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How the ABCs set up preschoolers for success

“A, B, C, D…” The alphabet song is one of the first we learn as children, but does it actually help kids learn their ABCs? How important is it for young children to know their alphabet? How much do they need to know before starting elementary school?

Alphabet knowledge sets up children for reading success, says Shayne Piasta, an early education researcher at Ohio State and a 2017 winner of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Here, she discusses why alphabet knowledge matters and what parents can do to help tots achieve reading success.

What led you to do this research?

We started this work in response to states’ early learning standards for alphabet knowledge, which were all over the place.

It didn’t seem like anyone was using data to determine what the standard should be, so that was our goal.

Your alphabet knowledge research shows that knowing 18 uppercase and 15 lowercase letters by the end of preschool sets up children for success. How did you reach that conclusion?

We worked with a dataset where kids knew a variety of letters by the end of preschool. We followed those kids into first grade, where through traditional reading assessments we determined which kids were showing risk for reading difficulties and which were not.

We determined what level of alphabet knowledge best distinguished the kids who were on the path to reading success versus those who were at risk for difficulties as they continued through elementary school.

Historically, if kids are struggling with reading in first grade, they tend to continue to struggle with reading in subsequent grades.

How can parents know when children are ready to read?

Kids are always ready to learn about print and books and letters and sounds.

Whether you think you're teaching them or not, children are learning from the time that they are born. You can have very rich early literacy experiences with 1-, 2- and 3-year-olds.

I like to think about it more in terms of how you're going about doing it.

What is a good way to go about doing it?

For younger kids, it's giving them literacy-rich environments.

It's playing games with sounds — rhyming or thinking about words that start with the same sound. It's reading books with them and helping them pay attention to not only the pictures but also the letters on the page. It's helping them learn to write the first letter of their name or recognize when they see a letter that's in their name.

When I was growing up, my mom made a little song of how to spell my name, and that's how I learned the letters in my name and how to write my name.

Where does the alphabet song fit in?

Kids find it fun. It's a nice, easy introduction to the alphabet, to understanding, “These things are important and something that I'm going to learn about.”

It’s a good idea to refer to the actual printed form of the letter at the same time. I've been in situations where a child knows the ABC song really well, but if you show them a letter out of order, they have no idea what letter it is. Plus there's the “L, M, N, O, P” issue where that seems to be one entity instead of discrete letters.

The song highlights to kids that these are important symbols that they’re going to learn about, but we need to go beyond that.

Book shelf

5 tips to prime preschoolers for reading success

Piasta offers the following advice for parents of budding readers.

  1. Create a literacy-rich environment.

    Have books and magazines around, as well as other forms of print.

    “When we think about a classroom setting, for example, the alphabet often will be displayed, and things are labeled: ‘These are the puzzles,’ ‘this is the block area.’ The reason they have those labels up is so that kids can see the words and start associating that with different things,” Piasta said.

  2. Make literacy part of play and practical experiences.

    When children are playing restaurant, for example, have a pad of paper and a pencil for them to pretend to take down orders or have a menu that they can pretend to read. Look for ways to incorporate literacy into everyday activities.

    “If you're making a grocery list, let them help or have them participate in some way, or at least let them know, ‘I'm going to write down the things you say, and then we'll read the list when we get to the store,’” Piasta said

  3. Read a variety of books to children.

    Read books that are great children's literature as well as books that have what is called salient print — where the type is purposefully large and attention-getting.

    Rhyming and other word play books are good choices, too.

    Alphabet books are important, but look for books in which words representing a letter match the common sound that is associated with that letter — for example, “C is for cat,” versus “C is for cello.”

  4. Engage children in interacting with print.

    “A lot of parents think that you need to just read a book from beginning to end. It can be a much more interactive process,” Piasta said.

    Call attention to the print while reading by running your finger underneath words. Play games with the letters on the page. For example, if a child’s name is Daniel, say, “I see the ‘D for Daniel’ on this page; can you help me find it?”

  5. Engage children in conversation.

    Talk about scenarios and vocabulary words when reading with children to build their conceptual knowledge and language skills. Ask kids open-ended questions, and have conversations with them.

    “It always makes me really happy when I go to the zoo, because I hear a lot of open-ended questions and multi-turn conversations between adults and kids there. It's just great to see how kids are learning to use language.”