Kathy Oxley tells Eileen Clarke about the inspiration for her ''Meet the Letters'' DVD, the perfect time to teach your kids the alphabet, and more

By Eileen Clarke
Updated June 02, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Kathy Oxley: Sherwin Rosario

Kathy Oxley on her ”Meet the Letters” DVD

Kathy Oxley, a Danville, Calif., mother of four, is the founder of Preschool Prep Company and the creator of DVDs that help children learn the alphabet, numbers, shapes, and colors. Oxley believes that teaching letters early is a crucial step on the road to literacy, and hopes that it will help to combat a shameful statistic in the U.S.: Between 40 and 50 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 18 are functionally illiterate. How can learning letters early help, and when is the perfect window of opportunity? Read on.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get the idea for Meet the Letters?
KATHY OXLEY: A series of events over several years led to Meet the Letters. The first was when my daughter ”accidentally” learned her letters at 14 months. She and I were on a business trip with my husband, and I was 8 months pregnant. Since I wasn’t in any shape to take her sight-seeing that weekend, I bought a video that was meant to entertain toddlers by playing classical music while exposing them to interesting images, among which were letters. When I watched with her I would say the letter names in a long, drawn-out voice over and over. After watching this video a handful of times she had mastered uppercase letters and had learned the names of all of the other objects in the video. When we returned home, she became obsessed with letter toys and books. She noticed letters everywhere we went but was frustrated by the fact that she didn’t know all of them. She didn’t know lowercase letters. I had a very difficult time finding a video or toy that taught lowercase letters.

About a year later my daughter had another ”moment,” again while watching an educational video. This time, as a cute little character jumped onscreen, the word JUMP appeared. I could see the excitement in her eyes as she ran to the television. She touched each letter and said each letter name. ”J – U – M – P,” she said as she turned to me. ”J – U – M – P spells jump!” She was 2-and-a-half years old and she had cracked the code.

Because she was such an early reader, parents would always ask me how I ”taught” her to read. I didn’t — I simply gave her the tools and she did all of the heavy lifting? I began to think about what I would consider to be the perfect letter-teaching tool. I thought about the way that my daughter learned letters and realized that had I not been watching the video with her, naming the letters in a fun and repetitive way, she would not have learned letter names. Had it been a typical day at home when she watched the video, I would have been cleaning up, getting ready for the new baby, or making dinner, and my daughter would have been entertained for 30 minutes, but she would have learned nothing.

Your background is in investment banking. Did not having a degree in education give you pause to do something like this?
My background didn’t matter much when it came to creating the video. Having four children in four years was the education that I needed! I knew that this teaching method would be effective and I decided early in process that when the video was finished, I would conduct a study not only to test the effectiveness of the video, but to show parents how easy it is for children to learn letters while they are learning to talk. The study was a tremendous success: 90 percent of the children in the study mastered both uppercase and lowercase letters within two months. Many of the 2- and 3-year-old children learned in two weeks.

In the DVD, you say most alphabet videos are targeted for older kids, missing an important window to teach children the alphabet. Why is younger better?
Children experience hundreds of hours of spoken language before they ever utter a word. They also practice a lot; that’s why they babble and coo. You might be amazed when the talking starts, but it isn’t amazing. It’s expected. Children look before they leap. The same goes for reading and writing. If you want your children to develop high-level literacy skills, you need to give them room to maneuver before school begins. They need to ”babble” with print before they will read and write.

I didn’t want to push my son to learn letters at an early age just because his sister had learned. I thought, as all parents do, that he would learn letters eventually. I only fully realized the significance of early alphabet instruction when he was in preschool. He worked hard on ”the letter of the week” without making much progress. Learning was a chore for him. It certainly did not come naturally. My daughter had watched a video and played with a toy and had no problem learning all the letters in a few weeks. My son could spend a whole week studying a single letter and still not know it. It was the same for most of the kids in my son’s class. I realized we had missed a window with him.

Is there too much pressure out there to create baby “geniuses”?
Yes, I think there is…. Young children cannot learn what they are not cognitively capable of learning. However, below this level of conceptual thought there is a lot of wiggle room for children to gain exposure to print and, most importantly, to practice… It is not considered ”pushing” when parents choose to teach shape and animal names. We teach toddlers to identify dogs, elephants, unicorns and dinosaurs. They don’t know that there are hundreds of different breeds of dogs, they don’t know that elephants live in Africa. They don’t know that dinosaurs lived 40 million years ago and that unicorns have never lived. They will learn all of this over time but for now, they have a word to identify each animal. Letters are no different. They are just animals of a different kind.