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26 Unexpected Ways to Learn the Alphabet

Unique ideas for exploring the wild world of letters

What and how you teach your child about the ABCs before school starts depends on your interests and hers. "Some children become interested in the names and the sounds of the letters when they are very young," says Claudia Quigg, executive director and founder of BabyTALK, a national organization that trains and supports parents, teachers, and health workers in early childhood development. "Others aren't interested at all, even though they have an otherwise very rich language experience in their lives." Is this okay? Yes. "You cannot tell, when a child is ten, whether she learned to read at four or seven," says Quigg. "What does matter is giving your child plenty of chances to notice the alphabet in the world all around them."

This got us dreaming up unusual ways to explore the letters. Most of these 26 ideas are meant to be engaging for your child; a few, as you'll see, are for you.

A is for Abecedarian
Abecedarian is the word for items arranged in alphabetical order. One could make an abecedarian list of tomorrow's errands: automat, barber, chiropodist, dentist... or choose abecedarian names for your 26 poodles: Alouette, Babette, Claudette, Didier....For the ultimate in compulsive alphabetizing, one could write an abecedarian list of things to do with the alphabet.

B is for Butterfly
Naturalist photographer Kjell Sandved realized he could see tiny alphabet letters and numbers in the designs of butterfly wings. Without harming the insects, he photographed them, finding all 26 letters and the numbers 0 to 9. At butterflyalphabet.com, you can click on "Butterfly E-cards" to write your child's name in butterfly letters.

C is for Chalk
Draw 26 lily pads on your driveway or sidewalk (left). Put the letters of the alphabet inside them, randomly. Now let your little "frogs" have fun, hopping around, spelling their names or simple words whose letters you supply. Frogs may either learn to make large leaps, or they may carry a piece of chalk with them to add lily pads and letters. This (you'll see) develops an early appreciation for A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y.

D is for Delicious
Make your favorite pancake batter, then funnel it into a squeeze bottle (available at supermarkets in the plastic-container section, or use a clean water or ketchup bottle with a squirt top). Write the letters of your children's names on the hot griddle. (Write them backward, if you can; their face-down side is usually better.) Flip 'cakes as they bubble. Serve sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.

E is for Easels
Easels are easy vertical surfaces for scribbling, marking, and letter making. You and your child can play Follow Me: You make a big letter; he makes it on top of yours, or vice versa. For a young car buff, draw a racetrack in the shape of alphabet letters (the child's name). Use a toy car or a pen to "drive" the letters--a jump will get you from one letter to the next. Horses and dinosaurs also can trot along letter paths.

F is for Far-Out
Some ancient languages are written in a form called boustrophedon — Greek for "as the ox plows." Instead of writing from left to right (as in English) or right to left (as in Hebrew), the writer goes back and forth , the way a farmer plows a field. Some kids in their early years have a natural propensity for writing this way. When they get to the end of the line, they (like the practical farmer) turn around and come back.

Mirror Writing and More
Many kids write individual letters from right to left, in perfect mirror image. Claudia Quigg, of the organization BabyTALK, says that boustrophedon and mirror writing aren't grounds for concern — they're just interesting stages in the development of directional writing. "When children draw a dog or a heart or a vase, they can make those drawings face any direction. When they learn to write letters, there's a new expectation (from us) that the writing can only go in one direction."

G is for George et al.
Many a famed children's book character, from Curious George to Harold of the Purple Crayon, has starred in an alphabet book. And many a famous author, from Rudyard Kipling to Dr. Seuss, has assigned him- or herself the work of writing about the letters. One of my favorites is by poet laureate Richard Wilbur, who wrote The Disappearing Alphabet (Harcourt Brace). It opens:

What if there were no letter A?
Cows would eat HY instead of HAY.
What's HY? It's an unheard-of diet.
And cows are happy not to try it.

H is for Hands-On
Puzzle-y kids gravitate toward this ABC board, which challenges you to make the letters of the alphabet on it using colored bands. Make one using 18 1/2-inch push pins and a 6-inch-square sanded wooden board (available at craft stores, or your local lumberyard can cut one for you; the bases of the push pins can be glued to the board for safety).

For a quicker hands-on project, make letters out of anything at hand: tinfoil, pizza dough, cooked spaghetti, pebbles in mud, pipe cleaners.

I is for Ink
White glue mixed with a little kid-safe paint makes a cool, rubbery ink. Drizzle it into a squeeze bottle (such as an old glue bottle) to draw your names and other words on tinfoil. When the letters dry, in about a day, peel them off and stick them on a mirror or window. Placed on a sunny window, they cast a shadow that can spell a word (backwards) on the wall.

J is for Jump
Use your bodies and imaginations to make the letters of the alphabet. One person can be the caller: "Everybody be a T!" Some letters (like W) can be a group effort. Some (like J) require leaving the ground.

