Tips For Teaching Letters To Preschoolers: Avoid These 4 Common Pitfalls

In many preschool programs (including my own) the structure is that the preschoolers learn one letter per week. This will be our 6th year in a row to have a letter of the week in our home! Before beginning letter lessons at your house, do you know the common pitfalls of teaching preschoolers their letters?

teaching letters avoiding pitfalls

Let’s start with a simple quiz. Can you spot 3 things that are wrong with this letter toy?

bad letter toy for kids

If not, then this article was written for you. Keep reading to find the answers.

Pitfall 1: Teaching The Capital Letters First

Around 97% of the English language is written in lowercase letters, so run with that. WHEN SOMETHING IS WRITTEN IN ALL CAPITALS, IT FEELS LIKE SOMEONE IS SHOUTING IT AT YOU. Also, when you’re teaching your child to write his or her name, don’t teach them in all caps. If you do, you’re just going to have to un-teach it and re-teach it later, which is just silly.

handwriting tips

Pitfall 2: Using Letters That Don’t Look Like Letters

This sounds so basic, but it is something many parents (and many many toy companies) don’t think about.

Avoid the cheap letter magnets you can buy at the Dollar Store or Wal-Mart. They usually have weird blobs on the end of all the letters, much like the Times New Roman font, like these:

letter magnets

The alphabet magnets pictured below are my favorite. They’re offered in lowercase, and all the vowels are red (which matches the colors they will use in the All About Reading program they start in Kindergarten.) They’re also an affordable alternative to a genuine Montessori “movable alphabet.”

good alphabet letters

Also, avoid things with weird fonts. Some letters to look out for are “a” and “g” (example below.) Definitely avoid using fonts like this with preschoolers.

fonts to avoid with preschoolers

Pitfall 3: Teaching The Less Common Letter Sounds

There are a lot of confusing things about the English language. Let’s not throw all the weirdest stuff possible at our kids right at the very beginning, mmmk? Here are some examples of these to avoid:

  • The Letter C- use things that actually make the sound /k/, such as cookie. Don’t start with stuff that makes the sound /s/, such as “Cecilia.” (I know a lot of cute Saint stuff for kids uses St. Cecilia for the letter C. This drives me batty! Also avoid things that start with the sound /ch/, such as “Church.”)
  • The Letter G- use things that make the /g/ sound, as in garden. Don’t use things that make the /j/ sound, such as giraffe (or for instance, St. George.)
  • The Letter X- use things that make an /x/ sound rather than a /z/ sound. This can be tricky because words that start with x will make the sound /z/ as in “xylophone”, or they will say the letter “X” rather than making the sound, as in “X-ray.” To find something that makes the /x/ sound, you usually have to go with words that end in x, such as “fox”, or words that start with ex such as exalt. I usually break my own capital rules for this, and write the word with a big x for this lesson.

teaching letters avoiding pitfalls

Pitfall 4: Teaching Weird Vowel Sounds

Remember the rule above about teaching only one sound at a time? Well, that’s tricky with the vowels because they make lots of weird sounds. Teach your child that vowels are special, and they can say either their sound or their name. The sound of A is /a/ as in “apple”, but A can also say its name as in “ape.”

So for vowels, stick to just the most common sound and the name of the vowel. So O can say the sound /o/ as in “octopus”, or it can say its name as in “open.” These would both be fine examples to use for the letter O. An example of a poor choice would be “owl.” If you say it to yourself a few times, you’ll realize it’s not saying its sound or its name. It’s actually making an /a/ sound at the beginning.

Back to our quiz from the top. Now can you spot 3 things that are wrong with this letter toy?

bad letter toy for kids

  • First of all, it’s in all caps.
  • Second of all, the letters have those weird blobs at the end
  • Third of all, it’s much better to have letter manipulatives that are actually shaped like the letters rather than printed on squares, especially for kinesthetic learners.
  • Giving credit where credit is due: at least they used a word that actually sounds phonetically like the most common letter sounds.

Here’s an example of a very similar, yet much better letter toy:

letter toy for kids

  • It utilizes lowercase letters
  • The letters are shaped the way that people write letters.

I can also throw a few more “pros” onto this one. This example is self-corrective, so it’s impossible to put letters where they don’t belong. It also has dents where the letters go, so your kids can run their fingers in it (much like Montessori sand paper letters.) Melissa and Doug even went as far as to actually print the letter into the hole rather than just having an “s” shaped blob. Well done, Melissa and Doug. Well done. (FYI, if I were in charge of making this toy, I would also color code the consonants and vowels. Just sayin’.)

Now it’s your turn. What are your letter lesson pet peeves?

catholic abc

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Comments

  1. Linda in MI says

    Lacy, your “octopus” and “owl” comment made me grin. My husband and I have conversations about this type of thing all of the time. We pronounce our vowels very differently. When I speak, “octopus” and “owl” have the same beginning sound. Northern MN and MI accents, for example, vary greatly from southern accents, and I have seen this reflected in phonetics lessons for kids. They way “they” say a vowel in a lesson can differ greatly from how we say it. 🙂 Isn’t English (and our regional dialects) great?

    • Lol! Yes, my husband was raised in Wisconsin, and I was raised in South Carolina, so I know EXACTLY what you mean! His whole family pronounces words like “flag” as “flage” and when his brother was learning to spell, he totally put silent e’s on the end of these words! 🙂

  2. I dislike how the focus is on learning letter names first, which is probably one of the most common pitfalls. Letter names aren’t useful for reading.

  3. So, how do you organize the All About Reading Lessons? This is my first year to use All About Reading. I had heard lots of good things about it but when you recommended it, It was the icing on the cake (pun intended) and I ordered. I have had your preschool curriculum a few years now. Do you start with lesson 27 or do you do Lesson 1 and 27 at the same time? My mom used to preach what you did (she is a retired first grade teacher) and then later said it doesn’t really matter. I would love to hear your thoughts on how to use All About Reading most effectively. THANKS!

