Helping preschoolers to gain letter recognition skills does not need to feel like “work.”
The best way to teach letter recognition is through play, in a fun, stress-free, and positive manner.
Here’s a brief intro to letter recognition, followed by 14 letter identifying activities.
What Letter Recognition Means
Learning letter recognition skills involves several different hands-on components.
Children need to distinguish the shapes of letters from each other (visually recognize them) and be able to point to and state the letter names, as well as the sounds made by each letter.
In addition, they must learn to form letters and write them.
These skills do not all need to be accomplished during the preschool years and in fact, preschoolers are not yet developmentally ready to learn to read and write.
When Should a Child Recognize Letters of the Alphabet?
Although you can read about average ages when kids gain alphabet skills, those often vary widely.
Just as children learn to walk and talk at different ages, the same is true for recognizing letters of the alphabet.
They each learn at their own pace, depending on many factors.
How to Build Skills to Prepare Children for Letter Recognition
Through fun play activities, parents can help their children gain various developmental skills that prepare preschoolers for letter identification.
Those types of skills include visual perception, memory and auditory perception.
What this means is that learning the letters does not in fact start with exposure to the actual letters, but rather to play activities that develop these skills.
These skills also include visual-motor and eye-hand coordination.
Helpful kinds of activities include:
- Those that exercise the large muscles (such as throwing/catching).
- Small motor activities (like lacing).
- Visual perception (such as building puzzles).
- Limiting screen time, which has limitations related to visual perception skills.
Memory development relates to storing and using information in the brain.
Stress-free activities to enhance these skills include:
- Simple card games
- Memory card games (get your own by downloading the FREE set of printables at the end of the post)
- Talking about fun memories
- Story visualization
- Reading and talking about books
- Visual memory games, like picture bingo
- Auditory memory games
Auditory perception includes the brain’s ability to distinguish sounds and words, which is important for learning the sounds of letters.
These are the kind of activities that can support this skill:
- Listening to music
- Distinguishing animal sounds
- Clapping out copied rhythm patterns
How to Teach Letter Recognition to Children
Even before children show an interest in print, these kinds of activities are meaningful and fun and will set the stage for letter recognition:
- Reading to them
- Sharing poems and nursery rhymes
- Talking to them
- Telling stories
- Singing songs to or with them
Keep it fresh, keep it new, and be willing to return to their favourite activities when asked.
As your children show a growing interest in print, make it available to them whenever possible.
Instead of keeping that book to yourself as you read to them, show children the words, running your fingers over them as you read. Let kids turn the pages of books.
Have books available in the home to which kids have constant access.
So many things around the house contain words, like packages, lists, letters, emails, screens, magazines, and greeting cards.
Point and touch as you read, showing children that you are using words daily, expressing how much can be learned through their use.
Write in front of your kids for all different purposes, at least sometimes spelling aloud.
Make drawing and writing tools and surfaces available to children at all times, indoors and out.
Don’t just offer the traditional papers and crayons – include:
- Drawing with sticks in the sand
- Writing on clay or playdough
- Drawing on shower and bath walls with soap
Should I Teach the Letters in a Specific Order?
Instead of teaching letters in any special, prescribed order, focus on those that are used most often and in order of importance for your children.
They typically want to know about the letters:
- In their names.
- In “MOM” and “DAD”.
- In a pet’s name.
- In environmental print (like on STOP or WALK signs).
- In outstanding words from a favourite storybook.
Think about and pay attention to those letters and words that appear to be interesting to your kids, using them as the foundation to build upon.
Then, when children are ready to formally learn the letters, teach them using sets of letters that make the most combinations of words, as explained in this article on teaching letters.
Is it Better to Teach Upper or Lowercase Letters First?
For preschoolers, the field of occupational therapy makes a good case for beginning with capitals in handwriting letter formation.
They are formed from larger lines and curves that avoid retracing and changing directions, while still teaching top to bottom strokes.
If children try to form letters for which their visual-motor skills are not prepared, they sometimes build poor habits that can be difficult to break later on.
Of course, your children may be familiar with lowercase letters, seeing them in many print formats, and gradually learning to identify them.
When their motor skills are ready, they typically make an easy switch to including them along with uppercase when they write.
Letter Recognition Activities and Games for Preschoolers
Here are some fun ways to teach letter recognition through play.
