Teaching Toddlers the Alphabet: Part 5

This post is a part of a five part series on teaching toddlers the alphabet. This is Part 5.

Hearing a toddler sing their ABC’s may be one of the cutest things ever. The ABC song is a common song for young children. They hear it played often through toys and music experiences. Parents and friends often sing it to them. And it is catchy! It is not uncommon for a toddler to learn to sing the ABC song (and to overload the cuteness by singing LMNOP as one letter while they are at it!).

Even though your toddler may sing the ABC song, they still may not know the meaning of the alphabet (PBS development tracker). Learning the alphabet is much more than singing the ABC song. Learning the alphabet includes:

  • Identifying uppercase letters
  • Identifying lowercase letters
  • Identifying letter sounds
  • Recognizing that letters are combined to make the words that we speak
  • Recognizing that letters are combined to make words that we read

I could tell the instant my toddler acquired this last skill. All of a sudden she began pointing out to me, “Mommy look ABCD’s!” while we were reading. (And what is more adorable is that she doesn’t say ABC’s but ABCD’s!)
Understanding what the alphabet is takes time and exposure. Why introduce toddlers to the  alphabet? Alphabet mastery is an important pre-reading skill that can be easily be explored in the toddler years through child-focused, exploratory activities. Young children experience print all around them. The role of parents is to guide toddlers as they experience and grow to love their ABC’s.

One way to promote early literacy skills in toddlerhood is through alphabet puzzles.

The Importance of Puzzles in Early Childhood

Puzzles are an essential part of early childhood learning. When young children manipulate puzzle pieces, they are gaining numerous cognitive, motor, and social skills that contribute to later academic success (NAEYC). Puzzles that are age and developmentally appropriate can be played with alone or with the help of a parent. Puzzles can even be completed with another child in a cooperative setting.

Melissa & Doug See and Spell Puzzle

We know that playing with puzzles develops children’s mathematical skills. Research has shown that toddlers and preschoolers (ages 2-4) who play with puzzles have better spatial skills than young children who do not. This is true regardless of parent income or education. Spatial skills are important STEM skills, and both boys and girls benefit from the mathematical gains of manipulating puzzles at a young age (Developmental Psychology: Early Puzzle Play).

By completing alphabet puzzles, young children experience both the mathematical and literacy benefits of puzzles. Alphabet puzzles are a pre-reading and writing activity that exposes children to the alphabet and let’s them physically encounter the letters.

Let the Puzzle Play Begin!

There are a variety of puzzles on the market than can contribute to your child’s ABC acquisition. First, check out local thrift stores and yard sales for used puzzles. Nice, wooden puzzles are not cheap, and I’ve often found the best selection this way. Check to make sure none of the pieces are damaged if your toddler is still in a mouthing phase of putting items in their mouth.

If you are looking to shop new, Melissa & Doug make exceptional puzzles. And what is great is that you can contact them if you lose a piece (or if your dog eats one!), and they will replace it for you. We have this one with pegs (you can find it on Amazon here). It is relatively inexpensive, and it is standing the test of time!

Peg puzzle from when my oldest was a toddler!

We also play with the Melissa and Doug Jumbo Wooden Chunky Puzzle one at the library. The thick, chunky pieces are nice because they can be used for stacking, too. We don’t have this one at home, but I would’ve invested in this one first, had I known about it.
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Keep your eyes open for a lowercase set, too. Ours is from a yard sale.

A lot of parents enjoy purchasing the sound puzzles, but this is entirely your call. We have some sound puzzles and the kids do indeed love them, but they are just as fun when the batteries run out, too, which is why I would invest in the non-sound puzzle first.
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Once you have your puzzle, leave it out for your child to play with it. Young children are drawn to puzzles, let them dump out the pieces and play with it independently; let them experiment with the pieces on their own to see what they discover. After they are familiar with the puzzle, play with your child with the puzzle. Help them identify the letter as they try to fit it into the puzzle. Find the first letter of their name and point it out. Quiz them on what letters they know. When the puzzle is complete, sing the ABC song and point to the letters as you do.

ABC Puzzle Extension Activities

Is your young child a puzzle pro? Don’t toss those puzzles just yet! After your toddler or preschooler has mastered the ABC puzzle, do not get rid of it. What is great about an alphabet puzzle is that there are so many wonderful ways they can be reused and rediscovered. Here are some of the ways we reuse our ABC puzzles:

  • Alphabet Hunt (Hide the letters around the living room and search for them! Hint: Remember where you hide them!)
  • Alphabet Sensory Bin (Hide the pieces in the sensory bin and have toddlers excavate. We got this idea from diyunlimitedfun. Her blog is awesome! I put in the letters of my toddler’s name in our bin for her to find.)
  • Alphabet Pretend Play (This is something we are constantly doing. Pretend the letters are people. “You can be M and I will be Z.” Take your letters around the house and have them go on adventures. Let your child pick a “favorite” letter.)
  • Spell Short Words/Names (Use the puzzle pieces to spell your toddler’s name and/or other short words they encounter daily. Think “cat”, “dog,” “cup,” “milk.”)
  • Letter Sounds Game (Put letters in a pile. Close your eyes and pick a letter. You have to say the sound the letter makes and pick a word that starts with that letter)
  • Consonants and Vowels (Separate the letters by groups. This helps little ones think about how words are formed.)
  • Curved and Straight (We got this idea from Handwriting Without Tears. Separating letters like this helps children think about how the letters are formed and is a fun pre-writing activity.)
  • Match Uppercase to Lowercase (Write down the corresponding letter on a piece of paper and have children match the puzzles  pieces to it’s counterpart.)
  • Alphabet Order Jump (Line up the letters in order from A to Z on the floor. Try to jump over each one as you say the letter.)

Keep Learning!

Keep practicing with ABC puzzles and your child will become better at not only manipulating the pieces, but identifying the letters!

Puzzles aren’t the only way to expose your child to the alphabet. Stay tuned for Part 4 which looks at ABC technology.


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