The Internet TESL Journal

Letterland Pictogram Concept in EFL Teaching of Young Children

Oksana Yaverbaum
yaver [at]
Teachers and parents everywhere recognize more and more the importance of children starting to learn a foreign language early. However, the literature on effective methods of teaching young children a foreign language is still rather scarce. This article describes an EFL teaching program created on the basis of Letterland pictogram concept that has been used for five years with young Russian children.

Challenges of Foreign Language Teaching to Young Children

We know that children learn new languages very easily and that this ability slowly disappears as a child grows. It is gone by the time an adult undertakes learning a new language. Children who do not live in the foreign language environment learn it at school. How to make this process for a child as productive as the process of learning his first language? Looking into how a child begins to learn his first language may help to see how "some of the magic of childhood" can be used in making learning of a foreign language more enjoyable and more productive (McGlothlin, 1997).

Choosing an FL teaching program for young children it is important to understand that the process of language learning is divided into two parts: the first part of this process deals with how the new language comes to the learner, i.e. the language environment that surrounds the student; the second part - how the learner comes to the new language, i.e. the strategies that the student uses in his attempt to learn the language (McGlothlin, 1997). Therefore an effective FL teaching program should ideally enable us to create an environment in class that would bring the language to children and would enable them to start learning the foreign language as naturally as possible.

Letterland in EFL Teaching

When I learned about Letterland concept, it inspired me in 1997 to start my own school for EFL teaching to young children in Irkutsk, Russia. I felt this concept could become the foundation for developing an effective EFL teaching program, as I observed my own daughter developing a keen interest in English by playing with Letterland resources from age two. The experience of five years to follow has made me more confident in this feeling.

demo image Letterland concept "of an invisible, secret place called Letterland, located somewhere in the written word and inhabited by fictional animals and people", created by the British educator Lyn Wendon in 70s, grew out of her "shared moments of make-believe with children between the ages of 5 and 10 who were persistently baffled by (English) print" (Wendon, 1993). One cannot underestimate the importance of teaching reading in EFL class. That is always a challenge to an EFL teacher. Letterland uses pictograms (alphabet-shaped picture-characters) for each English sound and for sounds represented by a combination of alphabet letters. This pictogram method appeals for the following reasons:

However, Letterland is not only about teaching reading. It blends a structured phonics approach with whole language teaching and at the same time it is based on a child's primary interest -- play. On one level, children will first perceive Letterland as simply fun, but beneath the surface, there is a structured and systematic course for developing: Children are introduced to the magical language about the English language, which enables them confidently master print based on parallel learning.

The Letterland resources were developed for native-speaking children of English, but we have seen that they adapt easily to teaching EFL in Russia, as well as in any other non-English speaking country (Yaverbaum, 1997; A major difference is that with EFL children, ability to decode the sounds of English words is often ahead of their ability to understand the "meaning" of those words. Our Russian learners often know how to pronounce a word before they know what that word means. We continue to teach meanings by traditional methods such as translation and picture cards and at the same time maintain communicative approach. The pictogram characters themselves give teachers plenty of opportunities to utilize useful English in talking with children, and conversation-based teaching provides for extending their vocabulary and grammar.

Since 1997, we have developed and fine-tuned a complete three-year program that is built around Letterland concept. We offer this program to children from age four onwards. Studying for only 60 (2 lessons of 30 minutes each) minutes per week, our students easily remember the sounds and confusing spelling patterns of English words. Each lesson, the children experience success in reading in foreign language. Completing a three-year course, our pupils know about 40 different stories that enable them without a failure to recognize and read in words most of letter combinations: e.g. ch (children & school), sh (sheep), th (thunder & these), oo (book), wh (which & who), ph (photo),ow (cow & snow), all & al (ball & always), etc.