    • Yes, for the All About Reading Pre-Reading, I teach the lesson for big A, then the lesson for little a, then the lesson for the sound of a all in the same week. Then I move onto B. It’s easy to do the lessons out of order like this because the index is so straight-forward.

  4. I actually teach all caps first for their names. Here is some interesting info on why:
    http://www.hwtears.com/files/Teaching_Children_Their_Name.pdf

    I love all the things Handwriting Without Tears has to offer. I use it and Writing Our Catholic Faith at home for my preschoolers. At the Catholic School where my first grader attends they use Writing Our Catholic Faith as well.

    I love those M&D letter boards. We have them too, a hand-me-down no less!!

  5. Yes!!!! 🙂

  6. Sarah Rose says

    Great post! I once bought some nifty pop up animal alphabet flashcards and they used “shark” for Ss and it drove me crazy!

    Another good tip I learned while working in kindergarten is to make sure kids don’t add the “uh” sound to the end of letter sounds when practicing. For example, Dd says [d], not “duh,” Bb says [b] not “buh,” Vv says vvvvvv, not “vuh.” When we put the letters into words we say bird, not buh-ird; van, not vuh-an. Its a little hard to get across in a written message, but I hope you get what I mean!

    This also reminds me of when I tried to teach my son that Cc could also say [s]. We were drawing shapes and I wrote the names underneath them. He told me that that couldn’t be the word “circle” becuase circle starts with Ss. I told him that sometimes Cc can make the [s] sound and gave a few more examples. He would not accept it and argued with me about it quite vehemently! Even after I showed him several Youtube videos to prove I wasn’t making it up! He has come around since then though. 🙂

    • Lol! That’s so funny. My first child is a real “rule follower” like that, which is why I love All About Spelling so much for her. The “rule” for that one is that c says /s/ when it comes before i, e, or y. 🙂

  7. stephanie wilson says

    I have a master’s degree in curriculum, instruction and assessment, and have taught preschool as well as elementary grade levels. I think this post is spot on! Thank you for sharing your skills!

  8. I also note, in our house that is a ‘hat’ and not a ‘cap’! We ran into that a lot with early educational toys & it led to many conversations as to which ones were dated (pocketbook vs purse) or merely regional preferences (sofa vs couch). I often found bargain toys with odd or uncommon words for things (S is for schooner? Seriously? Couldn’t the boat by the letter S just be a ship?!). When my twins approached kindergarten age, I purchased some quality picture dictionaries by DK Books online, only to discover it was from their UK division, which the seller had neglected to note (color/colour, apartment/flat). If you’re lucky enough to have some vintage toys and books around, you might find the letter D pictures a boy sitting on a stool with a pointy hat on his head next to the word ‘dunce’!

  9. Thanks!!!

  10. As Monica mentioned, there are several compelling reasons to teach upper case first. They are all the same size, there are no tails going below the line, they start in the same place. I also don’t like when letters are taught in ABC order… Better to teach them based on how they are formed.

  11. I agree with many of your comments–was just thinking of some of that this morning, in fact! One thing I’d like to see changed, though, on the Melissa and Doug example is the color of the letters. They should either be all the same color or you could paint them to match the Montessori sandpaper letters, if you have them. For instance, mine would be red vowels and blue consonants.

  12. Where did you get the printouts that you are using with the alphabett magnets- the printouts with the picture of the pig and 3 spots below it for the letters? I have been looking all over for those printables and can’t find them! Thanks!

  13. Thanks for sharing! I totally agree! What bugs me the most is when teachers teach the writing of letters a certain way and don’t really follow through with their own example outside of the handwriting lesson. What does that say to a child?
    When teaching letters, there is more than one aspect to it: reading, hearing/speaking, writing. All of it falls under the category of Language Arts. I found when teaching at the elementary level, that there are different reasons to start with a different letter. Writing: the letter l followed by o because their forms are the fundamentals of making other letters. Reading/hearing/speaking: start with the sound /m/ along with the letters Mm at the same time because it’s the easiest sound to make, and one of the first sounds recognized by a baby. The capitals are taught together with the lower case so that one is always recognized to be associated with the other.

  14. I disagree slightly about the letter “x”. The letter “c” makes /k/, and the letter “x” makes /z/. Both letters have another sound, but I think “x” making the sound /z/ is an ok thing to teach.

    • The most common x sound is actually like a /ks/

      • I agree! I use Zoo-Phonics in my preschool, and though it isn’t perfect, I love how they teach the letter X. The letter X is represented by Xavier Fox who likes to sit on a box and knit his socks. So you get the /ks/ sound multiple times. Bonus, you make knitting needles with your pointed fingers and ‘click’ them together when you make the /ks/ sound– hello kinesthetic learners! Lacy– I’m printing this article as we speak to share with the parents of my preschoolers!

  15. PS: the “blobs” on the letters are serifs. ☺️

  16. I enjoyed your post. I never put much thought into these things. My oldest two learned to read rather easily. My third is dyslexic and made me think more about how I teach. I love AAR, but even that stumped my son. They are using Pitfall#2. They use “a” and “g” like this. It totally confused him. Now we use the IEW Primary Arts of Language and have success. Have you heard of this curriculum? I highly recommend it.

  17. I dislike all the manipulatives, toys, textbooks, and classroom decor for young children being so busy with so many cartoonish bright colors on all over and graphics on top of each. It’s so confusing and over-stimulating. For our homeschool room and most of what’s in it I stuck to an uncluttered neutral/natural look.

  18. Nicholas Montessori School says

    Useful sharing.. thank for the same..

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