child learning to read with letter blocks

I well remember trembling when, as a young homeschooling mom, I realized that it was up to me to teach my child to read. My imaginative mind started racing down the path of worst case scenarios. As if on cue, a little voice message started playing in my head over and over, “If you mess up, she’ll never be able to read.”

Now, fifteen years later, I shake my head at the memory of that panic-stricken thought and gently chide myself for getting uptight over something that doesn’t have to be all that difficult. Yes, all four of my children have learned to read, and in all four cases (even my youngest with autism and developmental delays) I just had to get them started and they did the rest when they were ready.

Let’s take a few weeks to explore how to get things started—how to teach reading in a way that is natural, interesting, and easy. I think you’ll find that Charlotte Mason’s ideas can make reading lessons a delight!

The Baby/Toddler Stage: Alphabet Fun

The first thing to remember at this stage is to relax. You do not have to force your toddler to sit and look at flashcards every day. Simply introduce the letters and their sounds during play times. Make this stage a time of informal learning through play.

Get your child an A B C picture book and some letter blocks he can hold. Read the book whenever he wants to. Build with the blocks and mention a letter’s name every once in a while as you are playing. “B goes on top of the tower” or “Here’s T; put T away, please.”

As your child shows interest, you can make a game of finding and naming the letters. “Where’s Q?” or “Bring me C, please.” Just be sure to keep it a game, not a chore.

When should he begin? Whenever his box of letters begins to interest him. The baby of two will often be able to name half a dozen letters; and there is nothing against it so long as the finding and naming of letters is a game to him. But he must not be urged, required to show off, teased to find letters when his heart is set on other play (Home Education, pp. 201, 202).

As you read the A B C book together, you will introduce the idea that letters make certain sounds. That idea will naturally carry over into your play times. You can point out objects in the room that start with the letter in hand. “Oh, you have T! T for t—able, T for t—urtle, and T for t—oes.”

You can even play the I’m-Thinking-Of letter game at lunch time or in a waiting room. “I’m thinking of an animal that starts with the letter D” (and say the sound a couple of times) ” ‘d,’ ‘d’. It has four legs and soft fur. It likes to lick your hand, and it says ‘Woof.’ ” Start with obvious clues to reinforce the correct letter sounds. As your child gets good at it, you can make your clues a little more challenging so he has to depend more on the beginning letter as he guesses.

All of this play is laying the foundation for pre-reading skills. But the key is to relax and let your child take the lead. For some children, this stage might last a few months. For other children, it might last a year or longer. My youngest stayed on this stage until she was nine. That’s okay. In reading—as in every other subject—teach the child, not the curriculum.

Once your child knows his alphabet and the sounds the letters make, you can naturally introduce some word-building activities. We will discuss those next week.

What other fun, informal ways have you used to introduce the alphabet and letter sounds to your child? Leave a comment; let’s share more ideas.


  1. My son’s favorite bath toys when he was about 18 months were sponge letters. I simply played games with him. He is a natural reader and so I was able to move to simple words c-a-t and then as he mastered those short vowel sounds, I would take the ‘c’ away and put a ‘b’ there and ask him what that word was. He loved it and never knew he was learning.

  2. When learning letter sounds with my twins/oldest, we would pick a letter to focus on for a few days in our games. One of the favorite activities was to go to the store and search out a small object that started with our letter. For example, when we did letter “s”, one child picked skittles and the other picked spaghetti. Then at home, I would “draw” the letter with glue onconstruction paper, and they would “trace” it with their purchase. So we has “S” & “s” made of skittles and also of spaghetti. Lots of fun, reinforced the sound, critical thinking while choosing the manipulative, and fine motor skills! Sometimes we would discuss the number of objects used to create the lower versus the upper, just to add a little math, for good measure.

  3. I can’t wait to hear more on this subject! We are very much in the midst of all this right now! Our children are 7, 6, 4, and 2. They’re ready and eager to read so we’re teaching them. But it’s a slow process. I know we’re not supposed to compare ourselves or our children to anyone else, but it’s discouraging when children younger than them are passing them in this department. It’s hard to relax and let teaching + time take it’s course. They’ll “get it” when they’re ready.

