Getting Off to the Right Start in Reading

by Brenda Larson, B. Ed and M. Ed, Creator of Itchy’s Alphabet

Every parent wants their child to experience success at school. Yet, statistics show that close to one in three children may struggle with learning as they begin their school journey. Here are four steps to ensure your child has the best chance of becoming a reader.

1. Focus on Language Development  •  Children with strong language skills typically become readers. It stands to reason when we recognize that the material we read is simply our language put down in print. We develop those language skills by talking to our children right from an early age.

Talk to them about what they are doing, things they see when you’re on an outing, things they create or things you read about in story books. Ask questions that require more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Use appropriate language. For example, if they ask when you’re going to visit grandma, instead of saying ‘four more sleeps’, use the correct ‘time’ words – hours, days, weeks, minutes, etc. When your child gets to school and the teacher is introducing something new, they will have greater success learning the concepts because they recognize the words being used.

2. Use Letter Sounds  •  It has become a ‘societal tradition’ to introduce letter names to children first. We all teach our children the ABC song. However, learning letter names first puts children at a disadvantage when it comes time to read. One of the basic premises of learning, The Principle of Primacy, states that we tend to remember best what we learn first. Since children need letter sounds in order to become readers, it makes sense that we should be introducing these skills first. Children who have learned letter names tend to try to use the names when sounding out words. They will say ‘see’, ‘ay’, ‘tee’ when trying to decode the word ‘cat’. What they need to be successful with that activity are the letter sounds ‘c’, ‘a’ and ‘t’.

Some will argue that the names help with the sounds – in fact, only eight names (b, d, j, k, p, t, v and z) help with the sound and the other 18 suggest a different sound. That’s so confusing for young children. There is no reason why we can’t call a letter by its sound rather than its name – I always encourage people to ‘talk sounds’ with young children.

3. Use Lower Case Letters  •  As with letter names, there is a tendency to introduce upper case letters first to young children. However, when children begin printing letters and words at school, we expect them to print in lower case. If it is lower case they see in books and use in printing, those are the letters they need to learn first, based on that Principle of Primacy. Some children have such difficulty breaking the habit of printing those upper case letters if learned first.

You will hear an argument that upper case letters are easier to form. They are not. Upper case letters have more slant lines than lower case. Slant lines are the most difficult for young children to form. Also, 17 of the upper case letters require children to lift their pencil and re-position it to a specific place in order to complete the letter – that’s a very difficult task for little fingers! Only six lower case letters require that action.

To become a successful reader, children need lower case letters and letter sounds. Get these foundation skills established first and bring in the names and upper case later on.

4. Use Picture Cues in the Shape of the Letters  •  The very best way to connect letter sounds and lower case letters is with a picture cue in the shape of the letter. Research (Linnea Ehri et al, Pictorial mnemonics for phonics, Journal of Educational Psychology, 1984, Vol 76, No 5) confirms that this is the most effective way of learning these skills. Much of what young children learn comes in through their visual channel. We teach them about so many things in their environment by viewing objects and pictures. However, learning letter sounds is an auditory skill and the letters themselves are probably one of the most abstract things children are required to make sense of. By using a picture cue in the shape of the letter, we connect the sound and the formation to something visual that makes sense to young children.

Focus on language development, introduce letter sounds and lower case letters using a picture cue in the shape of the letter and give your child a great start to reading!


Brenda Larson (B. Ed 1971, UBC, M. Ed 1979, Gonzaga U) taught in the BC public school system for 34 years, 29 of those years in School District 23 (Central Okanagan). In her role as a Learning Assistance Teacher, she supported children who struggled with learning and developed key strategies to help young children with early literacy skills. Her Itchy’s Alphabet is one of the best programs available using a picture cue in the shape of the letters. To view her videos and learn more about Itchy’s Alphabet, please visit


Leave a Comment