When Should a Child Recognize Letters of the Alphabet?

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Between birth and age 5, your child’s brain goes through an astonishing development process. In the first year of life, your child’s developing brain triples, and it will be almost fully formed by the time he or she enters kindergarten.

Wow, right? That means each moment you have with your young child is an opportunity to promote learning, growth and brain development. But are you doing the right things?

The better question to ask is: Are you seeing your child meet the right milestones? For example, when should a child recognize letters of the alphabet? This is just one of many important milestones your child should reach between birth and the start of kindergarten.

So, read on to see a comprehensive list of those milestones, tips for helping your child fall in love with reading, where to go if your child is struggling with reading, as well as the answer to that all-important question: When should a child recognize letters of the alphabet.

It must be said: Each child developments on his or her own timeline. While you’ll see ages and date ranges listed below, keep in mind that your child might be just a little ahead or a little behind the average. And that’s OK! In case you do grow concerned about reading and literacy development, see the section at the bottom of this post that addresses what to do when a child falls behind.


What to Expect: Birth to 12 Months

Most parents don’t have a lot of spare time during this first year to worry about literacy development — they are too busy changing diapers, giving bottles, cleaning those bottles and stealing a few winks when they get the chance.

But, if you pay close attention, you’ll notice some important developmental milestones during these first 12 months. Here’s a look at 3 things you should notice by the end of the first year with regard to literacy development:

  1. Responses: By the end of the first year, your child should be responding in some fashion when spoken to.
  2. Noises: Your child will begin to imitate sounds, and he or she will also begin vocalizing when reading books.
  3. Books: You’ll find that your child starts reaching for books, turning pages unassisted and patting pictures in response to your words.

Here’s another funny thing you may notice: Your child may prefer pictures of faces over pictures of other things. That’s because they see and recognize faces more often than anything else, and they may not draw a clear connection between non-face photos and things in real life.


What to Expect: 12 to 36 Months

This is when reading with your child really starts to get fun. Your child will start to fall in love with certain books and want those titles read over and over again — they will be able to recognize favorites by their covers. Your child may even start to finish sentences in books they love, which comes as a huge surprise when you first experience it.

Also, your child will begin to turn pages, first in board books and later in books with paper pages. Between 12 and 24 months, your child may turn multiple pages at once because he or she can’t connect the pictures to the text and the text to the words coming out of your mouth. While reading to your child at this age, try asking questions about the book and objects on the pages to see how your child responds.

And here’s a real kick for parents: You will discover your child pretending to read books as they turn 2 years old and press toward 3. It’s a really sweet moment when you hear your child talking to him or herself — and then turn the corner to discover them “reading” alone.

Your child’s vocabulary is also rapidly expanding during this time. Here’s a rough look at how it should grow:

  • 12 to 18 months: First words emerge during this timeframe and perhaps even earlier.
  • 18 to 24 months: Your child’s vocabulary grows from about 20 to 100 words during these months.
  • 24 to 36 months: Your child’s vocabulary grows to 300 words and beyond during these months.

Put crayons, markers and other writing devices in your child’s hand as much as possible during these months, too. You’ll find that your child starts scribbling at around 18 months, and those scribbles gradually begin to look more and more like real characters as he or she draws closer to 3 years old.


What to Expect: Age 3 (Early Preschool)

This is the age when your child begins to connect a book’s text and pictures to the story you’re telling. This is a huge leap for your child, as it helps him or her develop an understanding of what reading truly is.

This is also when your child will begin to “read” more independently. He or she now knows how to handle a book, and he or she will also develop an understanding that reading is done left to right and top to bottom — a concept you can reinforce by following your words with a finger on the text as you read.

Your child’s vocabulary will grow to 900 words and beyond at this age, and it’s OK to start challenging him or her with more questions about stories. Ask your child to retell the story from one of his or her favorite books. Children at this age often recognize about half the letters of the alphabet, and they can even recognize their own names when written, as well as other oft-seen words, logos and symbols.

What can you do to help at this age? This is the perfect time to boost a child’s understanding of the alphabet through the classic alphabet song. If you want to go one step further, invest in a set of flash cards that offers large letters as well as objects whose names start with those letters.


What to Expect: Age 4 (Late Preschool)

Let’s go back to our original question: When should a child recognize letters of the alphabet? This is the age. At 3, your child will begin to know the alphabet and recognize some letters. At 4, your child should recognize each letter and even be able to write some words.

Work on the alphabet and words by naming letters and having your child guess things that start with that letter. Match letters to sounds adn try making up rhymes and fun phrases. Also, have your child continually practice writing his or her name.

Your child’s vocabulary has now leaped to about 1,500 words, and they are going to become much more aware of and engrossed by plot in stories. Respond by trying out longer stories with more text and fewer pictures. It may take your child some time to get used to this different type of book, but children at this age are ready for longer, more text-heavy titles.


What to Expect: Age 5 (Kindergarten)

Your child should take the first steps toward truly reading now. His or her vocabulary has grown to about 2,500 words, and children at this age can begin to recognize the words they know on the page.

Challenge your child even more during and after stories. Ask him or her about the who, what, when, where and why behind a story, and ask basic questions about characters and plot after a story is complete.

And here’s a fun way to engage your reader at this age: Ask him or her to predict what will happen next when reading an unfamiliar story. Your child should be able to sound out unfamiliar words using phonics, and (hopefully) you’ll find that your child actually wants to read more books in order to try out his or her new reading abilities. If not, don’t fear: See our tips below for encouraging kids to read.


