Teaching reading and writing – a few tips

By no means do I know all there is to know about teaching reading and writing but with two teaching degrees and a decade and a half of teaching (over 10 years of those in Grade1), I do know a few things. The first thing that may come as a shock to most people is that I would not advocate overtly teaching your child how to say, write or sing the alphabet at a young age.

Reading and writing is so much more than the alphabet. Teaching the alphabet too young (when a child isn’t ready) is of the same value as teaching them a nursery rhyme or how to recognise a square. So, not particularly harmful (unless incorrectly taught) but not overly valuable (as in it doesn’t put them at any reading advantage). There are so many extremely valuable pre-reading and pre-writing skills that need to be in place before any of the actual letter naming or forming can be of any meaning to a child.

Some of those many skills are: strengthening the hand grip, building core strength, improving fine-motor skills, working on figure ground perception, hand-eye coordination, directionality, patterning, eye tracking, crossing the midline etc etc etc

Sadly these pre-skills often get glossed over by parents because they are less impressive than your child being able to recite the alphabet in a meaningless parrot-fashion way. In pre-school these skills are all carefully developed through guided activities and play. So that your child is ready when they get to Grade 0 or Grade 1. These skills are not really adequately developed if your child spends too much time on devices or in front of screens (no matter what the advertisement for the app may have told you).

With all of this in mind I am hesitantly teaching my (almost 5 year old) the alphabet. It really is against my better judgement but she has begged and begged and begged (this might be because for the past 8 weeks she has watched me teaching my classes online and seems to think she is missing out on something) and she is not the type of person to let anything go. I believe strongly in teaching her the things she asks for – because it is in these moments that we are the most open to learning. It also makes her feel listened too, which is a huge thing for me. Incidental learning is also big on my agenda – so hopefully she will get some of that.

I am trying to teach her the alphabet in as many varied ways as I can because even though I am not convinced she will come out of this knowing her letters or being able to read, I do want her to develop some skills along the way.

If you find yourself in a similar boat or are just at home isolated/locked down and need to teach your Grade 1/Grade 0 child the alphabet etc then here are some pointers to help you in the right direction.

Firstly, teach your child the letter sounds (a as in apple, b as in ball) and not the letter names (a=ay; b=bee etc). This allows them to sound out words when trying to spell and read later on. If you are uncertain there are great websites that say the letter sounds for you, try find one specific to your country because accents can vary so much.

Next try to work on letter/sound association – I would really only focus on the initial sound of a word because this is the one that comes most easily. So for example, “this is the letter that makes the sound a”, “can you think of something that starts with a” or “find me something that starts with a”. Naturally children will, most easily, remember the letters that form their own name and the initial letters of family member’s names.

Try to teach lower case letters only. It’s just easier, trust me.

As adults we have developed a certain letter formation style (or we were not taught correctly). If you are going to teach your child letter formation or handwriting, do your child a huge favour and take time to research the correct formation of a letter. To unlearn the incorrect formation is often impossible. I won’t go into it but basically, letter formation is done a certain way in order to make the best use of hand muscles and allow your child to write for longer without hand fatigue (useful in later years). Basically speaking the majority of lower case letters should be formed completely without picking up the pencil. They should start from the top (mostly) or in the case of round letters like an a, they start at the 2 o’clock position (think of where the 2 is on a clock). Again I would strongly suggest that you work with tracing and forming various pre-writing patterns before attempting the alphabet… but assuming your child has done that and knows how to move from left to right on a page etc, then try some letters.

Usually (if reading and not letter formation is the aim) then there is a particular order in which to teach the letter sounds (c,a,t,m,o,p being the first group), the main reason for this is so that children can start to form basic 3-letter words very early on and that feeling of success will give them a great sense of achievement and the excitement to continue learning.

I made some texture paint (super easy and inexpensive) by mixing approx. ¼ cup child friendly paint (poster paint or similar) with approx. 40ml wood glue and a small handful of sand. When it dries it feels a little like sandpaper and gives great sensory feedback to the child. Using this I painted the alphabet letters onto white cardboard. I then put starting dots onto the letters in a contrasting colour. My daughter traces over the letters (starting at the starting dot) when I am busy and she feels like picking them up. This allows her to start becoming familiar with letter formation. Over the next few days I am going to post various activities, using these letter cards, on my social media pages @playcleaneatrepeat (on both Instagram and FaceBook). So take a look to get a few ideas on how to use the alphabet cards to boost your child’s reading and writing skills.

I hope you enjoy and find some of the above info useful.

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