A Culture of Literacy: Teaching Preschoolers the ABC’s and More

Ask your average parents what they hope their child will learn in preschool, and most have learning the ABC’s somewhere in their tops 5 goals.  Many preschool teachers respond to this by implementing a “letter-of-the-week” curriculum.  One week may be the letter “M”, so we eat marshmallows, draw maps, read books about monkeys, and write letters to our moms.  While this certainly gives a lot of exposure to the letter “M” and invites a variety of activities and learning opportunities, it creates a very incoherent curriculum.  Children learn by making connections.  It is a little difficult to make a quick connection between a white, sweet, gooey marshmallow and a folded up map of the nearest bus stops.   (Though my own children could probably make some great connections between “monkeys” and “Mom”!)  Additionally, when the  primary focus is on the almighty “letter-of-the-week”, it is easy to lose sight of other important literacy goals or to begin teaching them in isolation as well.  That is not how reading happens.  The whole purpose of reading and writing is to obtain and convey meaning.  Therefore, reading and writing should be taught through coherent, meaningful experiences.

A Culture of Literacy.  I favor teaching theme-based units and incorporating a print rich environment.  Opportunities for reading and writing are all around.  Here are some examples of what you might find in such a room:

  • The dramatic play area contains props that encourage literacy such as menus along with notepads and pencils for taking orders.
  • A writing area is available with papers, writing utensils, and letter charts that are available any time a child wants to write.
  • Letter puzzles and magnets are available for manipulation.
  • A word wall is available with the letters of the alphabet surrounded by environmental print and other pertinent examples of words.  (Finding letters and words in the environment reinforces the concepts of print in a real and meaningful way, while also helping the children to recognize that the letters are the same even though the print type may change.)
  • Functional print abounds, such as labels on room areas, names on pictures of the children, and a daily schedule with pictures and writing.
  • A book area is provided and is comfortable, inviting, and well-stocked.
  • Reading great children’s books is an activity that takes place during self-selected activity time, whole group time, and small group time.  It’s hard to find a bad time to read a good book!
  • Adults model writing and reading by posting rhymes, songs, and fingerplays used during the unit.  (Having them posted also helps those of us with feeble minds keep up!)  Adults also model during whole language activities such as group writing and dictations.
  • Language is rich and plentiful.  Children learn and use new words simply because they are engaged in conversations, allowed to ask questions, and exposed to new ideas and concepts.

Surely the list could go on!  There are so many ways to incorporate reading and writing into the preschool day!  I truly feel that children learn the most when they are allowed to learn from meaningful activities.  That is best done by following a purposeful, meaningful unit based on enduring ideas  and fascinating concepts.  The literacy components are easily found within that unit when you already have a culture of literacy and a room that invites that experience.

Letter Learning.  Now, back to the specifics of learning the ABC’s.  Learning that letters have shapes, names, and sounds is something that can be enhanced from experience, but I also believe that there are subtleties that require a direct instruction component as well.  Don’t bristle too much at the term “direct instruction”.  I’m not talking about “drill and kill”, I’m referring to very brief mini-lessons.  This may come up as you read with a child and ask him to find the “M” just like the one in his name, and talk briefly about the sound it makes in the word on the page. 

To ensure that I introduce each letter, I also use the quick mini-lessons in The Amazing Action Alphabet by Esther Kehl,   (you can see a sample page from this link)  in addition to our thematic unit.  This flip-book was created with the multi-modal see-hear-do philosophy.  So, in just a few minutes before snack, we go over one letter in story time fashion with the children adding in their actions.  Then we follow it up with a snack, brought by one of the children, starting with or shaped like that letter.  Any packaging is cut out and added to our word wall. 

Using this system, I cover each letter directly in the mini-lessons, and while I may point that letter out as we read a book that day, I don’t make the entire day or unit revolve around it.  In the course of that same day I may have opportunities to teach more informal mini-lessons about several other letters, and I certainly take advantage of those as well!  I leave the flip book out in our book area so the children can explore other letters any time they choose.  Additionally, the children can add other words to our word wall any time, regardless of the letter we’re looking at during our mini lesson that day.  The systematic mini-lesson just ensures that each letter has been taught directly. 

 Though I have the alphabet posted in alphabetical order, and we often sing the ABC song, I don’t do my mini-lessons in order.  I prefer to cover the most frequently used letters first, starting with the letters in the children’s names.  This makes the letters more meaningful, while also teaching that letters exist in a context other than the alphabet.

I read research once that supported reviewing one letter per day (repeating each letter almost monthly) for higher memory retention than the one a week comparison.  (Makes Sesame Street look smart, doesn’t it?)  Maybe it works for you to do every other day.  Find what works with your program, philosophy, and schedule.

Combining mini-lessons with a culture of literacy and a print-rich environment within the context of meaningful learning units will go a long way to build the  readers, writers, and thinkers of tomorrow!

Interesting Articles:

Early Literacy: Connecting Letters and Sounds   by Susan B. Neuman (Short and Sweet)

N is for Nonsensical  by Susan B. Neuman

Whatever Happened to Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Literacy?  by Susan B. Neuman and Kathleen Roskos

(I promise there are great resources by authors other than Susan B. Neuman, but she happens to be one of the top experts -and obviously a prolific writer- on the subject of early literacy!)

Good Books on Early Literacy:

Preschool Readers and Writers Early Literacy Strategies for Teachers by Linda Weikel Ranweiler

Much More Than the ABCs by Judith Schickendanz

And check out this post I wrote a while back about the importance of Phonological Awareness in building young readers:

The Secret’s in the Sound

Block photo courtesy Garrison Photo.



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