Why NOT to teach your child the ABC’s (do this instead)

Here at Talia Kovacs Consulting, I work to ensure that parents can take away bite-sized, easily implementable actions to boost literacy achievement at home, without it feeling like more school. This post was originally hosted on SpeechBlubs, a site that gives concrete speech and language tips for parents.

A familiar scene in any home with young children is the child proudly singing the ABC’s and the parents cheering them on. Then, when the child begins to read, parents teaching their child to read at home try valiantly to get their children to understand the relationship between the letters they’ve sung for years and the sound those letters make. For most people, this leaves out one crucial part of learning how to read at home and in school: sound manipulation. I see this often in my work with parents and children, and fixing this is one of the quickest ways to turn a reluctant reader into an eager, avid reader. You can teach your child to read at home with a few key steps and one important bit of knowledge.

The Importance of Sound Manipulation

Research on the science of learning to read shows the importance of sound-based learning for ages 18 months – 4 years. Teaching young children the sounds that are in a word is so much more important than teaching them the letters. Phonics (letter recognition) should always come after phonemic awareness (sound recognition). Parents teaching their children to read at home should emphasize phonemic awareness.

The ABC’s are a nice way to introduce your child to letters, but without the ability to manipulate sounds, it will be much harder for your child to develop in their reading. For children to know how to read and break apart words and make meaning out of sounds, they need to know how to manipulate sounds. So, let’s stop stressing the ABCs and start teaching our children all of the sounds that they’ll need to express themselves from their lifetimes.

There is a big difference between phonics and phonemic awareness. Phonics is the ability to recognize letters and sounds. It is visual and oral. Phonemic awareness should come before phonics, and it is entirely verbal. This means you can play with phonemic awareness while on the go, at any time, with your eyes closed. 

There are many ways parents can help their children learn to read at home by manipulating sounds. This can look like saying a simple word and taking out the first sound or the last sound and replacing it with another. It can also look like your child breaking apart syllables. 

Keep It Fun

There are several games you can play with your child that promote sound development when learning to read at home. In all of these quick games, there are three important principles to remember:

  1. Involve Physicality: Wherever possible, make this a physical game. When breaking apart sounds, you can touch your head, waist and toes for the sounds, or touch your head, waist and then jump for the last sound. By allowing your child to feel the sounds in their body and associate it with a body part, you are ensuring they see the sounds each as distinct and will associate this with better recall. 
  2. Celebrate Wins: Every time your child gets a sound correct or guesses well, you can celebrate their effort. A few quick physical celebrations include: 
    1. “Kiss Your Brain” parent kisses fingers to lips and touches forehead, child does the same
    2. “Give Yourself a High Five” parent claps hands together, child does same
    3. “Pat Yourself on the Back” parent pats themselves on the back, child does same 
    4. “Do a Victory Dance” parent sings a quick tune as child jumps around
  3. Keep it Low Stakes: Sound manipulation is core to every person’s ability to process language. Remember, you are encouraging your child to learn how to process words and eventually learn to read. If it feels like a chore, your child is less likely to play and get excited by manipulating sounds, and therefore is less likely to do so. Keep it fun, use silly words, and allow your child to be invested in the games. 

Play Games!

There are a few simple sound manipulation games that give you the most bang for your buck when teaching your child to read at home. All of these different ways can be done on the go, in the car, at the dinner table and with friends and others to encourage the game-like atmosphere of learning sounds and their relationship to each other. 

  1. Say a 3-letter or 3-sound word, and break apart the sounds. Then, allow your child to do the same. This can look like: 
    1. Parent says “cat” 
    2. Parent says “c—aaaaa—t” 
    3. Parent asks child: tell me the sounds in cat
    4. Child says “c—aaaaa–t” 
    5. Parent then picks another word and allows child to break apart the word
  2. You can also do this with syllables or longer words. For example, with the word sidewalk, you can say:
    1. “Sidewalk. Say Sidewalk.”
    2. Child then says Sidewalk
    3. Now, say sidewalk but take away the “walk”
    4. Child says “side”
    5. Now take away “side” 
    6. Child says “walk”
    7. Celebrate success and encourage your child further

Now that you know the importance of sound manipulation, next time your child sings the ABC’s, smile, cheer them on, and then get to practicing breaking apart and replacing sounds- that’s where the real reading skills are built. 

Talia Kovacs is a literacy expert and coach working to promote resilience and independence through literacy. Through her practice, Talia offers parenting groups, one-on-one literacy services, and literacy pods all focused on joyful literacy. 10% of her profits and 10% of her teaching time are donated to promoting literacy in high-need communities. Through August, Talia is offering one-on-one literacy strategy sessions to parents free of charge. Visit her website at

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