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Letter of the Week: Why We DON'T Do It

This scene has been played out in early childhood classrooms across the country for years:

It's Monday. A child enters their classroom and at some point during the morning gathers around the carpet to hear about what they are learning for the week. The teachers pulls out a card of the letter B. She tells the class "This week, we are going to learn about the letter B". Perhaps the teacher will tell them the sound that "B" makes or that the words "ball", "bubble", and "bear" all start with the letter B. The class will spend the week making crafts about words that start with the letter B and might even decorate a construction paper letter B with buttons. When this week is over, they will move on to the letter C. 

Children have been learning the alphabet this way for years. There is nothing wrong with this way of teaching and learning, per se, but what if there is a better way? What if there is a way of learning the alphabet that is more natural and relevant to children?

Let me rewind a little bit. First of all, people may think that learning the alphabet is work best left for kindergarten. While this used to be true many years ago, the growing demands on children to learn things earlier are causing many concepts and skills to be taught earlier. Children who enter into kindergarten not knowing all or most of their letters are certainly at a disadvantage to those who do. I used to think kids were pushed too soon, expected to know too much too fast. Since opening The Savvy Apple and watching children flourish under our roof, my views on rigor in early childhood classrooms have changed. We are not expecting too much of children; we are expecting them to learn things in the wrong way{Side note: my heart is on fire right now, literally beating faster as I'm typing this. THIS is how passionate I am about early childhood education and excited I am for children to learn in a new way}

Children are sponges - they soak up tiny bits of information constantly, making connections and forming ideas, putting things together to build understanding. It's the role of the teacher to provide a carefully prepared environment, guidance, support, and an introduction to new information that is not only important but meaningful. The words "important" and "meaningful" are similar but they are certainly not the same. While something that is important has value, something that is meaningful has a more intrinsic quality. Things that are meaningful to children are personal, affect them directly, are of high interest, and/or are useful in their own little lives. Showing them the letter B and letting them decorate it with buttons, I would argue, is not the most meaningful activity. They may be enthusiastic and excited because it is something they have created but the lasting power of the concept taught is small. 

So, how do we teach the letters of the alphabet?

One of the most meaningful, personal, and useful things a child can learn is their name. By the time children enter into our school, even as a one year old, they know their name. They may not know how to say it and certainly don't know how to spell, read, or write it, but they do recognize it when it is said aloud. They have had twelve months of association with this word, this name, already. This is clearly evident by calling out a child's name and watching their head turn in your direction. In just a few short months of being in a classroom, they not only recognize their name but also the names of their teachers and friends. They attempt to say names as a way to label important people in their lives and to establish an identity for themselves. So, what's in a name? Clearly, a lot. That's why we begin teaching letters through the use of names. 

This seems like it might be difficult, but like I mentioned before, children learn best when concepts and skills are presented in a relevant, personal, and meaningful way. When teaching is approached like this, learning actually becomes easier and more natural. We lay the foundation for this early. It all starts in our youngest classroom with our one year olds. We label everything with their names clearly printed. Slowly throughout the year, their names appear in more places. Often, names will be posted along with a child's picture. They know what they look like, so they begin to associate their picture with the shape of their name. They usually begin to recognize the first letter of their name, even though they may not be able to say what the letter is. Their brains are working hard, making those connections, and they begin to put things together about these letters that make up such an important part of their identity. They begin being able to recognize their names and identify things labeled with their name as their own. The children have learned to identify the first letter of their name and possibly the shape of the rest of it. When I say "shape", I mean this: every word and name has a shape made up by letters. Some start tall and grow shorter, like "Owen". Some names start tall, are short in the middle, and then are tall again, like "Brad". Others have letters that are tall, then short, then dip low, like "Riley". 

As our children move up through our classrooms, they go from identifying the first letter of their name, to also identifying the letters in their friends names. I've seen children point to a letter on signs and in books and identify it as being "______'s letter!". They move from identifying just one letter in their name to identifying all the letters of their names. This happens with their friends names too. By supporting the acquisition of letter learning through the use of games, morning meeting/message, and modeling through reading and writing, our teachers help students bring it all together and learn the entire alphabet. 

Our daughter, one of our Savvy Apple kids, writing the names of her friends.

Learning important skills and concepts through fun, meaningful activities that demonstrate a real-world application is, in our opinion, the way to go. Letter of the week is not the only way, and our Savvy kids are proof of this theory! 

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