How do you know if an alphabet or phonics toy is going to be worth the purchase? If you find yourself selecting toys, puzzles, books, etc. with the goal of helping your child learn basic pre-reading skills, I would like to offer my *ahem* humble and TOTALLY non-judgmental (read – way too opinionated) thoughts on this matter.
Step One: Throw out all your child’s ABC toys.
OK, that might be an over-reaction. But there are lots, and lots, and LOTS of books, flash cards, toys, apps, games, and TV shows designed to teach letter recognition and phonics. And a great many of these products have issues that absolutely make my eye twitch. Here are a few things I look for when I try to choose a good one–or, more accurately, a few things that set apart lesser-quality items.
Start with the ABC’s . . . or the abc’s
My first pet peeve with most children’s alphabet products are the capital letters. They are to be found overwhelmingly more than lowercase letters, even though well over 90 percent of what we read is lowercase. I prefer products that show the lowercase letters along with their capital mates so that my daughter’s brain begins to make the connection that they are, in fact, the same letter.
TIP: As you’re teaching letter recognition, don’t forget to find and point out examples of both manuscript letters and computer printed ones. Notice how different a manuscript “a” is from a printed one, also “g.”
A is for Apple . . . U is for Ugh
Many children’s alphabet products attempt to introduce phonics by associating each letter with an object that begins with that sound. And, if I may, there are some products out there where these choices were clearly made by throwing darts at dictionaries.
First, they often use very repetitive examples (i.e. apple, ball, cat) which risks the child associating the letter with that one object rather than with the actual sound of the letter. My choice: products that emphasize a letter’s standard phonetic sound (Ex: toys that say “B says /b/” when the Bb button is pushed) rather than its connection to a particular word. OR, alternatively, it offers a wide variety of good examples to go with each letter.
Secondly, so many products–get this–don’t even use an example that correctly illustrates the sound of that letter. Look closely. You will find it.
I assume–and maybe I’m just being silly here–that the pictures chosen to illustrate a letter should have that basic letter sound. I have encountered many, many a product with “chicken” as an example for C, and “sheep” for S. Sure, they begin with that letter. But are we trying to teach phonics here or what? The digraphs “ch” and “sh” don’t belong in a “Baby’s First Alphabet” anything.
And the VOWELS. Don’t even get me started.
“A is for Apple” OK. So old. But at least it’s the short sound. “E is for egg” or “elephant” All right. I’m with you. “I is for “Ice Cream” Wait. WHAT?!
Now, in all fairness, I have seen a lot of “I is for igloo.” But there are just as many examples out there of products that randomly mix long and short vowel sounds. Come on, folks. Let’s have some consistency here. How about teach the short and long sounds for each vowel, or, better yet, just stick with the short?
And this brings me to my final gripe about some of these learning toys. The mother of them all. The one that grinds my gears more than any other. Please allow me to step up on my soapbox to say . . .
X is for Xylophone belongs in the same book as P is for Pneumonia
Also, lest I be incomplete, “X is for x-ray” or “x-ray fish” is also a swing and a miss.
It just makes no sense to me. None at all. I shake my head at you, popular-toy-distributor-who-shall-remain-nameless. For shame.
And yet, I totally get why they do it. They are trying to keep it all nice and neat and tidy with a picture that illustrates the beginning sound of the letter. And they marry themselves to this idea at the expense of actually teaching children something valuable to them at the stage they’re in.
You see, x-ray doesn’t actually start with the sound of X, thus the hyphen. So when you say the word, you are saying the name of the letter NOT the letter sound /ks/.
And xylophone? REALLY? Well, toy developers just cannot come to grips with the fact that X makes the non-standard sound of /z/ at the beginning of a word AND that there is only one of these words that children come anywhere close to relating to.
Forget the fact that there are SO many words that really are great examples of the letter X for children. FOX, BOX, or OX anyone? It is totally worth the effort of explaining to your child that, “in this word, the X makes the /ks/ sound at the end of the word, rather than the beginning.” This way, your child is (1) learning the standard sound of the letter and (2) getting more and better examples of words they will actually encounter in early reading.
Now, to take all of this with a grain of salt. I am not suggesting that owning materials like these is bad or damaging. We have them. How do you think I started noticing all of these irregularities? They are still lots of fun and the kiddos still learn great things from them.
But when you get to that more official “preschool” stage or you are being intentional about teaching letter recognition and phonics, I would take the time to choose more effective educational products. It will set a great foundation for the years to come and the next stage of sounding out C-V-C words. To sum up, look for products that:
- teach lowercase letters in addition to capital ones,
- use proper examples of each basic consonant sound (including X), and
- teach all the short vowel sounds, or both short and long for each vowel.
Toys, flash cards, and puzzles like these are not always on retail shelves. Researching classical education or Montessori-type products helps, but is not a guarantee. I will say that when looking for toys, Leap Frog toys usually, but not exclusively, fit my criteria–even the tricky letter X.
Just remember to always have fun with it no matter what you use and enjoy your learning time with your little ones.