on a page, airbrushing, buttoning, and carving every one. Have your listeners sit close so they can get ideas for decorating their own letters. Put out a set of white cutout letters and a basket of collage materials (buttons, sequins, tiny shells, macaroni shapes, feathers), along with colored markers and glue sticks, and have each child choose and decorate his own letter.
  2. Read B Is for Bulldozer: A Construction ABC. (Sobel, J., 2003, San Diego: Harcourt) Read this book before or after a field trip to a construction or a road repair site. A rhyming sentence on each page shows construction equipment with their first letter in color: Crane, Dump truck, Forklift. Afterwards, take the book and a sheet of peel-off letters to the block building center to see if children can find any of this equipment on the block accessory shelves. Let the finder stick on its peel-off letter.
  3. Read Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. (Martin, B. & Archambault, J., 1989, New York: Simon & Schuster) This classic story will always remain a favorite. The letters themselves talk in rhyme: “A told B, and B told C, I’ll meet you at the top of the coconut tree.” Then they wonder: “Chicka, chicka, boom, boom! Will there be enough room?” Children love to repeat the catchy verses and afterwards to play a game that you make up in which everyone falls down. Children can each carry a letter and march to a center spot in your room until it becomes so crowded that everyone falls down. Or you can make your own tree, wrap it in burlap, and march Velcro letters up to the top until it gets too full. Constructive Playthings (1-800-448-4115) offers a 20-inch free standing cloth tree with letters, along with a CD containing songs, rhymes, and fun.
  4. Read K is for Kissing a Cool Kangaroo. (Andreae, G., 2002, New York: Orchard Books) Large colorful letters stand for cartoon animals doing zany things in rhyme. Children love the illustrations. Second time through the book, have the listeners find a stuffed animal in the classroom to represent a particular letter. Put the peel-off letter of its name on it. What zany things can their imaginations make it do?