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For the past year or so, I’ve been teaching a set of twins to read and speak in English. They’re ESL, or learning English as a second language.

A lot of the early work I did focused on understanding spoken English. But now they’re learning to read, and I figured that documenting the process could be useful to some of you readers.

One of the first things I did was to make sure they recognized the alphabet. I didn’t focus on teaching them the differences between capital and lower case letter usage just yet, but I did teach them that both “A” and “a” represent the same letter.

When teaching kids the alphabet, it’s a good idea to start with the alphabet song: you can look up sing-a-long videos online that show the letters with the song. You can also use alphabet magnets or other physical alphabet toys to make it a hands-on learning and singing experience.

But after they’ve mastered that skill, they will need to learn to recognize the letters out of order. And from there, that combining letters in different orders makes different words and sounds.

I like to use an Alphabet Board to build those skill sets. There are tons of varieties out there: they might be plastic, wooden, or foam. I use a wooden board because they’re basically indestructible -yes, the board in the videos below is the same board my mom used with me as a kid!

If you don’t already have an alphabet board or a deck of word cards, I highly recommend getting them. They can be found on Amazon here and here.

Here, I’m pairing the alphabet board with a deck of beginner word cards. For whichever deck you use, remove any cards that use double letters, as most alphabet boards only have one copy of each letter. However, you can keep those cards in the deck if you have extra letters to use.

Basically, there are two skills I focus on developing when starting out with the board:

1. Being able to match which letters make up a word. 

Essentially, this is like a matching game. I place a word card in view of the child, and help them pick out the letters that make up the word. When starting out with this activity, your child might need some direction for which letter to find first. You can say something like “Okay, which letter does “Key” start with? Key starts with a K. Let’s find the K.”

This activity helps kids understand that each word has a specific letter order, and helps develop attention span and memory.

It’s a good idea to say the letter as they find it, and to encourage them to name the letter also. Once they spell the word out, you can have them say the letters in order, and then the word at the end.

Here’s a video of me practicing this with a student, using the word “Key.”


2. Being able to recognize letters and patterns that are shared between two words.

This skill takes a little longer to develop for many kids. They often prefer to “wipe the slate clean” between each word, and start fresh. I like to encourage them to notice which letters and groups of letters can be recycled between two words.

An example are the words “key,” “monkey,” and “donkey.” All of these words are suitable for the letter board, because there aren’t any repeated letters. As you work with your child to read the words, you can point out how in all three words, the “key” sound is made by the letters K, E, and Y in that order. Between Monkey and Donkey, the “ONKEY” is repeated, but the sound is slightly different.

By learning to recognize the sounds that different words have in common, kids will learn how to guess at unfamiliar pronunciations they encounter in real life.

Here’s a video of my student turning “Key” into “Donkey.”

Notice, my student initially took down the word “key” before realizing that the same letters were used in “donkey.” However, in the video below, where she transitions “donkey” into “bike,” she has already started looking for the letters that are the same in between the two words. When she starts to hesitate about other matching letters (it’s a long word), I help her focus on each letter individually.

These are skills that take a bit of play and practice to master. It’s a great activity to practice as a family, as you can guide your child to gently correct mistakes and notice patterns. When left to their own devices, kids like to just mix the letters indiscriminately, which doesn’t teach them much by itself. However, even that can be a valuable learning opportunity if somebody is there to help them try and pronounce the silly words they make.

Next up, we’ll learn about techniques for helping your child sound out words on the letter board.

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