Letterland has successfully fitted in EFL teaching because it brings along an imaginative and friendly learning environment, which creates a motivation to inquiry similar as in a child's natural language acquisition process. This can be demonstrated by analysing the concept against the ten key factors of the child's language environment, summarised by McGlothlin (1997):

  1. There is NO DIRECT PRESSURE to learn (no tests, no grades, etc.).
  2. There is NO TIME LIMIT for learning (no end of the semester).
  3. There is NO WAY OF ESCAPING into a different language (no vacations).
  4. The language is NOT SEQUENCED BY GRAMMAR OR VOCABULARY (no textbook).
  5. There is LOTS OF REPETITION. His life contains repetitions and the language around him reflects it.
  6. Both the LANGUAGE AND THE WORLD ARE NEW (and therefore interesting).
  7. All the language is spoken IN THE CONTEXT OF THE SURROUNDING WORLD.
  8. THE LANGUAGE IS ALL AROUND. The child has native speakers of the language speaking to him often.
  9. The child has MANY OPPORTUNITIES FOR USING the language to communicate to those around him.
  10. Much of THE LANGUAGE IS SIMPLIFIED to the level of understanding of the child. It is tailor-made for the child.
Factors 1, 2, and 3 relate a child's motivation to continue learning. Tests and the pressure of time help to keep a student at learning task, and when these motivating factors are removed, progress often stops. But a child, who does not have these pressures when learning his first language, has no way of escaping from the new language. These factors, in relation to EFL leaning, we challenge by starting teaching very young children (from 4), i.e. well before they start attending formal school, therefore -- no pressure of test and grades. Children perceive studying as playing; it makes them want to continue. Although time limit exists in terms of lesson duration, children are willing to talk about Letterland even at home. Although they tell stories about 'Letterlanders' in Russian adding to them new learned foreign words, this serves as a bridge from their native language environment to EFL environment.

Factors 4, 5, and 6 deal with the order of learning. In an EFL class, the textbook or the teacher decides the sequence of the material, whereas a child does not have a textbook to provide this sequence for learning his first language. "Instead, his environment provides two ways that his language learning can be naturally ordered. The first comes from the natural repetition in his life, and the second comes from the natural order of his interest in the world "(McGlothlin, 1997). With Letterland, the sequence of teaching material is presented to children as a journey together with a teacher through the imaginary land where English letters come alive. Grammar teaching is also built around the stories of Letterland characters. Grammar constructions are introduced indirectly during conversations about Letterland and then reinforced by repetition. Children learn to listen and understand, then ask and answer questions by talking about or acting as 'Letterlanders':

Q. Who are you? Who is this letter?
A. I am Clever Cat./She is Clever Cat/
Q. Where do(es) she (he, you) live?
A. She lives in Letterland./ I live in Russia.
Q. What do(es)  she (he,you) like?
A. She likes Coca-cola. /I like Coca-cola.

As the creator of Letterland has discovered, 'Letterlanders' provide us with new opportunities to get rid of boring exercises in segmentation in favor of question and answer games, which work on segmentation playfully (Wendon, 1993):

Q. What would Fireman Fred prefer for lunch, lettuce leaves or fresh fish?
A. (Pause while they think.) Fresh fish.
Q. Who would want the lettuce leaves?
A. Lucy, the Lamp Lady.
Q. What is your favourite food?
A. Spaghetti?
Q. Who in Letterland would love ssspaghetti too?
The whole concept is largely built on repetition: alliterative names of characters (Clever Cat,  Quarrelsome Queen, etc.), vocabulary around each character; texts in readers built on repetition of words; each mnemonic story builds on previous knowledge. For our learners, picture-characters of Letterland have become the "sounds of English" in disguise. This makes children become curious to learn more week by week.

Factor 7 emphasizes that the language is spoken in the context of the world around a child. Thus, the new language is not a secret code to be translated into another language to reveal its meaning. Rather, the language is related directly to his world. When teaching EFL, this "secret code" is an issue. With Letterland approach, all EFL in class is spoken in the context of the Letterland world. The language and the world of Letterland are new and therefore unfailingly interesting to children.

