Preschool children may not be able to read and write, but they can be taught to recite the alphabet and to count. Young children learn through repeating sounds, so while they can learn to say the alphabet, they may not, at that stage, realise what they are saying, the alphabet will probably seem to be a stream of different sounds. They may not even be able to distinguish the sounds for each individual letter. For example there may be no rational way to deduce that 'double-yoo' (W) is one letter where as 'el-em-en' (LMN) is three letters. However, teaching young children to recite the alphabet, and to count to 10 is still a very valuable exercise because it will start to reinforce a familiarity with letters and numbers that they will take with them when they start school.
Practice counting and to recite the alphabet when you are out and about, sing numbers and letters as songs. Teach them the phonetic alphabet too which is probably how they will first be taught to say the alphabet when they reach school.
When you are at home or in a play setting, you can continue to say the alphabet and count using letter and number charts. Point to the letters and numbers as you pass them and this will help with visual learning, tying together letters and numbers with their sounds.
One day your child will learn to read, and there's a lot that you can do to prepare them and make learning to read an easier task. Before children can read there are some fundamental principles that they must understand. They must be able to differentiate letters, words and numbers from pictures, they should be familiar with books and know that pages read from top left to bottom right and they should be able to identify each letter and know the sound that each one makes. Even with all this there is still a lot more to learn before they can read, but at least they are in good shape to learn more easily.
Teach your child letters from an early age, sing the ABC song so that they learn their alphabet, and have them recognise their name. Spot letters when you are out and about and play phonic games to help grow familiarity with the sounds of letters. Write labels for things around your home and put signs up for your child to be able to spot different words. Part of reading is about being able to read letters and make out a word, but many words have irregular letters and sounds and are more easily learned through recognition by exposure to them over time.
There's no doubt that reading encompasses a lot of different skills and knowledge, but being surrounded by letters and sounds, your child really will absorb the knowledge required to learn to read, and you'll find that they will learn to read more quickly than other children who weren't given this encouragement.
Learning language is a complex process, not least because the English language seems to be full of exceptions - but understanding the difference between language and writing helps to explain some of those problems. Our alphabet only provides an approximation to language, and sounds and letters do not always match.
Take the specific example of 'a' and 'an'. Early on we are taught that 'a' is used before a word beginning with a consonant, and 'an' is used before words starting with a vowel. Just as we've learned this rule, we suddenly find that there are exceptions!
- An honourable person
- A universal truth
- A one off charge
- An hour ago
- An MMR injection
In actual fact, there is a rule with no exceptions, but it is distilled to sounds and not letters - language and not written interpretation. The rule is:-
'a' is used before vowel SOUNDS, 'an' is used before consonant SOUNDS
When we pronounce 'honourble', we drop the 'h' and use an 'o' sound at the start of the word. When we say 'MMR' we start with the vowel sound 'em' which DOES begin with a vowel. With this understanding, there are no exceptions to the rule of when to use 'a' or 'an'.
The written English language uses 26 letters, but there are 44 sounds. You've probably seen funny symbols, some of which are regular letters, used to display the pronunciation of words in a dictionary, for example:-
These are phonemes, of which there are 20 vowel sounds and 24 consonant sounds in the English language (with additional marks to signify stress). For a full chart of phonemic sounds, click here. The more you look at language, the more clear it becomes that the written language and spoken language are two pretty different things, but for all its simplification, we're glad to have just 26 letters in our language rather than the estimated 47,000 characters of traditional Chinese!