Learning the ABC's - How and When to Start

I have had parents ask me when to begin reading to their child and my answer is “yesterday.” The same is true with the alphabet. It really is never too early to begin introducing your child to the alphabet!! We are all surrounded by print in many different forms, so they are already being exposed to letters and numbers on a daily basis. Of course, we would never expect a baby or young toddler to really know and understand the alphabet, but you will be surprised at how quickly they pick it up with regular exposure. 

Today, I will be talking about some very simple activities you can do with your young children to help expose them to the alphabet. While some seem very obvious, I might suggest a few new ways to use them more effectively.


Going to the library is an inexpensive way to enjoy books and a field trip, at the same time!

Going to the library is an inexpensive way to enjoy books and a field trip, at the same time!

I truly believe that reading to a child is the single most important thing to help them both educationally and emotionally!!

Reading with your child is not only fun, but it exposes them to written language in a more purposeful way. Even though a baby is too young to realize that you are reading words, as they mature and become more aware of the world around them, they will begin to realize that the squiggly marks in their books are actually the words your are saying with your mouth. 

I know, I know! Reading to a baby seems like an activity of futility sometimes because their attention span is so very short. And even 18 month olds rarely sit for more than one or two pages at a time!   

You can see that this baby has some books of his own - simple, baby-friendly books with colorful pictures and a few words 

You can see that this baby has some books of his own - simple, baby-friendly books with colorful pictures and a few words 

Don't worry! That is completely normal! Read that one page to them and point out the pictures on the page. Gradually increase the length of your reading time, taking your cues from when your child tires of the activity. Soon, they will be sitting for longer and longer periods of time to hear the books. As your child gets older, you can also begin pointing out various letters to them as you read and use your finger to point to the words you are reading. This helps them realize that the words your are saying are related to those symbols they see on the page without ever even having to say so!

Singing the Alphabet 

Probably all of you are familiar with the traditional ABC song, right?  You know it:  "ABCDEFG, HIJKLMNOP, QRS, TUV, WXY and Z. Now I know my ABC's. Next time won't you sing with me.

But, how many times have you heard it sung more like this?

ABCDEFG, HIJK mumble, mumble P, QRS, TUV, WXY and Z. . . .

Because of the rhythm of the traditional song, LMNOP often get jumbled together to sound like one really weird mumbled letter. As I said in my previous post, singing the ABC's does NOT mean that your child knows the ABC's, but it is a fun way to introduce the letters, so we want it to actually make sense when we sing it.  When you are teaching your child the ABC song, please be intentional about those mumbled letters-L, M, N, O, P.  I like to point to the letters as we sing them so that a young child can begin associating the words they are singing with the actual symbol. ESPECIALLY, those jumbled ones.  

* There is an alternative way of singing the ABC’s that I used in my classroom and I’d like to suggest to you - it uses the same tune, but the letters are not jumbled together. Try it a few
times yourself to get the hand of it, then try it with your children. Sure, their school or friends may still do it the old-fashioned way, but by separating the letters into their own beats, the letter names are more clear and easier to distinguish. It goes like this (remember, same tune) “ ABCDEFG, HIJKLMN, OPQ, RST, UVW, XYZ, Now I know my ABC’s, Next time won’t you sing with me!”

And, if you're still not sure how to sing it that way, here is an alternative that is similar to the one I use:


Alphabet Toys  

Just as I encourage you to surround your child with print through books, I  also encourage you to intentionally find toys that have the alphabet on them. Even if their play seem oblivious to the actual letters, that exposure is important and will help them later when they are ready to actually learn more. It will also help with writing as they will be more familiar with how the letters look. (I've included Amazon affiliate links to some of the items if you are interested in purchasing any.)


Wooden alphabet blocks - About as simple as a toy can come, but these are fun to build with, and your child is also being exposed to the letters as they play. You can also find sets of small ABC blocks at Dollar Tree!

Cookie sheet + magnetic letters

Cookie sheet + magnetic letters

Alphabet magnets - These are fun, colorful and a great way to keep your child busy while you are fixing meals. You can put them on the refrigerator or on a cookie sheet if you want them to be portable. (Dollar Tree has cookie sheets and pizza pans that are perfect for this.)


Fridge Phonics - A twist on the classic alphabet magnets, I’ve had this toy by Leap Frog on my fridge for a while now. The "bus" sings a short song about the letter and its sound when the letter is placed into the slot. In addition, there is a button that plays the ABC song.  I have seen my grandkids move from pulling up to the fridge to move the letters around, to pushing the button to hear the song, and now to actually looking for certain letters to spell their names. It is a toy that can grow with your child for several years.

Bath Letters - Learning doesn't have to stop just because it is bathtime. Purchase a set of foam letters or make some of your own with craft foam. When damp, they easily stick to the slick surfaces such as tubs. You can even fill a Rubbermaid storage box with a little water outdoors and enjoy the letters during a bit of water play!


Play-doh Letter Stamps  - These sets are relatively inexpensive and come with small tubs of play-doh and stamps of the letters and numbers. Play-doh is great for fine motor skills and the are a fun way to introduce letters and numbers.

Painting on Newspaper - Let your toddler paint or color on pieces of newspaper, or perhaps pieces of junk mail, painting right over the letters and words. Letter exposure + cheap art paper = WIN!

ABC Mats  These large foam tiles connect and can be used as a rug, play surface or even to build things. I found small foam alphabet mats/puzzles at Dollar Tree, as well. Later, your child will also be able to play lots of higher level ABC games with either of these.

Alphabet Puzzles - Melissa and Doug makes a great alphabet puzzle that tells the name of the letter as you put it in the space, but there are plenty of other simple ones, as well. Even if you child does not yet recognize the letters, matching them on a puzzle is a great place to start!

Here is another one that I really like: The Hape puzzle has chunky letters that will stand up on their own. You can get capitals, lower-case and even numbers!

Tactile letters - Tracing the letters with their fingers provides an additional form of sensory input that helps secure the learning, especially if you child happens to be a tactile learner. There are sets of these you can purchase, or you can make some yourself. 
Cut squares of cardstock or cardboard, then:
print a letter on each one. Trace over the letter with ordinary school glue and let dry. It dries clear, but leaves a ridge that can be felt as they trace the letter with their finger.
Cut out a set of alphabet letters from sandpaper and glue one on each square. 
Cut out a set of letters from a fuzzy fabric such as fleece and glue one on each square
Cut letters from corrugated paper (with ridges to feel)

Name Puzzle - Everyone likes to see their name in print and what a fun way to begin to learn the letters in their name? 

Cooking Up the ABC's - Use those same tub letters or even magnetic letters in the kitchen set your child loves to play with. Let them scoop the letters with a spoon or colander or perhaps cook them with a pancake turner in a pan. 


Felt Letters - I made some large felt ABC's and strung them together to hang as a mobile in my grandson's nursery. These would also be fun toys in a basket! They were not difficult to make, but did require some machine sewing, so if you'd like specifics of how I made them, leave me a comment below and I'll send them to you!

There are so many wonderful ways to work the alphabet into your everyday play. I hope that something here resonated with you and I would also like to hear how YOU have used ordinary toys to introduce the alphabet to your very young children.

Next, we will look at ways to begin intentionally working on the alphabet with preschoolers in ways that will be so fun that they won't ever realize they are learning!!