K is for Kindergarten
It may come as a surprise to you (it did to me) that school districts choose the styles of letters they teach children to write. Some use an alphabet typeface called D'Nealian, the slanty love child of cursive and upright letters. Others use an upright typeface called Zaner-Bloser that is more typical of book faces. There are other fonts too. No one expects you to teach these alphabets to your child before she gets to school. (Or if they do, they should be flogged.) But if you've got a child who's interested, you can teach him to write his name the same way he'll do it in kindergarten (call your school department for details).

L is for Lid Letters
Recycle your smooth-edged caps, tops, and lids to make your own set of magnet alphabet letters for the fridge. (The bought sets never have enough letters to spell the words you want to make.) On some of ours we wrote and decorated a letter with a permanent marker; on others we used sticker letters (from scrapbooking supplies). To make them magnetic, you guessed it: Glue magnets on the backs. (For toddlers, forgo the magnets and just play with big lid letters on the floor.)

M is for Music
Ever notice that the alphabet song is the same melody as "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" and "Baa Baa Black Sheep"? The tune is often credited to Mozart, but James J. Fuld wrote, in The Book of World Famous Music, that the tune was a French folk melody. Several composers have written variations, including Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. The official alphabet song lyrics were printed in 1834 as a song called "The Schoolmaster."

N is for Newspaper
Waiting for dinner to come to the table? Hand the paper over to your child. See if she can find the letters of her name (or perhaps the whole alphabet) before the soufflé arrives.

O is for Out and About
Take a little field trip: Head downtown one afternoon and find and photograph each alphabet letter. Start with words that begin with the letter: the L in library, the T in tattoo parlor. Make a little book of letters in an inexpensive photo album. Serious letter hounds may consider looking for letters in more obscure places: the Hs hiding in a brick wall, the Ss in an ornate iron gate, the Ts in a telephone pole.

P is for Party Trick
On a piece of paper (left) draw a letter of the alphabet, then see what you can make of it. The classic use of A is a swingset. Tip B sideways to make the tops of salt and pepper shakers. C is inevitably someone's tail.

Q is for QOPH
In some ancient languages (Phoenician, Hebrew, and others), the letters have names that correspond to their shape as well as their sound. The A is called aleph — for "ox." You can still see the ox's head, with its two horns, if you flip the A upside down as it used to be. The name reminded you of both the shape of the letter and its sound. The B is bet or bayt — the word for "house" — the shape of it was almost square, like a simple house. And Q is the symbol for qoph — for "monkey." The tail of a Q was a monkey's tail.

R is for Riddles
What's a pirate's favorite letter? RRRRRR!
How many letters in the alphabet? 11. Get it?
What word starts with a T, ends with a T, and has T in it? Teapot.
Knock, knock. Who's there? Ellis. Ellis who? Ellis the 12th letter of the alphabet.

S is for Spine-Tingling
In a dull moment, use your finger to write letters on your child's back and see if she can guess them (left). Let her try writing on your back. If either of you makes a mistake, wipe it out and start over.

T is for Texture
Make a sackful of the 26 capital alphabet letters cut out of thin cardboard, thick sandpaper, or scraps of thick fabric like velvet or felt, or even duct tape. Ask everybody to reach in and take one (eyes closed) and identify the letter by feel.

U is for Under
Hide the letters you made (see T) for your child to find, under objects that start with that letter — the S under his sandwich, the G under his glass. Or, take one of those same textured letters and put it under a piece of paper. See what appears when you rub the side of a dark crayon over it.

V is for Vole
...and also violet, and Vera. Which brings up Guggenheim, a good game for a child (teamed up with an adult) who is mastering the initial sounds of words. Each team makes a chart with three categories (animals, flowers, kids' names, etc.) vertically along the left side, and the letters of a random word along the top — such as van. Teams fill out their chart with words that fit the category whose first letter matches the letter of that column.

W is for www
a.k.a. the World Wide Web. Translate your name into hieroglyphics at harcourtschool.com. And you can turn your child's handwriting into a font for your computer at fontifier.com ($9).

X is for X-Height
Typographers have names for the parts of a letter. Some of those names would make sense to kids: the crossbar across the A, the arms of a capital E. Some are more uppity: a serif is the little finishing stroke that fancifies the letters of certain typefaces. X-height (of a lowercase letter x) is used to dictate the relative heights of the other lower-case letters. You can make up your own alphabet anatomy to help your child remember the lines that make the letters. B, P, and R have bellies. Ms are two mountains. Z is a zigzag. An H is a ladder with one step. Q, of course, has a tail.

Y is for Yowsa
Imagine if I asked you to copy a character from the Chinese language. Suddenly (unless you can already write Chinese) you'd have some sense of what it feels like to be a little kid. Where do I start on the page? Which part do I make first? Which parts are just decoration and which parts matter?

Z is for Zany
Keep a straight face when your child comes to you with a jumble of letters she's written in a line and asks you to tell her what the word spells, even if it's ontqhis or ktwlmvn. That piece of paper will be long gone before your child realizes we use vowels between our consonants and that those were not standard words. But the feeling that she did something important and interesting will last.

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CeReality: 5 Families, 5 Stories, 1 Critical Meal

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