It’s hard to imagine a time when you didn’t know the alphabet, so the idea of teaching the letters to someone else can be daunting. But for toddlers and preschoolers (and anyone else learning English), the letters of the alphabet are the building blocks of the English language. Learning and recognizing them is the first crucial step to developing strong literacy and language skills.
Enter: alphabet games. Alphabet games make mastering letters fun—which is exactly what learning should be! So whether you have a little one just starting out on their literacy journey, or know someone learning English as a second language, we’ve broken down everything you need to know about alphabet games. In this article, we’ll explain what alphabet games are, the best ones to use, and the mistakes to avoid when using them to guarantee learning success.
Feature image: Retrokatz/CC
What Are Alphabet Games?
Alphabet games are any activities designed to help children learn the 26 letters of the English alphabet. They may also be referred to as “letter games,” “ABC learning games,” or “letter recognition games.” They can be as simple as using alphabet magnets to show letters, or as advanced as alphabet puzzles, and everything in between.
Why Do We Use Alphabet Games?
Being able to read, write and listen are core to understanding and communicating in English (and any language). As such, we want to do everything we can to encourage success. By making that first big step (learning the alphabet) fun and engaging, children are more likely to remember letters and their sounds. The more they remember their letters, the more they’ll recognize them and identify them in and out of order. And the more prepared they’ll be to learn to read and write.
Early Childhood Cognition
From the moment they’re born, children are like sponges absorbing everything in their world. They want to know how things work, why they work, and what things are.
Learning the alphabet serves as a base for learning to read, communicate and understand the English language. It’s the first step to providing children with the tools to not only learn, but to seek answers on their own. To add to their knowledge base of how and why things work and what they are. Beyond the alphabet, letter games help children improve and strengthen their memory and cognition—all vital skills for anyone to have..
When it comes to mastering the alphabet, the vital concept a child must conquer is the ability to recognize letters and recall them. The easier they can recognize and recall, the easier it’ll be for them to learn letter sounds, which is a must for learning to read.
Being able to “recognize and recall” letters means your learner can tell the difference between each of the 26 alphabet letters. They can also say the name of each letter. Identifying a letter by its name and sound (regardless of the order presented), requires memorization and practice. So, the more letter recognition games they play, the more fun they’ll have, but also the more letter repetition they’ll be exposed to and the more easily they’ll be able to remember and recognize letters and sounds.
The following is a chart featuring a few of the reading-related milestones to look out for depending on your learner’s age, according to the U.S. Dept. of Education:
Age: 0-3 years
Age: 3-4 years
Age: 5 years
Age: 6 years
Begin to associate words they hear frequently with what the words mean.
Understand that print carries a message.
Sound as if they are reading when they pretend to read.
Read and retell familiar stories.
Handle objects such as board books and alphabet blocks in their play.
Make attempts to read and write.
Recognize letters and letter-sound matches.
Decide on their own to use reading and writing for different purposes. May write about topics that mean a lot to them.
Understand how books should be handled; pretend to read books.
Identify familiar signs and labels.
Understand that print is read left-to-right and top-to-bottom.
Identify new words by using letter-sound matches, parts of words and their understanding of the rest of a story or printed item.
Look at pictures in books and realize they are symbols of real things.
Identify some letters and make some letter-sound matches.
Begin to match spoken words with written ones.
Identify an increasing number of words by sight.
Begin to pay attention to specific print such as the first letters of their names.
Enjoy listening to and talking about storybooks.
Begin to write letters of the alphabet and some words they use and hear often.
Sound out and represent major sounds in a word when trying to spell.
Produce some letter-like forms and scribbles that resemble, in some way, writing.
Use known letters (or their best attempt to write the letters) to represent written language especially for meaningful words like their names or phrases such as "I love you."
Begin to write stories with some readable parts.
Try to use some punctuation marks and capitalization.
What Are the Different Types of Alphabet Games?
We tend to think of the alphabet song when we think of learning letters, but that’s only one of many letter games children should be playing. This is because we want learners to do more than just sing the alphabet in order. We want them to be able to recognize and distinguish between the letters. This will make them versatile and adept readers down the road.
It can be hard to differentiate between letter recognition games when there are so many out there. Particularly given that not every child learns best in the same way. There are three main types of learners: auditory, visual and kinesthetic. Knowing which one your child is (or combination of) can help you find the best letter games for them. Each alphabet game you use should focus on one or more of these types of learning:
What Are the Best Alphabet Games to Use?
The first thing to know is that there is no absolute right way to teach the alphabet. However, the most effective method will use a combination of letter games targeting the different types of learning. The best games will address some or all of the following: memory, sight recognition, sound and speaking (or “phonics”), and touch.
The following are a few of the most used and versatile ABC learning games we recommend:
Alphabet bingo (or “letter match”) is great for audio, visual and kinesthetic learners. Players get to see the letters on a card, hear the letter being said to them (and, if you’d like, you can have them say the letter back to you!), as well as identify and physically place (touch) a marker to the correct letter. You can easily make this game yourself using household items, download it for free online (here’s a link to 30 free printable alphabet bingo cards), or purchase it from a vendor, such as Amazon.
Sidewalk Chalk Games
Sidewalk chalk games are fantastic for visual and kinesthetic learners because children get to see letters in a different context and move around while still learning. And the best part? All you need is chalk and (you guessed it) a sidewalk.
