Each time I travel to Thailand, I am mesmerized by Thai writing. To me, the 44 letters look indistinguishable from each other, a fluid series of loops and curves and lines with hooks. I marvel at how anyone can learn and make sense of this seemingly unfathomable script.
I wonder if that is how my kindergartener looks at our own Roman alphabet – a bewildering procession of lines, circles and half-circles. To my adult eyes, recognizing the letters has become intuitive. But to my new learner, these 26 symbols must seem foreign and intimidating.
“As adults, most of us don’t remember when we learned the alphabet,” says Paulette Breithaupt, Sunset Hill School kindergarten teacher. “We need to compare it with learning a foreign language, the usage of a new machine, computer program – things that might seem almost foreign to us at first. The letter symbols to children do not make any sense either. Why are those squiggly marks called certain things?”
Some children are “fast learners” of the alphabet and pick it up easily, but only 5 percent of the kindergarten population falls into this category. Most kids need a bit of extra help and repeated exposure, especially with letters that can be easily confused for each other, like b and d, or p and q. But it doesn’t all have to be paper and pencils – here are some fun and easy ways to reinforce learning through the day.
Eating letters for breakfast… or lunch… or snack:
What’s more fun than eating a letter “Z”? Yet there is so much more in the world of eating letters than just alphabet soup. Drizzle pancake batter into letter shapes. Cut a sandwich or a piece of fruit into a letter with a cookie cutter. Pull apart licorice strands and shape them into the letters of your child’s name. Arrange carrot sticks or raisins into a letter shape. With food, the possibilities are endless.
According to Mindy Huston, early childhood occupational therapist at Kennedy School, sensory experience is crucial to learning. Sensory play helps kids develop and learn about their own bodies in relation to space and other objects, and how other objects in their environment relate to each other. Tactile experiences can provide kids with sensations that stimulate learning and refine motor skills. The awareness of different textures against the skin, the visual and sensory evidence of materials moving in response to touch – these provide compelling reinforcements to learning the letters.
So use whatever material your child has shown interest in – dry beans, rice, flour, dirt, shaving cream – and fill a pan with it. Let your learner play in it, exploring and describing the texture. Then write letters into the pan and erase by shaking or patting the material.
There’s an app for that:
Make that smartphone really work for you. Apps with ABC games and sounds are readily available, and they are either really cheap or free. Some apps are just letter recognition, while others let little fingers practice writing by following a tracing technique on the phone. Some of the apps have a real preschooler talking, or you can record your own (or your child’s) voice. During interminable waiting times — the doctor’s office, the grocery checkout line, the road trip to Grandma’s house — “playing” with mom’s phone is a treat that bides the time and sneaks in extra learning.
Letter engineer at work:
The “Handwriting Without Tears” curriculum breaks down letter formation into three shapes: short straight lines, long straight lines and half-circles (small and big.)
Combinations of these shapes can be pieced together to form all the capital letters. The curriculum has wooden cutouts of the shapes available for purchase, but you could just as easily make your own with stiff cardboard or thick foam sheets.
Huston says, “The pieces of this system feel good, require large motor movements and are visually large, which can facilitate some visual tracking. They are good for teaching directionality because they help show how letters should face. At the beginning, you can match the pieces to a model on a card so there are good learning cues for formation and motor planning.”
A wetter letter is better:
When your child wants to practice writing his own letters, start with a chalkboard and a short piece of chalk. The use of a chalkboard provides stiff top, bottom and side boundaries, and a striking visual contrast of chalk against a blackboard. Begin by writing a letter on the board yourself and having your child erase it with a finger dipped in water and then tracing over the letter. You can use this exercise to show and practice the proper stroke formation of letters (left to right, up to down.) Using a paintbrush dipped in water is another option and will help teach proper pencil grasp. When your child is ready for more practice, let him write the letter and erase it.
Writing letters home:
Breithaupt suggests using making use of the space that you and your child hang out the most. Write a letter on a large colorful sheet of paper and display it in a prominent place in the room. Ask your child to tell you what letter that is, over several days or weeks. Talk about what sound that letter makes and try to find things in that room that have the sound in them. You can do this in several places or rooms, but limit it to five different letters at a time. When a letter is mastered, and then you can switch it out with another.
Repeated exposure is how any of us learn anything, and it is true in children learning the alphabet. They have to see it and hear it many times before it becomes second nature. Making it fun and natural in a nurturing environment can help the process.
My girl is well on her way to knowing all the letters, and she is having a great time doing it. In the meanwhile, I’m going after that chalkboard to try my hand at the Thai alphabet!