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When do Kids Learn the Alphabet?

You’ve heard differing opinions on when kids learn the alphabet? Research has answered this question, so get a parent-friendly answer here.

Despite what you hear on Instagram, it does matter when your child learns the alphabet.

There are influencers who just want parents to feel good and not worry. Or they might not read the research about alphabet knowledge.

But as the mom of a dyslexic child, a kindergarten reading specialist, and Orton-Gillingham trained tutor, I will say this is harmful.

English is an alphabetic language. In order to be literate, children need to have fluency with letter names and letter sounds.

The American education system teaches reading in the early grades. And I want all children to be successful.

So let’s cut through all the noise and look at what the research says about reading success. Then you can make an informed choice about learning the alphabet.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. Read more here.

When do Kids Learn the Alphabet?

There is a range when kids learn the alphabet. Most children learn the alphabet between ages 3-4.

Some children who are early readers or have hyperlexia might learn the alphabet as young as 1 or 2 years old.

But in order to be a strong reader and reduce the risk of reading failure, learning the alphabet at 4 years old or during the PreKindergarten year is important.

Letter Recognition vs Letter Identification

Before we talk more about how kids learn the alphabet, it’s important to understand these terms:

  • letter recognition
  • letter identification

What is letter recognition?

Letter recognition is easier than letter identification. It often precedes it and it can be a really helpful step for children whose spoken language may be lagging.

In letter recognition, you say to your child, “which letter is A?” Then your child hands you or points to the A.

This is activity is receptive. Your child is hearing it and receiving the information. Their action is less demanding for most children.

What is letter identification?

This step is a little more difficult. It is expressive.

Your child sees a bunch of letters, recognizes the letter A, and then says, “That’s A.”

It is important for parents to understand the difference between letter recognition and identification. Younger children or those with speech and language issues need to start with letter recognition because it comes before identification.

When your kids learn the alphabet, make sure you are emphasizing both letter recognition and letter identification.

When should a child recognize letters of the alphabet?

You’re really here for an answer to this question: When do kids learn the alphabet?

I won’t beat around the bush. Children should learn the letters by their pre-kindergarten year at the latest. In the United States, this is four years old.

They should learn letter recognition and letter identification during this year. Research indicates that knowing 18 capital letters, 15 lowercase letters, and a handful of sounds is protective against reading failure in first grade (Piasta, et al, 2015).

Should my five year old know the letters?

Absolutely. Your five year old should know the letters.

If a five year old doesn’t enter kindergarten with some letter knowledge, they are at a disadvantage.

If they simply haven’t been adequately taught, that’s a fixable problem. Maybe your child hasn’t had a lot of exposure.

If you have tried to teach your child the alphabet and they are struggling to learn it, that’s an early sign of dyslexia. You should speak with the school and your child’s doctor about getting a dyslexia evaluation.

Letter Sounds vs. Letter Names

There is a lot of chatter on the internet that letter sounds are more important than letter names. That’s not true.

Research by Piasta and Wagner (2010) found that teaching letter names only improved children’s letter sound knowledge.

But the opposite wasn’t true. Teaching letter sounds doesn’t transfer to learning letter names.

This is likely because the letter sounds are embedded in many letter names like /b/ is in B.

There are other reasons that learning letter names is important.

Letter Sounds

First, letters do not make sounds. Letters represent sounds.

Think about that for a second. English is made up of 44 speech sounds. Letters spell those sounds.

The letter a can represent or spell very different sounds in different words:

  • cat
  • cake
  • watch
  • again

With my kindergarten students, my dyslexic tutor students, and my own children, I’ve moved away from saying letters make or say sounds. Instead, I ask, “What sound does this letter spell?”

Letter Formation

In addition to realizing that letters don’t make sounds, your child will need to learn that letters are formed in many different ways.

Your child will see the letter a look many different ways in print. They need to have a consistent name for all those formations.

As mentioned above, the sounds the letter a represents can vary across all these different letter formations. However, the name A remains the same.

Key Indicator for Dyslexia

Teaching children the letter names is really accessible for a lot of parents.  Most parents know the letter names while teaching letter sounds is less intuitive.

Difficulty learning letter names is a key early indicator of dyslexia. Many parents will shrug off challenges with letter sounds with “oh my child isn’t ready for this abstract thinking yet.”

However, knowing the importance of learning letter names by age five positions parents to advocate better for early intervention for dyslexia.

How do I teach my child the alphabet?

This is how you teach your child the alphabet.

  • Be clear
  • Use multisensory methods
  • Avoid one letter at a time
  • Review, review, review

Be clear

In teaching, we can this explicit instruction. You need to be very clear with your child.

This sounds like, “This is the capital letter A. Say, ‘A’. Let’s make a letter A. Big line down. Back to the top, big line down. Cross in the middle.”

Use Multisensory Methods

Give your child the opportunity to touch and trace the letter. The Road Letters and Numbers are great for this. Your child can drive a car as they say the letter name and form the letter.

You can also use a tray with sand or salt or just have your child trace the letter on the flashcard.

Hearing, saying, and touching all at once making learning more permanent.

Avoid one letter at a time

I cringe when I see packets on the internet with a focus on one letter at a time. In the beginning, this could be okay.

You want to avoid spending a whole week on one letter before introducing another. This is a tradition in preschools and kindergarten but not based on evidence.

Instead, research supports teaching one letter a day for 26 days and then cycling back through the letters.

This is where review, review, review comes in.

Review, review, review

When you look for products to teach your child the alphabet, look for ones with spiral review.

You want to make sure your child learns one letter and then has more opportunities to practice it as they learn new letters.

So to help your kids learn the alphabet, make sure to use resources that help you with those four key strategies.

Alphabet Worksheets

You can check out all the preschool alphabet worksheets available on Printable Parents.

But you can save hours of time but getting your alphabet worksheets in one spot.

The Everything Alphabet Bundle is full of worksheets your child needs. They were created with developing one fine motor skill at a time while building alphabet knowledge.


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