These are likely what Charlotte Mason refers to as the child's "box of loose letters" or "ivory letters" in her lessons. While Miss Mason's methods do not require expensive equipment -- she was particularly against the contrived atmosphere found in other schools -- this Victorian set recently sold at auction for $2600. Gulp.
Reading seemed to come effortlessly and very early for our first child, while our second, Luca, didn't even show an interest in the alphabet until a few months ago. We had no problem with that and just wanted to give him time to explore and grow. Recently though, he surprised me with the announcement that he would like to know how to read so I turned to Charlotte Mason for some sound advice.
In Home Education, we are told that learning to read is hard work for many children and encouraged to do what we can to make the task easy and inviting. Luca works in "wholes" and I knew meaningless letter combinations would be maddening for him. Charlotte tells us the key to reading is that the symbols should be interesting.
The child should be taught from the first to regard the printed word as he already regards the spoken word, as the symbol of fact or idea full of interest. (Vol. 1, p. 216)
I purchased this small wooden movable alphabet and box for about $30 from Montessori Outlet. You may use whatever you have on hand just be sure to have multiples of each letter.
Though the reading lessons are quite simple, the explanation is lengthy. It can be read in its entirety in Vol. 1 Home Education pp. 217-222 (you may also want to read pp. 177-222 for Charlotte's background & reasoning), online at Ambleside Online or in SCM's The Early Years, A Charlotte Mason Preschool Handbook.
Spurred on my Charlotte's encouragement I got our gear in order:
-A "spirited" poem or nursery rhyme that my child had not yet heard. I typed the first two lines of the poem in large font, copied and pasted x 7 and printed. These I cut out into separate words, leaving one sheet whole. We are using Charlotte's sample poem, "Little Pussy" by Jane Taylor because Luca loves kittens.
-Box of loose letters.
-Whiteboard and marker.
Once everything was assembled, I wrote the word 'Pussy' in large letters on the whiteboard and told Luca that the word is 'pussy.' Just as Charlotte said, we had Interest at once; he knows the thing, pussy, and the written symbol is pleasant in his eyes because it is associated with an existing idea in his mind. I then asked Luca to look at the word until he was sure to know it again. He then made the word 'pussy' from memory with his box of loose letters. After that, I brought out the sheet with the two lines printed on them and showed him, asking him to find the word 'pussy.' Then we went through the same process with each of the words, adding each new word to a column on the whiteboard to be read.
Now, for what Charlotte calls the delight of reading: Once these words were learned, I began to dictate short sentences (keeping the rhyme a secret) to Luca, such as 'Pussy - is - so - little." Taking each word from the pile and placing it in order, Luca read them back to me. Yes, he reads and oh, the joy in that room as he tasted those delightful results which will be built upon in the following lessons. Those following lessons will include some gentle spelling, unknown words, and like combinations with different sounds until he is happily able to arrange the whole little poem and read it off.
Please note, there is habit training going on here as well. Attention and perfect enunciation are two but this requires mother to be extra attentive as well. Our "first lesson" was divided out into three days as I was sure to stop if I sensed Luca's attention waning. Remember, we are happily exonerated from enforcing the dreary grind with Charlotte Mason's gentle method of first reading lessons - and with the money you save on not having to purchase a phonics program maybe you can find a box of those ivory letters!