Before You Teach the Alphabet: helping your child be ‘school ready’

Before You Teach the Alphabet: helping your child be 'school ready'

Parents often ask me how best to introduce their child to the alphabet. Whilst it’s good to introduce children to letters, there is a lot of early sound awareness skills that are more fundamental than knowing the letters of the alphabet. Children need to notice the sounds within words so they can start applying this knowledge when exploring books or crayons.

Having a good awareness of the sounds that make up each word, understanding their structure and spotting patterns are all important early literacy skills. These sound awareness skills not only support reading and writing, but also play a part in how we learn new vocabulary.


Clapping out the beats (syllables) of a word helps highlight this important aspect of word structure. Emphasising the syllables within words can also help with speech clarity, as longer words can be difficult for young children. I often explore syllables of common words using simple puzzles, toy animals or a favourite picture book. The challenge in these activities is to find words of more than two syllables, but I am usually saved by the popularity of elephants, helicopters and butterflies.


It’s wonderful how we acquire nursery rhymes from those around us, whether it’s Granny, or the local library Rhyme Time. These familiar songs help emphasise the rhythm and patterns in language. Knowledge of rhyme helps build awareness of the individual sounds within words. I often focus on highlighting words that rhyme, or give my own examples of rhyming pairs. Even non-words are useful for emphasising rhyme (e.g. ‘cat, mat, dat, lat‘). Rhyme strings like this give lots of opportunities to spot the pattern.

Sounds vs. letters

It is useful for children to be aware of the difference between a letter and the sound it makes. The letter is the name of a grapheme, while the sound is what is says. For example: “B’ is the letter, which makes the sound ‘buh’”. This distinction helps us talk clearly about words and spellings and is particularly useful when we later introduce more complex spellings such as the ‘ph’ in ‘phone’. When sounding out words, make the sounds as short and clear as possible. Many schools now give introductory phonics workshops, which is a hugely valuable practical step towards helping children’s early literacy.

The most positive step you can take towards helping your child to acquire these skills is to make it easy. I spend a lot of time (sometimes weeks or even months) giving examples rather than testing their knowledge, waiting until the child appears confident of the concept before asking them to do it independently. A love of words and books is such a powerful tool for children, my main focus in these early years is to nurture their natural curiosity and enthusiasm.

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