The National Research Council recommendations state that letter knowledge is one of the basic prerequisites for success in literacy learning (Snow et al., 1998). Many experiences with environmental print, books, and other literacy materials give children the opportunity to become familiar with letters and sounds. Through their own active learning and adult scaffolding, young children become aware of the alphabetic principle, the awareness of the systematic relationship between letters and sounds (Neuman et al., 2000). Children will become familiar with the shapes and names of letters when they play with magnetic letters, alphabet puzzles, and matching games, or form letters out of clay. The Montessori system uses sandpaper letters and the movable alphabet to provide kinesthetic stimulation for learning letter forms (Humphryes, 1998). Children who enjoy technology might learn to recognize letters from computer games or by printing out the same letter in different fonts (Schickendanz, 1999). Children can learn letter features by sorting letters that extend below or above the line or matching capital to lowercase letters.

Experiences with print should include opportunities for children to learn the sounds associated with letters in the English orthographic system. In a preschool classroom taught by one of the authors, 3- and 4-year-olds were invited to sign in as they arrived at school each day (Green, 1998). This gave them an opportunity to associate the written letters with the sounds they heard in their names. Taking dictation from children and providing information about letters and sounds is another way to help children develop the alphabetic principle. One mom wrote a story for her 3-year-old, pointing out each time she wrote a word that started with the same letter as his name or the names of other family members. This helped him make a connection between the sounds he heard and the written forms he watched his mother make.

Caregivers can incorporate activities that promote the alphabetic principle into daily routines. Pointing to words as you read from a restaurant menu or reading labels at the supermarket help children become attuned to the individual letters in words and associate them with the sounds they hear (Snow et al., 1998). Showing a child the difference between “chocolate” and “cherry” on ice cream containers helps them distinguish sound and visual discrepancies.