Toddler Alphabet Learning

I’ve been doing a lot of alphabet exposure with River, and wanted to share what we’ve been doing and the results we’re seeing.

I hope you’ll take this compilation in the spirit in which it’s given–it’s not meant to pressure or brag. Since I had to do a ton of research to find toddler alphabet materials that I was happy with, I thought it would be nice to list all the ideas that worked for us in one place. The books I mention would also make GREAT gifts for any mom of little ones under 5.

My current philosophy is adapted from the Montessori school of thought. It emphasizes that it’s more important for a pre-reader to know the SOUND of the letters before knowing their names.

I’m not 100% comfortable with just teaching sounds, so I’ve taken the stance that we work on both, and if River knows a letter by sound rather than name, I don’t correct her. (E.g., she currently says the sound for “d” rather than the name of the letter, which I think is fine). This is actually quite helpful b/c the names of letters frequently sound confusingly similar (Example: “B” and “P” are horribly similar in name but much more distinguishable by sound).

Current materials used:

1) Singing the alphabet (since birth)…daily, in the car, at home, as a distraction…MANY MANY times. :)

2) Signing (American Sign Language) and singing the alphabet simultaneously (since birth)

3) Reading

  • 12 months–B is for Bear by Roger Priddy. It has textures and fun visuals and was an immediate hit. It also has ONE huge, clear picture per page/letter, which was perfect for a beginning alphabet book.
  • 13-14 months–Happy Baby ABC, another Roger Priddy book. The format is a bit busier (usually 2-4 pictures/page, and it’s a smaller book). She didn’t immediately like it, but after a couple of week, she warmed up to it and now it’s a favorite. There are some more advanced objects in this book and some that I think are dumb (like “jigsaw” or “yacht”), but the photos are clear and interesting.
  • Dr. Seuss’s ABC. I introduced this around 12 months, and she rejected it. I stopped reading when she pushed the book away, and just kept coming back to it. At 14 months, she would sit through 30-50% of the book if it was read with tons of animation. By 16 months, she loved the whole thing and now at 19 months it’s a daily read.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough–it has produced our most noticeable results (mentioned later), and is thoughtfully written to include accurate, varied usages of each letter. For example, while other ABC books use “Xylophone” for the letter “X”, making it seem like the sound of “X” is actually “zzz”, Dr. Seuss simply says, “X is very useful if your name is Nixie Nox. It also comes in handy spelling ‘ax’ and ‘extra fox.'” Thus, he illustrates the most common and obvious sound of the letter, which is what a pre-reader needs.

  • Alphabet, by Matthew van Fleet & Paula Wiseman. Introduced at 15 months. Was an immediate hit–I should have introduced it around 12 months or younger. GREAT textures/tabs and pullouts, and tons of unusual animal names.

4) Magnetic wooden refrigerator letters from Melissa & Doug. (Introduced at 16 months). These are the safest I’ve found b/c there are no small magnets to pose choking hazards. Each letter is coated with a magnetic paint/glaze and adheres strongly to any metal surface (no sliding off). Note: this set comes with both lower and upper case letters, which I think is too much for a little one (52 pieces!!). I usually just put up the upper case letters. It’s a nice set to grow into.

She REALLY enjoyed moving these around on the fridge and being able to take them off and put them back on.

5) Fridge Phonics by Leap Frog. I was skeptical about this toy, as I’m trying to keep electronic toys to a minimum. However, I grabbed this for $8 at a consignment store and gave it a try. Boy am I glad that I did! The toy is very toddler friendly, and builds coordination (fitting the letters into the holder), shows cause and effect (a little song that gives the sound and name of each letter rewards a successful letter placement), and also sings the alphabet to her on demand. She has just started (at 19 months) to echo the singer and to say the sounds and names of the letter.

6) Foam Alphabet Letters in the Bath (any safe brand is fine). I introduced these around 16 months (in retrospect, they’d have been great earlier), and they were a huge hit. At 19 months, she’s starting to identify the letters with some accuracy as she sticks them to the side of the tub.

7) Audio recording of Dr. Seuss’s ABC from the library, just so she can hear another version of the book. We use this occasionally, but she isn’t thrilled with it yet.


First, River is now 19 months old. In the bath this week, I started reciting Dr. Seuss’s ABC, and when I paused after the rhyme for each letter, she correctly predicted the next letter for all but 3 letters in the alphabet. WOW! And that’s just from reading the book!

E.g., I’d say “Big A, Little A, what begins with A? Aunt Annie’s Alligator, A, A, A”, and she’d pipe up with “B?!?!” and lead into the next verse.

She also has “favorite” letters like “E,” “F,” “S,” and “T” that she can pick out from her magnetic fridge letters.

She enjoys letters and associates alphabet play with fun sounds that we get to play with together during reading time or while I’m cooking and she’s playing with her fridge letters.

She’s not making any effort to sign the alphabet or sing the song, but she’s so obviously engaged with it, that I’m not too concerned about that.

Hope these ideas are helpful–I’d have to say that reading the multiple ABC books aloud and letting her see my mouth form the sounds has been the most helpful thing for her.

Please also note that I’ve given River’s chronological age for each introduction. However, since she was born 2 months early, her developmental age is 2 months younger. So, if I introduced something at 19 months, you may want to introduce it at 17, etc. if your baby was full term. :)



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4 responses to “Toddler Alphabet Learning

  1. Miriam, I’m curious why you decided to start working on this so early? (Not a criticism, just wondering!)

    • Hi Em! No worries–not taken as a criticism. It’s something I should have mentioned. My goal has always just been exposure, not memorization or to get River to sing the alphabet. Per the Montessori philosophy and just plain practicality, I think that life skills and family interaction are the most important things to emphasize with toddlers. So by “working” on this, I mean, “exposing River to these concepts” when it fits into our normal routine.

      I started “working” on this early 1) b/c I’m always singing to River and the alphabet is an easy song to incorporate. 2) I wanted to teach her baby signs, and the alphabet was a fun, easy way to show her that there are lots of shapes to be made with one’s hands (though I never expect her to reproduce the alphabet–just wanted the exposure). The baby sign isn’t all that successful, but I haven’t been super consistent with it either. She was sort of mesmerized with the ASL alphabet as a baby, so we used it as a soothing distraction. 3) the alphabet books tended to have the best “object” pictures for a little one, so I gravitated toward those for when she was too small for the visual dictionaries (which we’re just starting on). 4) River has consistently shown an extremely high interest in books. She will voluntarily sit for 20-60 minutes at a time and have her victim :) read up to 30-40 children’s books to her (this is since age 9 months). She’s also pointed to words and asked me to read and underline them at the same time, over and over, as if she’s trying to decipher them. 5) My best friend learned to read when she was 2 years old, just from her Dad reading the newspaper to her and showing her words. She went on to get an MA in English literature and was a Torrey student too. So, while I’d never do the “teach your baby to read” program, I’m open to River reading at an early age, if she wants to, especially given her high attention span when it comes to books.

      Hope this sheds some light on why and when we’ve done the things we’ve done.

  2. Wow, that is a phenomenal attention span. My kids STILL don’t want to sit still that long! :) Thanks for all the additional clarification. I like Montessori, too.

  3. Haha…the attention span is, sadly, reserved exclusively for books, though I’m grateful for what we get! :) Hopefully it will transfer to other pursuits in time. You have BOYS…I’m pretty sure that toddler boys are genetically programmed to not sit for more than 2 seconds at a time. :-P Also, I should clarify that while we’ve read to River her whole life, we can’t take credit for the attention span–we just got lucky!

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