Alphabet Jigsaw Mats - the best way for young children to learn to read

Very important notes
The following activity is intended for an adult to use with a child - not for a child to use on his/her own.

The activity is intended to be used perhaps 3 or 4 times a week for as many weeks as it takes to start showing results.

It is a good idea to mix this activity with regular reading with your child - that is to say, the adult reading a daily afternoon and/or bedtime story from a book, whilst next to, and with a comforting arm around, the child so that he/she can clearly see the text on the pages, together with any associated pictures.

Alphabet Mat

What age group are we talking about?
As soon as your child can crawl, up to about age 3 or 4.

Why are alphabet jigsaw mats such a good introduction to reading?
Alphabet jigsaw mats are fun to play with. You can put them together to create mats to sit on, or you can join them like snakes or paths to move from one place to another - for example, out of one room and into another. You can even join them to make simple 3-dimensional structures.

Mat tiles usually have pop-out letters and these can be used to extend the game into a "which letter fits here?" activity.

How do you play?
You begin with a pile of tiles and the adult picks up the first and lays it on the ground in front of the child, at the same time saying the letter that is showing, out aloud, together with a word that begins with the letter. For example, if you put down a letter 'M':

"'M' is for mummy"

Next, take another tile and join it to the first. (Make sure the letters are aligned in the same direction to each other).

Followed by: "'A' is for apple"

You are immediately making contextual associations for the child between the tile, the letter, and an audible, verbal example.

Tip You might initially try to use words that your child is familiar with, such as mummy, daddy, cat, dog, table, chair, etc. If you cannot think of a familiar word, just say the word that comes to mind for yourself.

Asking the child
After a few games of path making, you can start to ask the child what the letter is that you have picked off the pile. For example, you might start with: "M is for?" and wait for the child to say "Mummy". If there is hesitation, help out by starting to say the word until the child joins in.

Which letter goes here?
If you pop out a few letters from the tiles, you can play this game by asking which letter will fit the space. Combine this, when the child is holding the right letter, with asking aloud: "And 'R' is for?" This reinforces the learning from the previous activity. Let the child press the letter into its tile. We now have a visual, audible, contextual, and physical experience to reinforce learning in a playful way.

Learning alphabetical order
Once you have had a few games with using random letters, you can progress to reciting the alphabet in its correct order by making an alphabet path. As you place each letter, say its name in a non-phonetic way - as you would if you were saying all the letters of the alphabet out aloud in an adult manner... (Ay Bee Cee Dee, rather than, ah, buh, cuh, duh).

What about phonic "sounds"?
In the early stages of learning to read with your child, you do not have to emphasise any form of "sounding out" of words. You will be amazed at how quickly a normal child can differentiate between words and quickly pick up correct pronunciation
* and spelling without having to be taught. Also, you will find that some words will start with 'A' as in 'Ape' and some will start with 'A' as in 'apple'. You will find over time, that the child automatically understands that sometimes the same letter, when spoken**, can sound differently in different words.

*Pronunciation and sound will vary according to your own dialect and influences.

**Note that letters do not make sounds - people do!


Mix this activity with regular reading with your child.
Top Alphabet Mat options
Alphabet Mat cube

It's all about familiarity through repetition and context.


Recommended reading books for young children

If you can get hold of them, I would strongly recommend using the old Ladybird books that children had back in the 1960s and 70s. It is true that some of the stories by today's standards may be deemed sexist or politically incorrect, but the value of some of these books far outweighs this.

We now have a visual, audible, contextual, and physical experience to reinforce learning in a playful way.

Some reasons Ladybird books were (and still are) so good

  • Engaging stories
  • Memorable fantasy
  • Good illustrations
  • Normally written and sized text*
*This includes a variety of words of seemingly varied 'complexity'. For example, not reduced to 3 or 4-letter words, but including words such as: enormous, exceptional, incredible.

Alphabet tiles