We have all seen children work diligently on a self-initiated task of producing a series of scribbles, letters, and numbers written over and over again, across or down, on a single sheet of paper. Let's consider these personal examples for a moment:
  • One of my children, Maggie, had a great deal of difficulty with the letter g. Unfortunately, two of them fall right in the middle of her name. She would begin to write the letters of her name and inevitably create a g which was, by her own judgment, unacceptable. Despite any positive feedback I could give to urge her to continue, she would instead move to a fresh spot on her paper and start all over again. It was not unusual to see her drawings with her name half written six or seven times across the page.
  • I also remember David, who for about two months would dedicate much of his art time to writing the entire alphabet from A to Z, or to repetitively listing what he called "my one to 10 numbers."

Knowing the importance of teaching early literacy skills in meaningful contexts, such as through books read aloud and through deliberate use of environmental print, I used to worry that these isolated skill explorations could take children away from other learning opportunities. But recent research now confirms what these children seemed to know instinctively: Children do need to learn the letters of the alphabet throughout the pre-k and kindergarten years to help them with later success in beginning reading-and in its proper place and perspective, a bit of practice can be a good thing.

Here are some ways that you can provide engaging opportunities for children to choose special times to focus on particular skills:

Create a surprise alphabet game box. There are many variations on letter-matching games that you can create for children to play. Placing different sets of letters in the box periodically makes this inventive and fun. In addition to games where upper- and lowercase letters can be matched, multiple sets of letters can be compared and the duplicates matched, such as letters that are difficult to discriminate (p, d, q, b, m, w), letters that are tall (t, 1, b, fi, letters that are rounded (a, o, c, s), and so on.

Use alphabet puzzle letters for tracing games. Large, thick letters provide good models for three-dimensional explorations and tracing. Children can feel the shape and flow of letters in the very act of creating them.

Create personal picture alphabet cards. Many alphabet books show multiple objects that begin with a letter on each page. After reading an alphabet book during story time, make photocopies of the pages. Children can then examine the pages and choose the object that for them best symbolizes the letter. They can cut out that picture, paste it on a small oaktag card, and write the letter on the front or the back. Collectively, children can create a personalized set of alphabet cards unique to your classroom.

Do name explorations. Print children's names on large sheets of paper. Ask children: "Who has an o in their name? Who has a b?" and so on. Make a game out of seeing which letter appears in children's names the greatest number of times.

Remember Helping children learn the alphabet involves more than teaching letter identification. Children must come to understand the alphabet as a system and learn how letters function in written language. A range of activities that offers both broad and more focused experiences will best help you achieve this goal.