We've all seen the somewhat recent trend of really cool alphabet cards. There are some really great looking sets out there: cute ones, hip ones... but, there’s a problem. Some of the most eye-catching alphabet cards on the market are doing little in the way of helping children recognize language. It's a bold(ish) statement, I know, but it's true. If you don't believe me, ask your child's kindergarten teacher if ARMADILLO, URCHIN or CHICK are helping to achieve those first sounds.
It goes without saying that a language rich environment can give children a leg-up when it's time to read. Alphabet cards are a seemingly great way to begin letter recognition. The best products on the market take into consideration that lowercase letters are the first letters children should learn. Some products have both upper and lowercase letters like this cute set from K&Company:
The upper and lowercase letters work in this case because they only refer to the capital letters on the reverse side of the cards. Of course, it's fine to acknowledge the uppercase letters as is done in this beautiful set from Paul Gaj Design below left:
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It's when the first letter of the word is capitalized that it can potentially confuse observant children, as is done in this set.
So adorable is this artwork, that I painted this very armadillo on my own childhood rocking chair for my first son's room when he was a baby.
It's not just the case of the text that concerns my former teacher-self. It's that A is NOT for "armadillo" to the emergent reader. The first vowel sounds children learn are short sounds. Vowels don't even make sounds when they are followed by the letter R. (R is a trouble-maker.) I own a copy of all of these sets and then some. I think they are beautiful to look at. They speak to me as an artist and graphic designer, but as a teacher and a mom, I have a hard time making a compromised choice for my children.
Phonetics are taught in the same order today that they were taught when we were kids. It is essential for reading, writing and spelling success down the road. Here's a set that was created for eeBoo with the consultation of a reading specialist. She is the person brought in to help in a public school when children struggle with reading. This is a full-time position in many schools today.
Rules are rules: C is (and always will be)
for CAT. COW works. CONVERSE for the cool parents. COLLARD GREENS for the earthy. CORAL, CABBAGE, CUBIST... all good. But C does not work for CHICK no matter how fuzzy the yellow nugget. Children are supposed to learn the hard C sound first. The hard C sound is followed by A, O or U. The soft C is followed by, you guessed it, E, I and Y. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, this is American english after all. But, by and large the blended sound that C and H make together is not doing our littles any favors until about first grade when "blends" become a part of the language arts curriculum. (Though they don't even make the spelling standards until third grade.)
I really want to like this set from Land of Nod. I love the old-school graphics with Dick and Jane-esque sentences, but they lack punctuation (!?) and capitalize the featured noun mid-sentence. Who are we decorating these rooms for? And who is managing the QC at these companies that are supposed to be providing our children with the very best?
Soap-box much? Sadly, I'm just getting started. I've been called Guinea one too many times.
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This is from one of the cutest sets I have. The colors, the graphics... I just LOVE them, but in what world do you want to explain to your preschooler that P can also make an F sound? If her name is Phoebe or Phineas, go nuts. But if you're dashing through the house picking up laundry and randomly using it to wipe up spills and dust on your way to the washing machine, this is a question you are not going to want to field on the fly.
If you acquired English as a subsequent language, if you’re a writer or you happen to be a primary school teacher you know these rules of phonetics. The rest of us simply know how words sound, but not the rules behind them and it's not until you sit down to teach your own child how to read that you revisit the foundation of phonetics. These cards, originally designed to aid in teaching, have been stylized to the point that they fail to do just that, sometimes miserably so.
We often forget the most obvious question, "Will these cards help my child learn to read?" When it's time to fill your home (and your child's first classroom) with purposeful language, here is a chart of sounds for you to use.
There are, of course, myriad exceptions, but this is a solid guide to follow for emergent readers.