Learning the ABC's - What Comes First?

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Learning the ABC’s is one of the early educational milestones that parents look forward to, yet there are so many smaller steps leading up to it. This series will focus on ways to help your child learn the alphabet in a developmentally appropriate way.

First of all, what in the world does it mean when we say something is “developmentally appropriate” and why is that so important? 

Developmentally appropriate activities are those that are appropriate for the developmental level of your child--not too easy and not too hard. They meet your child where they are and enable your child to reach goals that are both challenging and achievable.

So, why is that so important?

All children develop at their own pace, but there are some things that are fairly universal in the order that human development occurs. For example: Babies learn to scoot or crawl before they walk, babble before they talk and scribble before they write. Just as we learned that fine motor skills usually develop in an certain order in the “learning to write” series, learning the alphabet also has a sequence. And learning the alphabet is one step on the way to learning how to read words.



Taking a look back at when your child was just a baby, it was important for them to learn to turn over, sit, scoot, crawl and stand before attempting to step out with those wobbly little legs and walk. If we had encouraged them to walk before they had the balance to sit, and focused all of our attention on the act of walking, not only would we have been frustrated when they couldn’t do it, we could actually do some damage by pressing forward with a skill their bodies were not ready for. 

The same is true with cognitive/thinking sills. When we focus all of our attention on a skill that they aren’t ready for, we get discouraged and they get discouraged. We also could be setting them up for failure in the future because there are so many smaller steps leading up to every skill, and if they don’t get the prerequisites, they will continue to struggle with the big skill. Not to mention, that we want learning to be fun and exciting and not drudgery!  Especially when they are young!!! 

When I was teaching in the school system, I traveled between preschools and kindergartens, both public and private to work with children in a variety of settings. While many were wonderful and supportive of a young child’s development, there were occasions that I entered a classroom of 3-year-olds that were being required to sit at a desk quietly for long periods of time. With nothing to do. When lessons began, they often focused on rote tasks of chanting the ABC’s and then children were given a worksheet to complete independently about beginning sounds of various pictures without much guidance at all. As much as I hate to say it, some even fussed at children when they did not complete the page correctly or answer the questions correctly. This hurt my heart so much!! These were NOT developmentally appropriate activities!!!  While there are a few 3-year-olds that are ready for learning the alphabet and associating the sounds with pictures, most are NOT and also not ready to sit still for long periods of time with worksheets! 


While 3-year olds should certainly be introduced to letters, there are developmentally appropriate ways to do it. Sitting at a desk with worksheets is NOT one of them! In addition,  my experience has shown me that, young children generally are eager to please their teacher, so answering questions incorrectly is not their idea of being silly - they simply don’t know the answer. Which is ok, because we can help them not only learn the answers, but to feel secure in their knowledge!

So, now that I’ve convinced you that fun, developmentally appropriate activities is a much better approach, what IS the developmental order to learning the alphabet?

I’m glad you asked.  :-) 

  1. Singing the ABC’s - Although this is NOT a prerequisite, it is usually what happens first. Contrary to what many parents, and even some preschool teachers believe, this does NOT mean that your child knows the alphabet - it simply means that they have memorized a song. :-)
  2. Matching capital letters - Matching  A to A, B to B, etc. 

  3. Matching lower-case letters - Matching b to b, a to a, etc.   This is a little bit harder because there are so many that look similar (b, d, p, q for example).

  4. Pointing to letters (capitals first, then lower-case) - When someone says, show me the A, the child can point to an A. 
  5. Naming the letters - This is a MUCH harder skill, but does indicate that a child knows which letter is which. 
  6. Giving the sound of the letters - Matching and naming letters is great, but you can’t read unless you are able to associate the sound of the letters to the symbols. 

As you can see, there are actually MANY, MANY steps in learning the alphabet. Each step is important in its own way, and although some programs try to bypass one or more steps, if your child is very young and just beginning, or is having some difficulty at a higher level, it is a great idea to stop, back up and be sure that these prerequisite skills are secure before moving on.

These are the building blocks to becoming a fluent reader and having that strong base of knowledge will be very helpful as they mature.

In the next blog post, we will begin to break down these steps and explore a variety of activities that you can do with your child to reinforce that stage while having fun! Learning should be exciting and fun and there is no need to rely on worksheets when hands-on learning is so much more fun and effective!