When Should My Child Learn Letters and Numbers and the Alphabet?

Many preschool and day care programs claim to be “academic,” teaching very young children to count, recite the alphabet, and learn various concepts. Such emphasis on educational activities is part of a larger, society-wide push to have children learn more, faster.

Publishers put out educational books and software; toy companies manufacture educational games; television shows teach the alphabet and numbers. Because of pressure from friends, neighbors, some child development professionals, and the media, many parents feel concerned if their young child hasn’t yet learned shapes, colors, letters, and numbers.

It’s possible to teach a young child to memorize and then recite back almost any short list, including the numbers from one to ten and the alphabet. A three-year-old may know that saying “One, two, three, four,” is called counting, but she probably won’t understand that the number eight represents eight objects until she’s four or five.

A child can’t be taught to understand concepts before she’s developmentally ready. Gradually, as she’s read to and as she experiments, plays with objects, asks questions, observes her environment, and explores, she’ll learn what words and numbers mean. If her natural curiosity is encouraged and she has materials to experiment with, she’ll learn concepts easily. But too much emphasis on early education may discourage a child and diminish her natural drive to learn. Parents can wait until their child shows a spontaneous interest in letters, words, and concepts, and then follow up on what she can do.

There’s no need for schools and parents to provide excessive amounts of educational materials for young children. Colors, shapes, numbers, and words are part of whatever children do, so they learn about these things naturally. Every day, a child hears, “You’re wearing blue shorts,” “Do you want the red or the green crayon?” “Here are three crackers,” or “Look at that big truck.” Parents talk about rainy days and sunny days; names of birds, animals, and flowers; the different seasons; and more.

A child has constant exposure to such concepts as same and different (milk is different than juice; Mom is different than Dad), soft and hard, big and little. She hears adults counting, sees them reading, and observes letters and numbers everywhere. She gets a natural jump on literacy when her parents read to her daily, patiently repeating her favorite stories.

You’ll hear your child ask, “How many is this?” “What color is this?” “What does this say?” “What’s that?” She’ll begin to count out loud, at first getting the numbers out of order, and she’ll write letters on paper, often creating nonsense words, or writing letters or her name backwards. Try not to correct her, but rather encourage her to keep counting and keep writing. She’ll learn at her own pace, without pressure, because young children are interested and self motivated.

Then starting with kindergarten and first grade, you’ll see her make great strides in literacy and math. And if you consistently show an interest in learning and discovery, encourage your child, and nurture her interests, she’ll follow your lead and always find excitement and joy in learning.

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