  4. I firmly (and playfully) advocate learning letters by “doing.” In other words, the kids and I would make cookie dough and cut out letters with letter shaped cookie cutters, or roll the dough into the letter shapes. Then we would bake them and have fun playing with them before eating them.
    The same thing can be done with playdo- minus the eating.
    I also cut the alphabet out of sandpaper. This gave the kids texture to feel as well as something to manipulate.

  5. When my child was in the pre-reading stage, I never taught her the names of the letters but only the sounds. (which posed a bit of a problem when she had her eye exam and they wanted her to say the names of the letters on the chart, instead she did the sounds ) then we played alphabet bingo, but when the spinner landed on the letter , she had to say the sound.. a, ay, aw… b, etc… it made it so easy to go into the next level, but I will wait till you explore that level next….

  6. My son is four and has never shown interest in letters until recently. We have been enjoying creating a stone alphabet. We love to collect stones when we are out on walks so we have quite a stock pile of them! When introducing a letter to him, we take a scrapbook letter sticker and mod podge it to the stone. The capital letter goes on one side, the lower case on the other. He loves to hold on to his letter stones while we work. As we continue to build our alphabet I also plan on using them for him to build simple CVC pattern words (ie: ‘bat’).

  7. I am a firm believer in teaching basic literacy concepts through play and everyday activities. So many moms who have a heart for homeschooling try and “do school” with preschoolers, which I guess won’t hurt anything, but seems unnecesary. I spoke with a mom the other day who was doing a sit-down-and-write curriculum with her 2.5 year old.

    We have no TV, lots of books, and lots of talking. My four-year-old is starting to recognize a few sight words, and my two-year-old is talking more and more. It is so fun to see the learning happen!

  8. My daughter has some auditory processing issues.
    Remembering letters and sounds was very difficult for her.

    Some things that really helped were letting her type the letters she was learning on the keyboard. I would set the font quite large so she could easily see the result. (AVKO has a great program called Starting at Square One.) The other was writing letters in sugar or sand. We did this and played some of the games you mentioned in your post.

  9. I started homeschooling with a very bright, but very active little boy. One thing we did was to hide alphabet letters under or around things that started with that letter. We would also pick a letter of the week and learn about and do projects with things that started with that letter. When learning about silent “e”, we played a mystery game. I would hold a three-letter word written on a card. Then I would hide the letter “e” somewhere in the house, giving my son clues to find it. Because silent “e” is sneaky and quiet, once he found it he would sneak up on me and change my short vowel word to a long vowel word. When we learned about blends, I would build a simple obstacle course and he would begin the course with a blend and then go through the course to obtain the rest of the word. Now that this child is 11, I miss some of those fun little games, but I love seeing how teaching creatively in the early years helps blossom creative young minds.

  10. Hi.
    I have three boys (7,6,4) and when my eldest was 2 or 3, I made the letters of the alphabet using a single sheet of paper per letter – drew a fun stick figure on it and then coloured the letters in with fun, bright colours. Then I laminated them – for longevity.
    We played a wide variety of games with these letters. One of our favourites was to lay out a selection of the letters and then I’d say “Jump to the P” or “Put one foot on the G”, etc. As their letter recognition got better, I’d add things like “Walk to the L, Put your right hand on the H, then hop over the Z”, etc. As the boys were able to spell simple words, I’d lay out the letters and have them collect and then spell “CAT” or others. I also used the letters for phonic recognition rather than letter name recognition.
    It was a fun game for the boys to use their bodies and minds.

    • wow! what a great active game to play with boys! Mine are 4, 2, & an infant. This will be so perfect. Thanks for adding to our reading program. My 6 year old daughter loved to sit & write & read, but the boys are different. 🙂

    • We also did the Alphabet Path with sidewalk chalk on our front walkway. When you jumped to a letter, you had to say the sounds instead of the letter name! When they got that, you had to say a word that started with that letter.

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