Excerpt: The Power of Parent-Child Play, parenting, Teaching

Toddlers and Phonics: Stimulating Interest in Reading and Writing

My son loved playing with phonics sounds in words from the time he was about two and a half years old. In a previous post (the Ask Anne interview) I mentioned our phonics swing game, which he loved to play when he was three and four years old. In our swing game, when I said “What words start with B?” , he was able to say “bubbles” and “baby” because he understood the connection between the name of the letter B with the associated “buh” sound.

But you might wonder, how did he grasp that at his young age?

I remember wondering myself, Why does Tyler enjoy letters and words so much?  Is it because he’s seen me putting words to paper since the day he was born? Or maybe because we’ve read stories together, every single evening, since he was a baby? 

It all happened more naturally than you might think.

Tyler discovered early on that those strange marks could create colorful, active images in his  mind. He also associated our story times with warm snuggling.

When Tyler first began pointing in books and asking me to identify alphabet letters, I gave him a wooden puzzle with the letters in his name. He loved it, so quickly learned his first five letters:  T Y L E R.

Shortly thereafter, when he saw an EXIT sign at a store, he yelled out ecstatically, “Look! my E!”

Encouraged by his excitement, I bought a puzzle with all the alphabet letters. We sang the alphabet song while touching individual pieces. That way,  he didn’t just learn the song. He had a visual image of each letter in his mind as he sang it. To him, it was just a fun game and I had no agenda.

Still three years old, Tyler began to invent games with letters. He’d line puzzle letters up in order (using the song to remind himself). He’d ask me to remove one letter when he was not looking,  so he could guess which letter was missing.

Note: it’s normal and fine for kids to not be interested in this at such a young age. But if one is, why not play along?

Puzzle games were followed by my son’s determination to draw the letters himself.  At first I hesitated. Shouldn’t he learn all the letters and sounds before writing them–and from a qualified teacher? Did I know what I was doing?

Up to that point, I had not made any conscious decision about how and when I would teach my son to read or write. I simply loved language myself, so teaching him what an alphabet letter looked like–and eventually what it sounded like–seemed no different from showing him how to hold a spoon, or throw a ball, or put on his own socks.

Most of the time I simply responded to his own eager questions, which often came when I was preoccupied in the kitchen or office.

“Mom! What does Dad start with?”


Soon after, instead of saying “D” I’d say, “It makes the duh sound. What letter do you think the letter is?”

That led to other words starting with the “duh” sound, then the “buh” sound.  When my son played our swing game, he could think of words with those sounds faster than I could, and beat me!

Next, as my child sat in his “art chair” (a high chair with a very large tray) with crayons and paper, he demanded that I teach him to write. Yikes! I worried that his not yet fully developed  fine motor skills might frustrate him. But he was insistent.

“MOM! How do you make H?

These questions usually came when I was busy in the kitchen or office, so I might call out, “Two sticks with  line across them!”

He’d show me his handiwork and I’d encourage him without over-correcting him. After all, he was simply having fun. Why spoil it?

But then he not only want to write letters, he wanted to spell words too. This was problematic only because he didn’t know all the phonics sounds yet. And much as I loved playing with him, I had plenty of work to do!  However, he was insistent.

“Mom! Mom! How do you spell Trevor?”

To save my own sanity I bumped up the phonics instruction so he could figure it out himself. That way, I’d not have to constantly spell words for him, because then he wanted to make LISTS!  List of names of his friends. Lists of birthday presents he wanted. He may not have known the phonics sounds of all the letters in the alphabet. But he wanted to know the phonics sounds for the letters in the words he wanted to write.

I actually felt a little guilty at first, because this seemed backward, and I wasn’t sure I should encourage it.  I suspected that  his future preschool teachers would want him to learn letters and phonics sounds  in a specific order. I also knew that a child usually learns all the letters of the alphabet and how to write them before attempting to write whole words.

But Tyler was enjoying the thrill of discovery. He found it irresistible. So I shrugged, and figured when he got to preschool he could fill in the gaps.  (As for what happened when he actually entered preschool–that’s a story for another blog post!)

Your own toddler may have zero interest in the way letters and words work. My Child #2 was as interested as Tyler was. However, Child  #3, while equally intelligent, was more interested in physical movement, so learned phonics sounds, reading and writing at the same pace as most kids do, in preschool and public school. She, now a teen, is an excellent writer, and on the honor roll. But when she was three and four, instead of wanting to sit in a chair with crayon in hand, demanding I spell things, she dragged me out the door so she could swing somewhere on monkey bars with astonishing coordination. You may have a child who is equally disinterested in the alphabet and more interested in physical games.

However, if you DO have a child who expresses very early interest in the written word, try as I did. Let your child play with a wooden alphabet puzzles, play phonics games in the car or at the playground, (see my Animal Alphabet post) and have writing materials (crayons and paper) ever handy!

Play on, and learn together!


Laurie Winslow Sargent


Copyright 2003-2011, Laurie Winslow Sargent; All Rights Reserved. Portions of this article are excerpted from page 167, Chapter 12: ABC and Do-Re-Mi –Using Play to Teach, in the hardcover book  The Power of Parent-Child Play, previously published by Tyndale House Publishers. 

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