Today ABC books are available in every possible theme from The Dinosaur Alphabet Book to The Construction Alphabet and B is for Ballet: A Dance Alphabet. There’s an alphabet book for every possible interest and theme. But . . .
Not all ABC books are created equal for learning how to read.
A child’s first exposure to phonics might very well be an alphabet book. If the learning goal is to help kids learn what an uppercase & lowercase letter looks like (B b) and connect it with the initial sound that it makes (buh), then some ABC books are better than others.
So, if you’re specifically looking for an alphabet book to use as a phonics teaching tool, there are some important things to know about our alphabet.
- The English language is made up of 26 alphabet letters.
- There are five vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and twenty-one consonants (which is all the rest of the alphabet letters).
Okay, so here’s where things start to get tricky:
The vowels can make make more than one initial sound.
- There are short vowel sounds & long vowel sounds. (A is for apple & ape, E is for elephant & eagle, I is for iguana & ice-cream, O is for octopus & ocean, U is for umbrella & unicorn).
- There’s also a schwa sound which sounds like a short u in words like above, balloon, bottom, etc. but we’re not going to worry about that right now.
Two of the consonant letters (c & g) make a hard sound and a soft sound.
- The letter C makes a hard sound like in cat & castle, but it can also make a soft sound like a letter s in city & Cinderella.
- The letter G makes a hard sound like in goat & gorilla, but it can also make a soft sound like a letter j in giraffe & gem.
The letter x sounds like a z sound at the beginning of words.
- When the letter x starts a word, it sounds like the letter z (e.g. Xerox) But how many words do you know that actually start with the letter x? There aren’t very many, so the word xylophone is often the go-to in alphabet books featuring words that start with x.
- Teachers typically prefer teaching the ending sound of x because kids are much more likely to encounter words with x at the end of a word than at the beginning (e.g. ox, ax, box, fox, mix, six, etc.).
Here’s what you should look for in an alphabet book for teaching phonics:
- Look for alphabet books that focus on really clean initial sounds of words. For instance, B is for bear, E is for egg, O is for octopus.
- Look for short vowel exemplar words over long vowel words, if only one example is provided. For instance, it’s preferable to have the short vowel example word egg over the long vowel example eel, but including both is ideal. Teach the short vowel first, because it’s easier for kids to learn the long vowel sound. Every long vowel simply says its name.
- Look for clear & simple kid-friendly images that clearly go with the examples.
- Look for examples of both the hard & soft sounds of letters c and g.
- Look beyond alphabet books which simply label, to ones with simple, yet complete sentences.
So…what is THE BEST ABC book for teaching alphabet letters and sounds?
The classic 1963 book, Dr. Seuss’s ABC is hands-down the best alphabet book for teaching alphabet letters and their corresponding sounds.
Here’s why. . .
The book includes:
- each capital and lowercase letter (e.g. BIG B and little b).
- exemplar words for most of the letters and their sounds. (But…there isn’t an example for soft g or long u.)
- repetition of the alphabet in a fun way that makes sense.
- the sound of letter x at the end of words, rather than the beginning.
- examples of words within highly engaging sentences. I’m a big proponent of teaching phonics, but it’s important to always, always bring those phonics skills back to reading real text. This book does it in such a wonderful way that is so uniquely Seuss!
So if you’re going to get just one alphabet book specifically for helping your child learn how to read, Dr. Seuss’s ABC is THE ONE I most highly recommend.
Here’s what to avoid in alphabet books for teaching reading:
If you’re looking for an alphabet book to teach phonics skills, namely alphabet letters and their corresponding sounds, there definitely are ABC books to outright avoid.
Stay far, far away from books which use examples like the following . . . even if the illustrations are stellar. They will only confuse kids about beginning letter sounds, and our English language is confusing enough as it is!
- blends (G is for grass, S is for stop–these are the least offensive of the group)
- digraphs (S is for shark, C is for chimpanzee)
- diphthongs (O is for owl, O is for oil)
- r-controlled vowels (A is for armadillo, E is for Ernie)
- silent letters (G is for gnu, K is for knelt)
Here are some real life examples of alphabet book DON’TS:
I happen to love alphabet books of all kinds, but as a reading teacher, I’ve also been pretty horrified at some of the exemplars used to teach kids alphabet letters and their beginning sounds.
The following ABC book examples come from vintage sources, but I’ve seen similar issues in many contemporary children’s alphabet books.
In this 1935 alphabet book, the letter E is for Eyes. Never mind that the word eyes makes a long i sound.
Really, what were they thinking?
Even the beloved classic, A Apple Pie (1886) by Kate Greenaway, isn’t an ideal ABC book for connecting letters and sounds.
In this example, the (silent) letter K Knelt for it. Oh, why couldn’t K have kept it, or kicked it, or even kidnapped it instead?
This next ABC Book DON’T comes from The Hiawatha Alphabet (1910), where O is for owl. Using the diphthong ow is completely unhelpful. It doesn’t represent a long or short vowel sound for the beginning sound of the letter O.
This next ABC Book DON’T comes from The Tom Thumb Picture Book (1850’s), where S is for ship. Using a consonant digraph (sh) is definite example of an alphabet book DON’T.
In this final example from The ABC’s of Horses (1899), there are actually TWO ABC book DON’Ts included on the very same page! Both feature consonant digraphs (sh and th). This time S is for Shetland pony and T is for Thoroughbreds.
So be very careful using thematic alphabet books for teaching letters & initial sounds.
If your child is really into a particular subject, it’s very tempting to use a themed ABC book to harness that excitement. But the ABC’s of Horses (1899) above provides a perfect example of why it’s so important to be extra careful with themed alphabet books.
These books are so focused on incorporating words that make sense for the theme, that they can be downright dreadful for teaching beginning letters and their sounds.
Tongue twister tales can help target your teaching.
Once you’ve read some alphabet books which provide an overview of letters of the alphabet and their initial sounds, you might enjoy reading some picture books that target one initial sound at a time (consonant letters: C, D, F, P, R, S, W). These books have been written by Pamela Duncan Edwards and illustrated by Henry Cole.
Of course, there isn’t a book for every letter of the alphabet (who would want letter X anyway?), but each book does provide an opportunity to reinforce certain consonant letters and their beginning sounds.
Reading these picture books aloud can feel a bit like verbal gymnastics, but these tantalizing tongue twister tales have still been written as a complete story with a clear beginning, middle and end. They certainly provide a very natural opportunity to teach alliteration.
Initial Hard C Sound: Clara Caterpillar
Initial D Sound: Dinorella: A Prehistoric Fairy Tale
Initial F Sound: Four Famished Foxes and Fosdyke
Initial P Sound: Princess Pigtoria and the Pea
Initial R Sound: Rosie’s Roses
Initial S Sound: Some Smug Slug
Initial W Sound: The Worrywarts
I hope these books will serve to help your child learn the alphabet letters and their sounds as they begin their journey to become an independent strategic reader!