Knowledge of the Alphabet (page 3)
Research shows us that children who know the names and shapes of letters when formal reading instruction begins are more likely to experience success in learning to read than children who have had little experience with the alphabet. There are probably two reasons for this. One is that as important as one's language and background knowledge are, they are not enough when learning to read. Children must become familiar with the symbols that are used in print; they must understand the special code that is used in their written language. The second reason is that knowledge of the alphabet suggests that children have had exposure to print. In many cases, it is the "tip of the iceberg." That is, children who know the alphabet know a great deal else in addition. They are likely to have had significant experiences with print. The more exposure to print, the more comfortable children are with engaging in reading activities themselves.
In order to learn to read, children must come to the realization that, in a world filled with visual stimuli, letters play a very special role. Further, they must recognize that a letter's orientation in space is important. Orientation is an issue unique to letters. A cookie is still a cookie regardless of the way you hold it—upside down, backwards, or sideways. But it matters what direction a letter is. Think of the letter "b." Rotate it and it becomes a "q." Flip it over sideways and it is a "d." Turn it another direction and it is a "p."
Children's familiarity with the alphabet typically begins with the alphabet song. Many toddlers can sing this song. Later, when children begin to notice letters and hear the names of the letters, they make a connection between the song they sing and the shapes they see. Children in homes rich in print (that is, where there are lots of books and other reading materials) have many opportunities to notice letters in their environment. They see letters on magazine covers and the morning newspaper. They see letters on the books on the coffee table and on clippings posted on the refrigerator. They see their parents using letters on market lists and on the checks they write at the checkout counter. They see letters on envelopes that come in the mail. They see letters in the books their parents read to them.
In the previous paragraph, we said that children in print-rich homes have many opportunities to notice letters in their environment. The word notice here is key. As important as it is to have a home filled with print, there is a difference between having print available and noticing the print. Exposure is not enough, educational researcher Marilyn Adams asserts in her book Beginning to Read (1990). Children must pay attention to the print. Parents are in a perfect position to inspire that attention.
We agree with Bernice Cullinan (1992), reading expert and former president of the International Reading Association, who states that it is not necessary to engage preschoolers in drills with alphabet flash cards. Rather, parents should respond to children's questions about print, telling them the names of letters when asked. They should ask children to find words on a page that start with the same letter as their names or as a letter they have inquired about. They should show them how to write their names and put their names on lunch boxes, clothing, books, and toys. Interesting books, games, and interactions with print will promote a familiarity with the alphabet.
Below are some suggestions for familiarizing your child with the letters of our written language. Perhaps you already engage in some of the activities recommended here. If not, we encourage you to make these simple and valuable additions to the time you spend with your child.
- Purchase a set or two of magnetic letters from a local toy store. Put them on your refrigerator for both you and your child to play with. Have your child find the letter that begins his or her name. Spell your child's name with the letters. Move letters around and name them for your child. Write messages like "I love you" and read them to your child. Play with the letters.
- Buy a set of plastic bathtub letters. Like the refrigerator magnetic letters, they will be used over and over again. Children love finding letters under the bubbles and sticking them to the walls above the tub. Play games with the letters: you call out a letter, your child finds it and sticks it to the wall; your child names a letter and you find it and stick it to the wall of the tub. Spell important words like "Mom," "Dad," and the child's name and tell the child what you have spelled.
- Point out words or letters in the environment. When you walk around the neighborhood, stop at a stop sign and ask your child what it says. Chances are he or she will be able to tell you because of the familiar color and shape cues as well as the environmental cues (the street corner). Then pick up your child and have fun allowing him or her to touch and say each of the letters on the sign. Look at cereal boxes and comment on the letters. "Wow, that's big K, isn't it?" Notice the letters on storefronts and billboards.
- When you write a market list, let your child participate. Sit down at the kitchen table together. As your child helps you think of items to buy, let him or her observe you record those items on a piece of paper. Say each letter as you write it. "Yes, we need milk. M-I-L-K. What else do we need?"
- Give your child writing tools and paper for birthdays and holidays. Make sure that your home is full of pencils, crayons, markers, and paints and paintbrushes. Do not forget the sidewalk chalk! It is so much fun to write your name in huge colorful letters on the sidewalk .
- When you play in a sandbox, draw pictures and letters in the sand. Encourage your child to draw letters. Buy letter-shaped cookie cutters for use in the sand (or to make cookies) .
- A favorite summertime activity for many children is water play. In addition to chasing each other with the hose, children enjoy filling buckets with water, dunking paintbrushes into the water, and writing letters all over the patio. Watch the letters disappear as the sun beats down on them .
- Decorate cupcakes with the initials of friends and family members. You can purchase decorative letters for your child to put on the cupcakes or buy a tube of decorator icing and have your child print the letters with you. Eating your way through these decorative letters is fun, too .
- When you make pancakes, form the letters of your child's name with the batter. Then read Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie dePaola .
- Share alphabet books with your child. Many wonderful alphabet books are available in bookstores today. We recommend several and have made them a focus area in the book-sharing section of this book.
© ______ 2000, Allyn & Bacon, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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