Factors 8, 9 are a challenge for an EFL teacher and a learner if they do not live in the English-speaking culture. Using Letterland resources developed by and for native English speakers definitely brings more advantage than using resources created, for instance, in Russia.

demo image Factor 10 states that much of the language a child hears is simplified. When a person speaks to a young child, he does his best to get across his meaning in language that the child can understand. Letterland introduces a story-like instruction language where phonic facts are presented in a form of analogies, which children readily understand. The stories 'lift' your instruction, making it immediate for the children. Thus, digraphs are made logical: e.g. sh: "When you see Sammy Snake next to the Hairy Hat Man he hushes Sammy Snake up like this,'sh!', because the Hairy Hat Man hates noise".

As it was mentioned above, there is more to a child's language learning process than his language environment.  Let's now look at the ten key language-learning strategies that a child uses to help him to learn his first language and see how Letterland concept fits in EFL learning:

A Child's Learning Strategies (McGlothlin, 1997) EFL teaching with Letterland at 'Center A-Ya', Irkutsk
1. A child is NOT INTERESTED IN LANGUAGE for its own sake. A child is not interested in EFL as it s not spoken in the culture he lives in, but Letterland stimulates his interest in the magic world
2. The language he does not understand does NOT DISTURB a child. A child easily understands story-like instruction language, i.e. the language he does not understand does not disturb him.
3. A child ENJOYS THE REPETITIVE events of his life, and uses this enjoyment to help him learn. Children enjoy 'meeting' 'Letterlanders' repetitively; each mnemonic story builds on previous knowledge
4. A child USES HIS PRIMARY INTERESTS to help him learn. Play is a child's primary interest. It is stimulated by traveling through the imaginary land(acting the characters, dressing up, etc)
5. A child directs his attention to things that are EASY TO UNDERSTAND. Story logic is easier to understand than formal instruction language
6. The child possesses a natural desire TO CALL AN OBJECT BY ITS NAME. Letters are characters, i.e. objects, with names, consisting of meaningful English words. These objects are new and unusual to children, therefore interesting. (Also, main focus during the first year placed on learning nouns.)
7. A child uses his natural desire TO PARTICIPATE IN THE LIFE AROUND HIM to help him learn new language. Introducing a child to the magical environment reinforces his natural desire to play, children like talking about the Letterland characters and sounds. 
8. A child adds words to his speaking vocabulary more easily IF HE ALREADY KNOWS HOW TO PRONOUNCE THEM. A child learns to 'sound' unknown words eventually without teacher's help, i.e. he knows how to pronounce them before he is shown
9. A child IMMEDIATELY USES the language, and his SUCCESS IN COMMUNICATION BUILDS CONFIDENCE. A child immediately experiences success in understanding written communication that builds confidence for further EFL learning
10. A child brings TREMENDOUS INGENUITY to the task of learning. Story-telling style of instruction stimulates child's creativity to discover intricacies of English.

All of these learning strategies are important, but the one related to building learner's confidence, is worth to be considered one of the most important: "A learner without confidence is in trouble from the very beginning, but one who possesses the confidence that comes from success, even when the success is limited, can overcome a host of other learning problems (McGlothlin, 1997). With Letterland approach, each lesson the children experience success in making sense of the unknown, and this builds a solid foundation to the success in further EFL learning.


The Letterland concept helps to create an EFL learning environment that is similar to a child's natural language learning environment. We have also observed that Letterland methods are very much in line with a child's natural language learning strategies. This makes us, at Centre A-Ya, to believe that this is a reason why the method has been so successful and why it should be recommended for EFL teaching of young children.

Our teachers are excited, enthusiastic and enjoy the program. We discovered that they found the concept enormously helpful personally. Many of them have commented that now they too understand better why certain letters behave in certain ways and, therefore, are in a much better position to teach EFL to their classes. What is also very rewarding for the staff is that the children's curiosity is making teaching so much easier and so much more satisfying.


Images used with permission from Letterland International Ltd.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. IX, No. 3, March 2003