While there are numerous games you can play, we recommend “Alphabet Hopscotch” for its versatility. Alphabet Hopscotch can be played as the hopscotch game we all loved as kids (just with letters inside the squares), as the block version below, as a “hop and move” game (second photo), or any variety of ways you can imagine.
Sidewalk letter games are great for children who learn best by doing and being physical./Buggy & Buddy
Use actions to make the letters more memorable./No Time For Flash Cards
Playdoh Letters is another fantastic game you can “play” in so many different ways. Playdoh Letters are great for kinesthetic and visual learners because of their tactile nature. Use Playdoh to make letters for your child to touch (identify) or have them make Playdoh Letters based off of alphabet letters written on paper or shown on a screen. A child can also stamp letters into the Playdoh, or use magnetic letters or alphabet cookie cutters to make letters. Use Playdoh Letters for audio learners by saying the letters and having your learning choose the correct one, then have them pronounce the letter back to you.
Another great activity for letter learning is the alphabet puzzle. Puzzles are fantastic for kinesthetic and visual learners because children get to touch and move letters around, as well as see them in 3D. Use them for audio learners by saying aloud and having your child say the letter once they’ve put it in its correct slot.
Ok, so we know it’s not exactly a game, but reading can really help a child on his or her journey to learning the alphabet. Reading exposes learners to seeing letters on a page, and hearing the letters being pronounced helps them understand letter sounds. Reading also helps children understand how letters can be used to form words and trains them to know English reading is done from left to right and top to bottom on a page.
Alphabet Learning Games for Students With Different Learning Needs
There are also alphabet learning games available for students with different learning needs (i.e.: for the blind and deaf). Below are a few links we recommend checking out for games using American Sign Language and Braille.
Sign Language Learning Games (for Learners Who Are Deaf)
Braille Learning Games (for Learners Who Are Blind)
The internet is full of great resources for teaching and learning the alphabet. We recommend searching through Pinterest and YouTube for alphabet learning games. There are also a ton of free resources available on various websites and blogs (e.g., those by parents and teachers) that can be found using your favorite search engine.
Here are a few we recommend:
The Most Common Mistakes Made When Using Alphabet Games (and How to Avoid Them)
Unfortunately, finding fun alphabet games is only the first step. If you want to help a child learn their letters efficiently, make sure to avoid these common mistakes.
#1: Teaching the Alphabet in Order
Believe it or not, teaching the alphabet in order from A-Z is not the most effective or useful way to learn the alphabet. This is because we want to ensure children not only memorize their letters, but that they know them by sight and sound independent of the alphabet order. Instead, try teaching the letters in groups to both break up the alphabet into chewable nuggets and to give your child a chance to distinguish small words.
For example, teaching a child the letters in their name can be a fun, easy way to get started. Not only will they hear and see those letters on a regular basis, they’ll also have a simple word to learn that ensures they know each letter in their name by sight and sound. Once a child can identify a letter by its name, it’s easier to move on to learning the letter sounds.
Another trick is to teach groups of letters that can make small words. Say you focused on the following group of letters: B, P, N, D, E. Once a child has learned those letters, they can begin to identify small words such as: den, bed, pen, etc.
#2: Not Making Alphabet Games Hands-On Enough
Learning the alphabet and playing alphabet games should be a dynamic, engaging process. Children love to move, touch, see, and interact with the world around them, and alphabet games should tie into that enthusiasm easily. Relying too heavily on methods like worksheets can lose a child’s interest and decrease the likelihood that they’ve truly learned their letters and can distinguish them in and out of their alphabetic order.
#3: Not Mixing It Up
Avoid the temptation of using the same two or three games over and over. As with anything, variety is the spice of life. Keep minds interested and engaged by changing up the types of games used to master letters.
#4: Not Being Consistent
Practice truly makes perfect when it comes to letter recognition and ABC learning games. One simple way to keep children invested is to use everyday objects as a chance to learn. Try labeling objects around the house that a child will come in contact with throughout the day and every time you see them interact with that object, use a simple word to help them connect it back to the alphabet.
For example: when your child sits on a couch, you can point to the label and ask them what object they just sat on. Then say the word “couch” and/or have them say the word and the letter it starts with (i.e.: “C” is for “couch”).
#5: Not Celebrating Each Success Along the Way
Learning the alphabet is an incredible accomplishment! But there are 26 letters to learn and each one mastered is a reason to celebrate. Give your learner a sense of accomplishment by encouraging them and cheering them on every time they learn a new letter.
There is no single correct way to teach the alphabet. However, the more fun, dynamic and engaging you make it, the more your learner will remember his or her letters. The more they remember, the better prepared they’ll be to learn to read.
Be sure to mix up the types of alphabet games you play by using letter recognition game ideas on Pinterest, YouTube and blogs (like ours!). Be consistent and don’t forget to celebrate every learned letter as its own accomplishment.
Looking for more learning games? Be sure to read our complete learning games guide.
Already reading? Check out the 9 Literary Elements You’ll Find in Every Story.
If you need a break from letters, learn about the Most Common Shapes and How to Identify Them.
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Brittany Logan graduated from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism with a Master of Science with Honors. She has a dual-degree Master's from Sciences Po School of Journalism in Paris, and earned her Bachelor’s in Global Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has spent several years working in higher education- including as an English teacher abroad and as a teaching assistant in science writing at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.