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"A good education for every child does not mean the same education for every child.  "

Please use what works for you and your child and ignore the rest.  Every child is different.  If this information does not seem to be a good fit for your particular child, then keep looking and experimenting until you find what works.


This Web Page by Pauline Harding for Art Nurk,
Contents may be copied for personal use if credit is given.  Please ask for permission before any other use.  Do not copy this information onto your own web site without permission..

Basic Shape Recognition

To read, you must be able to differentiate between similar letters and words.  You can nurture general shape recognition skills in several ways:

Label Games

You can either cut labels and logos off of cans and boxes, or use the cans and boxes themselves.  Sort them, match them, glue them to posters.  “PathMark”.  The golden arches.  Lego.  Organize the can shelf – can you sort the soups?  Which oatmeal packets are the same?  Which are different?  Which is the one you like?  Understand that you are not working on reading per se, but on looking carefully at the shapes and symbols on the packages.

Matching Games

Make your own matching games.  Start by using pictures, then use letters or words later on.  These games can vary considerably based on the complexity of the pictures.  Stickers from Hallmark or a teacher supply store can make great games.  You can also make copies of pictures out of favorite books, or draw your own pictures.  


Jigsaw puzzles are of course great for pattern recognition skills.  Tangrams, pattern blocks, and other mathematical manipulatives may also be useful.

Getting Started with the Alphabet

You can find letters everywhere!  “O” is a good letter to start with.  In the grocery store line, find out how many O’s are in “COSMOPOLITAN”.  On a walk, find the “O” on the stop sign.  “C” is an “O” that doesn’t go all the way around.  “Q” is an “O” with a little line in the corner.  “Yes, that looks like a “C”, but it’s a “G” because it has this little line”.  Cut out a W.  Turn it upside down.  It’s an M!!!  Look at the legs of the picnic table – do they make an “X”?

The alphabet song can be fun, but it doesn’t generally help kids associate the letter’s shape with its name.  It’s mainly useful for alphabetizing things when they’re older.

Don’t stress about upper vs. lower case.  Most kids start with upper case, then eventually learn lower.  Do go ahead and explain it though, so your child understands why G and g are the same letter!

A good time to start this is when the child is “labeling” things – like asking you to read endless vehicle books where you get to point to things and say “car”,  “van” , “front end loader” , “school bus” , etc.  Some kids do this with dinosaurs.  My daughter liked to read about shoes. 

Alphabet Manipulatives

We have enjoyed two-dimensional letters (vinyl bathtub clings) that we could play with – the C was always used as a bracelet and we loved turning the M into a W and vice-versa.  We also used to have a set of 3-D letter blocks – the block was a sort of extruded version of the letter. 

Traditional alphabet blocks are generally not worth it – they just aren’t particularly good for building, so they don’t get played with much.  Use something else for alphabet learning and stick with good quality unit blocks and/or Kapla blocks for building.

Refrigerator letters are of course classic – but don’t forget to move on to refrigerator words once the alphabet is mastered.

Alphabet soup! 

Alphabet cookies!  Alphabet pancakes!  Alphabet soft pretzels!  You can get sets of alphabet and number cookie cutters at kitchen stores, and there’s an “Alphabake” book-and-cookie-cutters set.

Alphabet books

Alphabet books are great – they take it one step farther by associating the letter with the sound it makes at the beginning of words.  Try to find ones which have a large, clear picture of the letter – preferably upper and lower together.

Alphabet Vitamins

We used to get vitamins with alphabet letters on them.  We played a game – you had to think of a word that started with the letter on your vitamin.

Making letters

Letters in the snow (with your feet or with water-and-food-coloring in a squirt bottle)!  Letters in sand at the beach!  Letters in shaving cream in the bathtub!  Letters on the child’s back!  Letters in glue and glitter!  Letters made from glued-on beans!

Fill in the Letter

Make up cards with thing like “A B __”, and ask the child to guess the missing letter.  “D __ F” is a bit harder, and “__ K L” is hardest of all.  (This is useful in math, too – (3 __ 4) and so on.)

Mixing up B and D                  

Lots of kids mix up b and d, some for a long time.  Use the word bed to help.  Write “bed” and draw a person sleeping with their head on the “b”.  Now when the child can’t figure out a letter, ask if it is the letter at the beginning of the bed or the end of the bed.  B-Bed is the beginning, Bed – D is the end.  You can also make the bed by putting your thumbs up and knuckles together to form the bed.  Your left hand forms the “b”, and your right hand forms the “d”.  Compare the unknown letter to the two hands to see if it is at the beginning or end of the bed.  This is all much easier to do than to explain!

Letters in Context:  Words

It’s a good idea to show that letters generally occur in groups, and that those groups make words.  “What’s this one?  That’s right, C!  And this one?  A!  And this one?  T!  Hey!  C-A-T – that spells “cat”!  I like to then draw a little cat.  Other good words for this are STOP, the child’s name, MOM, DAD, sibling names.  CAR provides a nice contrast to CAT, since only one letter is different.  After doing this a bunch, you can turn it around – “C-A-T – what does that spell?”.  Keep the number of words for this very small – five or six is plenty.  This is essentially memorization, but it can lead to an understanding of the basic concepts behind reading, and jump-start the process.

Key Vocabulary

A key vocabulary can be a good strategy for the beginning of the reading process.  Choose a few words to focus on – good choices are the child’s name, “mom”, “cat” (or “dog” or “fish” – whatever you have!), “car” (for car lovers), etc.  Notice that “cat” and “car” are similar and will require careful looking to see which is which. 

You can use these words for games, point them out while reading, use them in writing, etc.  Hang them on a “word wall”.  Once these words have been mastered, you can move on to increasing the vocabulary.