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.
Children learn language by continually hearing language being used in context all around them - hearing language spoken clearly and properly will help them talk correctly themselves and will also help them learn spelling when they are older. Phonetics is all about spelling out the sounds that you hear, but if children aren't speaking words correctly, then they will find it more difficult to spell them.
For example, children dropping 'g' in words ending in 'ing' will not hear the 'g' when they spell phonetically and will omit the final letter in words like walking/walkin', talking/talkin' and so on. Children muddling 'th' and 'f' will be disadvantaged when learning to spell three/free, thanks/fanks.
If you hear your children mispronouncing words or sounds, then try to correct them early on so that they don't get entrenched with the wrong pronunciation which in turn could stifle their spelling and reading later on. Speak clearly and properly with your children and as they grow up, they will find it easier to talk clearly themselves, and in turn to learn spelling when the time comes to it.
Toddlers may be too young to be able to play word games, but as soon as they start talking, you can play sound games based on word games that older children enjoy! Here are some fun ideas:-
- I-Spy: Rather than playing I-Spy for words beginning with letters, play I-Spy for things beginning with sounds. For example, I-Spy with my little eye, something beginning with 'TR' (for 'tree'), 'K' (for car) or 'Sh' (for sheep)
- Alphabet Animals: Go through the alphabet giving the sound for each letter and ask your little one to name an animal beginning with that sound. Couple this with a trip to a petting farm or zoo where they can learn new animal names!
- Word Chains: Look around and say the name of something that you see. Then have your little one say a word that begins with the sound of the last letter. For example, you might start with Table, then your toddler must offer a word beginning with 'L', perhaps Lamp. Then you say a word beginning with 'P' and so on...
- Sounding Words: Take words and sound them out with your toddler so that they begin to understand sounds and syllables. This will give them a head start when they start to learn spelling phonetically at school! Trak-ter, spag-ett-ee, okt-o-puss, tel-er-vish-un and so on. Have your little one sound out words for objects they see in the room.
These games are great to play when you have to pass time, perhaps when you are waiting at the doctor's or dentist's, on a car journey, or queuing at the supermarket.
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!