1. Point Out Environmental Print
Print is all around us.
Point out, talk about and stress the sounds of words on signs (such as favourite restaurants and traffic/street signs), cereal or other product boxes/labels, and familiar logos.
2. Share Rhyming Books
Read favourite rhyming books to your children, accentuating the rhyme and rhythm.
Afterwards, play an oral game of stating some rhyming words from the story and adding a new rhyming word of your own.
Challenge your kids to come up with more words that rhyme. Either real or pretend “words” are okay, as it is the rhyming factor that counts.
3. Letter Hunt
Point out and talk about the letters in your child’s name, making them clearly visible in print.
Show them how you find one of those same letters in a magazine or newspaper and cut it out as a rather square piece (not necessarily trying to cut out close to the letter’s edges).
Challenge them to find other letters from their name in print and cut those out, as well.
After all the letters have been found, they can arrange them in the correct order for their name.
These may be kept in a small bag for future use or glued onto a coloured sheet of paper to post on the fridge or in your child’s room.
Instead of cutting, another option is to use different colours of highlighters to mark various letters found in print.
4. Play with Plastic/Wooden Letters
Letters may be sorted and put into piles in different ways:
- Those with curves
- Letters with straight lines
- Those from a child’s name or other important words
- Letters they can name
- Those for which they can say the sounds
Letters with magnets may be used on the fridge or on a magnet board for sorting purposes.
5. Bake Letters
Use bread or pretzel dough to form letters with your children, then bake them to be eaten later.
While you work, talk about the letter names, sounds, and easy words (like their names) that may be formed.
Special baking tins and cookie cutters may be purchased to bake letters. You can also bake oblong cakes and cut them into large letter shapes, as well.
6. Form Letters with Familiar Materials
Offer kids various types and colours of pasta to form letters on flat backgrounds, either to glue into place or to leave loose and rearrange into different letters.
Other materials to explore might include:
- Dry breakfast cereals
- Buttons or pennies
- Cotton balls
- Dried beans
7. Form Letters with Unusual Materials
Using a tabletop or oblong baking pan with low sides, spread shaving cream or pudding for children to trace letters into with their fingers.
The same may be done with sand (or moved outside), to trace in with fingers or safe “sticks,” like pencils, dowels, or rulers.
8. Go on a Scavenger Hunt
Have children choose a letter card or cutout. Talk about how the letter looks and sounds.
Depending on children’s level of development, challenge them to find things around the house that have that letter printed on them or objects that begin with that letter’s sound.
9. Fish for Letters
Magnetic letter fishing games may be purchased or made with paper, magnets, paper clips, dowels, and string.
Name or pick a letter, focusing on how it looks and/or sounds. Kids then “fish” for the matching letters from the “pond.”
They can also just fish for a random letter and then name it once it is “caught.”
You can also use a version of this game later on, when children are learning to match upper and lowercase letters.
10. Play Musical Chairs with Letters
Add paper plates with letters or letters cut from cardboard right onto the chairs or onto the floor beneath.
Children walk around the circle and find a place to sit when the music stops. They each then name the letter on their chair or floor directly beneath.
11. Find Letters on a Keyboard
Make use of an old computer keyboard or typewriter. Get kids to name the letters as they touch the keys.
They can also find them to press as you say the names, sounds, or hold up cards, one letter at a time.
12. Spray or Write Letters Outdoors
Offer spray bottles with water for children to spray letters on driveways, sidewalks, or even the side of your house.
Another option is to use sidewalk chalk to write letters on the driveway, patio, or basketball court.
13. Form Letters with Bendable Materials
Get your children to bend pipe cleaners, chenille stems, or products like Wikki Stix (string covered in wax) to form letters.
Children often like to make multiple letters and form words, as well.
14. Find the Hidden Letters
“Bury” plastic or wooden letters in a sand table or sand box. Ask children to name the letters as they are discovered.
Other materials may be used as alternates in sand tables or large trays, such as coloured rice, pasta, dried beans, or birdseed.
All of these ideas for teaching letter recognition can help to strengthen a child’s early literacy skills.
Pay attention to where they stand in their development and keep raising the bar just a bit higher, while still returning to those games and activities in which they feel a high measure of success.
This is the key to learning.
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