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Learning the Alphabet: What to do when your child has trouble learning their ABC’s


My youngest started learning the alphabet a few weeks ago, and within the first week I realized how difficult it is for him.

I've been on the lookout since he was a baby for language issues, ever since I noticed he had great difficulty making eye contact with others. Although I initially put it down to age and perhaps developmental immaturity, as he got older it was hard to ignore the fact that he would spend some of his time staring into space, looking completely out of touch with the world around him.

That behavior, combined with non-stop crying in his early months, did worry me. He already has two siblings with language issues - one mild, that eventually resolved itself after a bit of intensive work in the early years, and one severe.

Since he related well to others (he's a very loving boy) I knew it couldn't be PDD, but was most likely a language processing disorder. I figured out that the extreme crying was due to allergies - not too difficult when your nursing infant breaks out immediately after you eat a forbidden food. I also delayed some of his shots, however controversial it may be.

(My 8 year old had a moderate reaction after the MMR, and afterwards it was obvious that he'd forgotten a ton of stuff. Before the shot, at 14 months old, he could count up to 10, knew all the names of every external body part, knew all of his colors, both primary and secondary- you get the idea. Afterwards, he couldn't remember anything. I had to teach him everything again, and though he's very bright, he's never regained that level of brilliance).

As time passed I also realized he had some sensory issues, which in addition to the language issues probably caused him to blank out. I created a sensory program for him, which took care of that.

But I was still worried about the future. Fortunately, I had great success with a special program I created to improve language skills. You can find examples of these games here and here - though not the full program- on this site. I started wondering if I could create a baby version of the program for him. He'd already spent a lot of time sitting on my lap while I worked with clients, and so he was already familiar with what to do. I played around with the program, and voila! I saw an dramatic change in his behavior within a few weeks.

We completed everything up until the last level, and boy am I thankful I did! I can just imagine where he would be if I hadn't...

But of course he's still having trouble with learning his ABC's, so I invested some thinking cap time while doing dishes, and this is what I mulled over:

Generally when kids have trouble learning their alphabet, there are a couple reasons why:

1) Poor auditory memory- they can't remember what they hear. So even though you may have learned the letter b five times in a row, the info doesn't make it into your child's long-term memory. I knew this couldn't be the problem, because we'd already completed the level of the program that works on this.

2) Poor visual memory - a lot less common that the first. Basically it means your child doesn't remember what he sees. Also not possible, since the level he completed covers this as well.

3) Failure to converge the eyes, or other visual processing issues. I have seen this in a significant number of children, and I suspect it's something we'll have to get checked out at some point. Unfortunately, you can't start working with children with these issues until they are about 6 or 7. So while we're checking out glasses, and intensive intervention on this will probably have to wait.

4) Inability to connect the sound if the letter with the visual symbol. This is different than number 1. It's actually a sequencing issue. Bingo - I knew then this was his problem. This was of course the last level that I hadn't yet done with him :(.

So I guess it's back to the drawing board. I'll be spending the next few weeks rewriting this level of the program (originally designed for 6 years and up) for tiny tots.

But for those of you who'd like to get a peek at what we'll be doing, here's one of the first activities we've done:


Who Are You?

The book "Who are you?" by Stella Blackstone

Black and white copies (or color if you want to splurge) of each of the animals listed in the book, plus one of the little boy at the end.

About this game:

In this game, you'll ask your child to repeat back to you the names of the animals in the  book, in order. You also want your preschooler to be able to pair the rhyming animals together: for example, cat and bat, and whale and snail.

This book is a favorite in our house; we've had it for about 7 years and every child that's come through has enjoyed it.

It's also perfect for practicing sequencing skills:

First of all, the pictures are simple, clear, and boldly done.

Second, the repetitive nature of it makes it easy for young children , even those with special needs, to remember.

Third, there's a picture hint on each page, such as the tail of the cat or the head of the bat, that serve as visual clues that help your child remember each animal. And lastly, the rhyming words help your child remember pairs of animals.

How to play:

1. Read the book to your child, pointing out the pictures of each animal as you go along. Make sure your child becomes familiar with the names of the animals. It's okay if he doesn't know the names of all of them (they are all fairly common, except for bat) - he'll learn.

2. Be sure to point out the picture hint on each page. It's located on the page that says,"Who are you?" and gives your child a clue of what animal is on the next page.

3. Now take out the cut-outs of the animals. Read the book again with your child, at an easygoing pace. As you name an animal, place it's cut-out in front your child. Be sure to put pairs of animals together.

4. When you've completed 2 pairs (4 animals), put the book aside. Name the animals in the cut-out pictures, and then mix them up.

5. Say to your child, "Uh-oh! I mixed it up. Can you fix it?" If your child has trouble, give them a hint by making the sound of the animal, or saying part of the word.

6. Continue reading the book, stopping after every pair to rearrange the pictures, and asking your child to fix them.

TIPS: You should play this game at least twice, preferably three times, with the third session taking place a few days after the second.

If this was too easy for your child, increase the number of pictures he has to reorganize at one time. You could try having him do 4 at a time, for example. Or, you could get rid of the cut-out pictures altogether, and let your child name the animals for you after you close the book.

Again, you could have them name either 2 pairs, or 3, depending on how they do. You could name one animal, and have them name the one that rhymes with it.

If this is too hard for your child: Make two copies of the cut-out pictures, and have your child match one set to the second set. Or, they can match the cut-out pictures to the ones in the book.

Good luck, and have fun!


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