Before your children can learn how to read, they must first learn the alphabet. A good, solid understanding of the alphabet is fundamental to a fluent reader and writer. With bilingual kids, they may need to learn more than one alphabet, or even learn different characters depending on the language combinations.

Though tricky it may seem, keep in mind that repetition is your best friend; and no matter how futile your efforts may seem, the time you spend cultivating their minds is a time they won’t ever forget.

Below you can find some tips on how to start teaching kids the alphabet, and also some information about when to start, and the challenges that multilingual families will face.

When should kids start learning the alphabet? 

You can start teaching your kids the alphabet as soon as they start to recognize different objects and shapes. While they may not start learning to read seriously until they are in school, it is never too early to start learning about letters.

In most countries, a preschool child should usually know how to sing or recite the alphabet. Some may recognize uppercase and lowercase letters, match the uppercase to the lowercase letters, identify individual sounds each letter makes, trace, and write some, if not all, letters.

With multiple languages, of course it will depend on each individual family situation.

Should I start teaching one alphabet first, or can I teach both at the same time?

There is no reason why you can’t teach your kids to learn more than one reading system at once. However, it will depend on each family and the language strategy you are using.

For example, if parents are using OPOL (one person one language), then each parent can work on their own alphabet when playing with the kids etc. Or if you are the parent who speaks the minority language, you may want to start teaching the alphabet earlier at home before your child goes to school.

If one parent speaks multiple languages, you can either start with one first, or choose a time and place to work on each language.

If using the minority language at home (MLAH), you may choose to teach the alphabet in the home language, and leave the other alphabet to be learned at kindergarten, OR you can also introduce the alphabet through songs, tv shows at home as well.

Basically, whatever your language strategy is for teaching your child to speak multiple languages, you can carry that on when teaching your child to read and write.

Challenges learning multiple alphabets

Some languages have very similar alphabets where most letters will be the same such as English with many European languages. There may be a few different letters, or some that don’t exist in one. In this case it is more about teaching your kids the difference in the pronunciation.

For example in English “c} is for cat and “ch” is for chips. In Italian those letters make the opposite sounds. In this case kids will need to learn to distinguish the context to work out which sound to make when they read those letters.

There are also some languages which have a completely different alphabet such as English and Russian. In this case, there aren’t any letters that are the same, therefore no overlapping. It might take a little longer to learn both alphabets.

Then of course, there are different reading systems altogether. For example, Mandarin where you learn characters rather than letters. This is another challenge again as there aren’t any similarities.

For the purpose of this post, we will concentrate on the languages that use letters of an alphabet. If you are interested in how to learn characters, take a look at our Mandarin characters post.

How to teach kids to read with different alphabets

So how do you teach kids to read with different alphabets?

1. Read them many different alphabet books.

Alphabet books or posters are a fantastic way to teach your kids the alphabet. These books are usually a quick read, but with tons of varying potential. You will simply need to be creative. Say the letter, and the sound it makes. Name something starting with that letter. Have your kids trace the letters with their fingers as they make the sound. Having alphabet books in different languages is a great way for kids to learn to distinguish the different alphabets.

2. Play Games

Make it memorable, exciting, interesting, and fun. Gather their toys and sort them according to letter names or letter sounds. Do alphabet puzzles and practice saying the letter names and making the letter sounds. Sing rhyming songs together. Draw the letters on a piece of paper and see if your kids can turn it into something else that starts with that letter.

Play I Spy and other word games. Have the kids find items that begin with the same letter in the different alphabets you are trying to teach. Give them clues to a specific item you have in mind. You could either use one alphabet, eg, it starts with B in x language, or you could say it starts with B in all languages. At this point once they have guessed it, you can talk about the different pronunciations too.

Recommended: Nursery Rhymes in English, Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog

4. Sensory Activities

Incorporate sensory activities such as having your kids practice writing the letters in the sand using their fingers. Have them shape playdough into letters or things that start with a particular letter you’re currently teaching. You can find lots of other language development activities in our Montessori Language post.

5. Practice writing

Even the younger kids can practice their writing. There are many sensory activities that your children can do to practice their writing without using pen and paper, such as the ones I mentioned above. I even let my kids play with their food. Yes! Play with their food. They would bite their apple slices, or arrange their beans into letters.

6. Incorporate the alphabet in everything you do

You can always incorporate teaching the alphabet. With treasure hunting you can get the kids to find items that begin with the same letter in the different alphabets your kids are learning.

When you are in the car, ask your kids what they see outside and see if they can recognize any letters, or pinpoint things and tell you the beginning letter in different alphabets.

7. Mix up the order of the letters

You do not need to teach the letters in order; in fact, it is recommended not to teach the letters in order that way the kids do not get stuck singing the ABCs in their heads. Jumbling up the order in which you teach the alphabet, you guarantee that your children do indeed know the letters.

Sure, you can teach your kids the alphabet song and teach them the alphabet in order, but remember to mix it up from time to time. Pick a random letter of the day and focus on that letter. Or do them all at once on another day.

Talk about the letters that look similar like p, q, b, d; m, n, w; s and z; and help your kids learn the differences both in writing and in sounds. Whichever path you choose, plan ahead, prepare, and make a full day of it. Play games, sing songs, read and trace books, write the letters on a piece of paper, draw, sort items, or go on a scavenger hunt.

8. Ask questions

Don’t just tell your kids the answers, but quiz them a little and see if they remember what you’ve taught them. While playing with them, ask questions that would get them to think outside the box. Questions that will not only help them learn multiple alphabets, but will also benefit other aspects of their development.

9. Repeat repeat repeat!

Repetition is really your best friend. Keep repeating. Keep practising. Eventually they will get it.

10. Make it fun

Make it fun and try not to stress. When teaching kids different alphabets, it can get overwhelming, and the results are not instant. Children are all so different and they meet their developmental milestones at varying times.

Teaching kids to read in different languages

Once your little one has learned the alphabet, you can then move on and start teaching them to put letters together, and eventually read. Check out our post on how to teach kids to read in the minority language. Once kids learn reading strategies, these can be passed onto their other languages. So as long as they have learned the alphabet, the reading part will come naturally.

Some kids may challenge you; they may not want to learn to read. Check out our tips on how to make your kids love to read and raise a willing reader from the start.

How to teach bilingual kids different alphabets