What to Expect: Ages 6 and 7 (1st and 2nd grade)

At this point, you’re getting a lot of help from your child’s teachers. Your child should be able to recognize about 200 sight words, and he or she should be able to sound out age- and level-appropriate words. In total, your child can express about 2,600 words and understand between 20,000 and 24,000 of them.

This is also the time period when children begin to use context clues. They will begin to think much more in-depth about stories they’ve read, which means you can ask far more challenging questions after a story is complete.

You may even find that your child starts to make up his or her own stories during this period — often imitating the genre of favorite stories and the style of favorite authors.

Here’s a handy infographic that sums up many of the key reading milestones:


Ways to Help a Child Fall in Love With Reading

We all want our children to develop at a rapid pace, and we all want our children to fall in love with reading. But is there anything a parent can do to promote literacy development? Yes! And here are 10 ideas for you to try out:

  1. Predictive Text: Early on, make sure to read your child stories with predictive text. When your child can predict the words, he or she feels more in control, more comfortable and more successful. Those feelings can motivate more reading.
  2. Choice: Let children choose what they want to read. Consider placing bookshelves in your child’s room filled with options that he or she can easily reach. This will let your child engage in reading preferred books whenever desired.
  3. Parental Behavior: If you’re constantly watching TV or looking at a smartphone screen, your child is going to think those are the activities worth doing. But, if you’re always reading a book, your child is going to see book reading as a valuable activity. For better or worse, our children are always watching what we do.
  4. Explore Libraries: Libraries are like a gift for parents and children just waiting to be opened. They have so many different types of books and materials and activities — each of which is designed to help your child fall in love with reading. Take advantage of them.
  5. Authors: When your child loves one book, look for titles by that same author. If your child loves one book by an author, there’s a good chance he or she will like that author’s other stuff.
  6. Storytelling: Encourage your child to tell stories. Ask him or her to tell the story of a favorite book, or just ask your child to tell a story about something that happened with friends or at preschool.
  7. Fun: Make reading fun! Try wearing costumes and acting out stories. Get props that align with some of your kids’ favorite books. Change the names of characters to match the names of your children when reading. And have your kids draw pictures of their favorite characters and scenes from their favorite stories.
  8. Special Spaces: Create special spaces where the only activity is reading. You might set books and a special reading lamp inside a closet, or you might create a special reading nook in a guest room or another remote space. The key is to make that special reading space feel like a privileged area where your kids love to spend time.
  9. Routines: There’s power in developing a routine. So consider building reading routines into your days and weeks. Maybe there are 30 minutes of dedicated reading time before bed, or maybe Sunday afternoons are reserved for reading. Create reading expectations and routines around those expectations, and your kids will come to see reading as a natural part of their schedules.
  10. Rewards: Don’t be afraid to dangle a reward in exchange for meeting reading goals. This is especially important as your kids get older and begin to read longer books with fewer pictures. A reward could be as simple as getting a snow cone or seeing a new movie in the theater. But the only way to access the reward is to complete a book.

Here’s one bonus tip for helping your children fall in love with reading: Talk to them all the time, even to newborns. Why? Because studies show that children whose mothers frequently spoke to them knew about 300 more words by age 2 than children whose mothers did not. That’s stunning.

Unfortunately, there’s a direct correlation between parent education/income level and the number of words a child hears per week: a child with white collar parents hears about 215,000 words a week, a child with working-class parents hears about 125,000, and a child with parents receiving welfare hears about 62,000.

There is reason for hope, though. The mere presence of books in a home is enough to overcome economic disadvantage, statistically speaking. Studies show that children growing up in homes with at least 20 books get 3 more years of schooling than children from bookless homes — regardless of parental education, occupation or class.

Here’s a look at more stunning statistics related to child literacy.


What if Your Child Falls Behind in Reading?

I’m not a reading expert, so I’m not going to dispense professional advice here. But, if you fear your child is falling behind, start with these 2 things:

  1. Don’t Panic: This is not the end of the world. As noted at the top of this post, different kids develop along different timelines.
  2. Take Action: While you shouldn’t panic, you should take action. The faster you can get your child the help he or she needs to catch up with others, the better it’s going to be.

And that’s where I would point you to this post from Reading Rockets, which offers a nice, practical, step-by-step process for what to do if your child is struggling with reading. Check it out and take advantage of the resources it shares and describes.


Final Thoughts on When a Child Should Recognize Letters of the Alphabet

I can tell you from my own experience that reading with your kids can be an absolute blast. That said, there can be moments when reading is the last thing you’ll want to do with them — but it’s still one of the best things you can do with them.

My daughter has a habit of clearing off entire shelves and bringing me book after book to read to her. It can be exhausting, and she’s young enough (2) that she doesn’t fully comprehend what reading is. But, deep down, I know that there are few better ways that I could spend quality time with her.

My son fixates on books about certain subjects for long periods of time. Right now, he’s really into dinosaurs. That means that every book we read is filled with Tyrannosaurus Rex, Stegosaurus and Triceratops. There are moments when I’d rather read about anything other than dinosaurs. But I know that reading my 3-year-old’s favorites is a great way to promote a lifelong love of reading — so I do it anyway.

Have you had similar experiences with your children? If so, let us know in the comments section below, or send us a message directly through our contact page.


Brad has spent the bulk of his life in Austin, TX, minus just a few years traveling the country and writing for local newspapers. When he isn’t spending time with his wonderful family, Brad is likely to be found watching a ballgame, reading a book or taking a well-earned nap.

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