My 5-Year-Old Doesn't Know His Letters — And That's Okay

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 

“What letter is that?” I ask my just-turned 5-year-old. He studies it, scrunches his nose.

“E,” he says confidently, and turns back to his play.

It’s a Z, August,” I say. “It’s a Z. The last letter of the alphabet.” You’d think it would be notable.

“Okay, Mama,” he says.

I sit down with my 6-year-old. We open Alice in Wonderland. I read a paragraph, he reads a paragraph. He needs help with some words, but he does a good job of sounding them out and makes more mistakes with words he knows than words he doesn’t. We have already finished Peter Pan. I’m a big believer in giving kids quality literature, and I work hard to find books that match Blaise’s ability and attention span.

And then there is August. Blaise knew his letters when he was three, and the letter sounds, thanks to an obsession with Starfall. August has better things to do with his time, and always has. I tried every learning technique I could think of to help him learn his letters. We used letter stamps. We drew pictures. We tried Getting Ready for the Code, and when that didn’t work, we went back to Hooked on Phonics with a unique craft every single day. These included making insects out of pipe cleaners, googly eyes, and egg cartoons (the letter I), tracing Bs in buttons and gluing them to paper, constructing enormous octopi wearing hats (the letter O). We read every alphabet book I could find.

Nothing worked. Every day, he couldn’t remember yesterday’s lesson. Blaise was speeding on through Frog and Toad and working his way to chapter books, but my youngest didn’t know the letter A, much less the sound it made, much less how to spell his name.

After all the cut paper, after all the videos and songs, after all the worry and the regret and the what-have-we-done, I finally had to take a deep breath, look at August, and be okay with this.

Kids develop at different paces, and nothing illustrates this so much as my sons. My oldest is as much an aberration as my younger son. It used to be that children entered kindergarten without knowing their letters; I remember singing songs about “Mr. M with the munching mouth” over and over so other kids would learn the letter M. In Finland, children don’t learn to read until age 7, and they’re ranked sixth in the world in reading, according to the latest PISA report published in 2012. I remind myself that August is well within the global norm for his age.

It’s only recently that we’ve expected children to arrive at kindergarten basically knowing how to read. Reading is the purview of preschool, which is not play-based, but instead based on learning, particularly letters and even simple words (think -at and -ot). It’s one of the reasons we chose to homeschool: Early childhood is for play, not for sitting at a desk. August didn’t go to preschool. On the contrary, he spent his time building forts with his two brothers, making plastic Spinosauruses talk to each other, and being read to. If Finland teaches us anything, it’s that this play is exactly what he needs.

When I really start to despair, I remember a friend of mine who was radically unschooled. He didn’t read until age 10, and he taught himself to read using Charles Dickens. He went on to higher education, and currently holds down a job in his dream field.

August is coming around. We finally found a reading program he likes, that he’ll stick to — and that seems to stick with him. He’s done the first five letters of the alphabet and can consistently identify them, and give their sound. At the speed he’s going, he ought to know them all in about two months or so. Then the program will begin to enforce sounds. I won’t be able to start a rigorous reading program with him — stringing sounds into words — probably until he’s 6.

He’ll be the last reader in his homeschool cohort. But I know he’ll eventually catch up. Late readers do as well in the end as early readers. I have to deal with some familial pressure for him to know more, just as I pop eyes when I tell anyone but homeschoolers that he doesn’t know his letters. But he’ll be just fine. He doesn’t seem to mind at all. Sometimes it’s just me who needs to take a deep breath.


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