Alphabets in Early Education

Roberta Michnick Golinkoff
University of Delaware
October 11, 2021 


Imagine a parent and child in a quiet room. The child is burrowed into the caregiver’s lap listening intently to a picture storybook. Sharing a picture book together is about much more than hearing the words. Their physical closeness is striking as is the parent’s excited voice as the parent plays the role of one of the characters. In fact, parents report that one of the key reasons they read to their children is to promote these strong emotional bonds. 

Sharing a storybook is an opportunity for children to enter new lands, meet new characters, and learn new words and concepts. Because shared book reading is such a pleasure for both participants, learning take places almost incidentally. When a child asks, “What’s that?” pointing to a soup ladle, the parent says, “It’s a ladle, we use to put soup into a bowl.” And voilà! The next time the child sees a ladle in the book, they point it out to you! 

Children are eager to enter the world of words their parents occupy. They want to learn their letters and the secret code that parents use to make sense of the squiggles on the page. 

The English alphabet, invented in the 7th century, is a child’s entry into the world of words and concepts. Learning the letters that make up their alphabet will make it possible for children to learn things from those squiggles on the page. Learning the alphabet is the fundamental first step toward learning to read. The letters of the alphabet can serve as a “hook” too, to pull in concepts that we want children to associate with the letters. 

The ‘H for Handwashing’ campaign is founded on years of research that presents best practices for helping children learn new letters, concepts and behaviours through the alphabet, characters, games, and storybooks. Research by Garris et al. (2002) and Hassinger-Das et al. (2016) for instance, demonstrated that by infusing games with educational content, their playful, active, and engaging elements increase children’s motivation to learn. In fact, combining vocabulary gameplay with shared book reading has been shown to improve children’s learning of words and concepts.

Using these levers to teach children about the fundamentally important practice of handwashing allows children to learn in a fun, engaging, and memorable way and can save parents from sounding “teachy-preachy” when the necessity for handwashing arises. Playful learning helps the learning “stick” and understanding the concept of handwashing is crucial for children’s health outcomes.

In this book, children learn about the importance of handwashing after using the toilet, when coming into the house from the outside, after playing in the dirt, and before meals. Rather than exhorting children to wash their hands or scolding them for forgetting, parents can use both the alphabet and the book about Azzy the horse to make it fun for children by asking, “What does ‘H’ stand for?” or “What would Azzy do now?” Children will appreciate this fun routine and handwashing will become automatic over time. 

Storybooks teach lots of things and now we can add a critical hygiene practice to the list. This campaign and charming book invites children to understand the importance of handwashing and the range of situations in which it is needed. It introduces the name of the practice and offers children the chance to imitate the action of handwashing during pretend play. 

Reading the storybook about handwashing will be a delight for children and caregivers alike. Research tells us that children learn more new concepts when the information comes from someone they trust -- like a caregiver. Shared storybook reading literally builds children’s brains and improves word learning.

The ‘H for Handwashing’ campaign is helping children learn about the crucial practice of handwashing and teaching them when and where to carry it out. Using the alphabet as a tool to teach them about handwashing is a great idea. The book can have immediate and long-term effects on the parents and children who read it, especially if they carry the message of the book into their lives. 

i Hassinger-Das B., et al. (2016). Building Vocabulary Knowledge in Preschoolers Through Shared Book Reading and Gameplay. Mind Brain and Education. Vol 10, issue 2.
ii Research By infusing games with educational content, their playful, active, and engaging elements increase children’s motivation to learn (Garris, Ahlers, & Driskell, 2002).
iii Golinkoff, R. M. & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2016). Becoming brilliant: What science tells us about raising successful children. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association Press.
iv Flack Z., Field A., and Horst J. (2018). The Effects of Shared Storybook Reading on Word Learning: A MetaAnalysis. Developmental Psychology. Vol. 54, No. 7, 1334–1346.