Early Childhood Literacy: Let the Child Lead

The internet has been abuzz lately with articles shaming teachers and schools for forcing reading lessons down the unwitting throats of pre-schoolers and Kindergarteners alike in the hopes of better preparing them for the tests they have to start taking as early as First Grade that prove they were taught correctly. (Yes, I realize the implications of that last statement. Children are tested to make sure the teachers are doing their jobs as there is so much dead wood that the policies in place prevent getting rid of, which administrators and policy makers are more than aware of. In response they have put these tests in place to supposedly regulate this problem but instead punish children with even poorer teaching practices. There are many amazing teachers who do their job above and beyond and change children’s lives every day while being paid little and working many unpaid hours. But that does not change the reality of why testing exists and why our schools are failing.) But back to the topic at hand. There is nothing wrong with starting letter recognition from an early age, or teaching the foundations of reading with patterning, letter sounds, and word recognition, when done appropriately, and in specific, by letting the child lead.

We’re more apt to pay attention when we care about what we’re learning about. It’s certainly not a new idea, nor is it a shocking revelation. Our children, form birth on, take a special interest in certain things. For Baby E it was butterflies when she was first born. We have a butterfly version of nearly every infant toy made. Her favorite book to gaze at for extended periods of time was I Am A Bunny by Ole Risom as it has a page full of butterflies.

As a toddler she loves sea creatures, cars, and her name, so she gravitates towards these things. I imagine in a few months something else will take these places, but until then books and puzzles with cars and sea creatures, art projects involving either, and words and letters, both seen and heard, about these things abound in our house. Our children, like us, learn best when they are learning under the umbrella of a favorite topic.

Play Dough Letters









Educational philosophies like Montessori and Reggio Emilia were developed with this in mind. Both encourage teachers and parents to find what sparks the child’s interest and build their curriculum around this. I attended a Montessori preschool, where when a classmate had a thing for dinosaurs, we helped make massive paper mache dinosaurs, and when my friends and I had a thing for castles we made castles out of boxes and paint and learned throughout the entire process, from language to shapes and numbers. I still connect regularly with my preschool teacher. I wrote my entrance essay to Lesley University for my M.Ed. Program about her and how influential she and her teaching practices were. Sadly no other teacher in my life followed this basic principle of education: let the child lead.

But you can with your child.

Frogs, butterflies, machines and trucks, whatever it might be. Talk about it with them. Describe the trucks you see in their favorite books, put words about trucks around their play area. Have letters corresponding to trucks, like, say, T for Truck and W for Wheel available for activities like cookie cutters and play dough, (you can find my favorite play dough recipe HERE) and stamps for art. Make sandpaper letters by tracing and cutting out letter shapes so that they can feel what the letter looks like and learn how to make it with their finger. Count the wheels on their trucks and verbally label the truck parts when you see them. When their next interest arises, and they now want to learn all about it, again use it as an opportunity to engage them in learning language skills, as well as math and art.

Use letter cookie cutters to trace letters onto sandpaper. Both the cookie cutters and sandpaper here are from Walmart, the cookie cutters are by Wilton, they come in a large 101 pack with letters, numbers and seasonal shapes. You can find them in the baking section.

Use letter cookie cutters to trace letters onto sandpaper. Both the cookie cutters and sandpaper here are from Walmart, the cookie cutters are by Wilton, they come in a large 101 pack with letters, numbers and seasonal shapes. You can find them in the baking section.









As a general rule of thumb, Kindergarteners and below shouldn’t be expected to  be able to write every letter. Many children under 5 ½ have a hard time memorizing a shape and then drawing it, making writing letters a challenging task. Giving them various opportunities to learn what the letters (and shapes) look like with visual examples, and sensory ones like sandpaper letters, or tracing letters in shaving cream, to feel what they look like, can help them in this learning process. Encourage toddlers and preschoolers alike to “write” as they see fit. They will eventually get it.

Let the child lead and they will succeed.






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