Visually Teaching the Alphabet

Visually Teaching the Alphabet

Visually Teaching the Alphabet

By Whitney Gibbs

Growing up a visual learner it was important for me to connect visual images to abstract ideas. One example of this is the alphabet itself. When we look at the letter 'a' we don't see it's various strokes, we just automatically associate it with a specific sound. But those associations aren't yet embedded in the minds of new learners. I wanted to visually connect the individual strokes of the alphabet in a way that is meaningful and accessible to children. Our ABC Chart was designed to fulfill this need.

Each letter of the alphabet is comprised of different strokes. These strokes can be straight or curved and each has a name that helps you understand the various parts of a letter. Learning how to write or teach the alphabet can be hard for someone who is unfamiliar with the characters, but if one can learn to identify the basic strokes, they can better understand how letters are built.
Typographers and graphic designers frequently use type anatomy terms to identify specific parts of letters. There are dozens of typographic terms, but when you break it down to the essentials you can identify a handful of basic strokes that are repeatedly used throughout the alphabet.

Identifying Stroke Names

Let's look at some of those basic strokes that are used throughout the alphabet. They use the following terms:

Stem: A stem is a vertical stroke that grounds the letter. In the case of the A and Z the stem is diagonal.

Bar: A bar is a horizontal stroke that either crosses through a stem, like a lowercase t or f, or connects strokes like an A, H or e.

Bowl: Bowls are curved strokes that form an enclosed space.

Arm: An arm is an upward or horizontal stroke that is free hanging and doesn’t connect to anything on one or both sides.

Leg: Legs are downward sloping strokes that don’t connect to anything on one side. 

Shoulder: Shoulders are the curved arches found in the lowercase h, m and n.

Spine: Spines are the central curved stroke found in the letter S.

Ear: Ears are small strokes extending from the stem of a lowercase r or in some cases g.

Tail: Tails are the descending strokes that fall below the baseline. 


Other helpful typographic terms to understand:

Character: Character is used to refer to an individual letter, number, symbol or form of punctuation. 

Cap-height: The cap-height is determined by the height of the capital letters in a typeface. There is a solid line to signify to the student how tall to make each letter. 

X-height: The x-height refers to the dotted mid-line that is a guide for lowercase letters. In some cases such as a, e, m, r and u it determines the height of the lowercase letter. In other cases where a stem is used, the x-height can help you know where to place a crossbar on your f, or start the shoulder of an h. 

Baseline: The baseline is the bottom line that all the letters sit on, however, letters with tails such as g, j, p, q and y have descenders that extend below the baseline.

Ascenders: Ascenders are parts of lowercase letters that extend above the x-height line, such as b, d, f, h, k and t. 

Descenders: Descenders are parts of lowercase letters that extend below the baseline, such as g, j, p, q and y.

Tips Beyond Worksheets and Letter Writing

While visually understanding and practicing the strokes of each character is helpful to learning the alphabet, it certainly isn't the only way for your student to learn their abc's. Remember that each child learns in different ways that you may not be familiar with yet. Be patient with each child (and yourself), and expect that it can take several months or even a few years to master the alphabet. The following are additional ways to help your child grasp the alphabet.

1. Practice Pen Control

Keep in mind that it takes time to build the fine motor skills required to write letters. Young preschoolers can really struggle with this, so be patient with them and focus on activities that help build strength and dexterity. Lowercase letters naturally have more curves which can be hard to draw, so implementing pen control exercises is a helpful first step. Simply having a child trace straight and curvy lines is a great exercise. 

2. Embrace Hands-on Learning

Kids are full of energy and when we give them opportunities to move while learning we can help them retain more information. Whether you are physically moving your body to form letters, singing songs, or using sidewalk chalk to play alphabet games, there are endless ways to get creative with hands-on learning. My three year old loves to match up his foam bath letters to the pages in his ABC book. Others use sensory play or matching games to help their little ones. The best part is that there are endless ideas online to help give you ideas.

3. Read, Read, Read!

I'm sure I don't need to convince you of the importance of reading to your child. Read to your child as often as possible and do your best to instill a love of reading and learning in your home. This will not only help them recognize their letters and how to sound them out, but it will help get them excited about learning to read themselves.

Do you have a method for teaching the alphabet that wasn't mentioned here? We'd love to hear your tips and tricks in the comments below!

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