Come and meet the Letter People
Come and visit the family
Words are made of Letter People
A, B, C, D, follow me!
How did you learn how to read? For me, it was two things: In elementary school I learned all the nuances in Phonics class. That’s right, before it was a joke found on Atlantic City boardwalk t-shirts and at county fairs in the 90s and early 2000s, Phonics was an actual thing that was taught in schools.
Before St. Joseph Elementary School and associating letter groupings with sounds, I had to learn the letters themselves. This occurred in kindergarten, thanks to the Letter People. When I mentioned the Letter People to my wife last week she had no idea what they were. This was very surprising to me because I had just assumed they existed everywhere and these terrifying creatures were how all children in the 80s and early 90s learned the alphabet. Then I remembered she grew up in the greater Boston area and as evidenced by their creative pronunciations children there learn an entirely different alphabet than the rest of us. I assume she learned to read via anti-Yankees novelty t-shirts.
If you weren’t exposed to The Letter People at an age prior to really developing critical thinking skills, the first thing you’re going to notice is that the show is weird. The concept was developed in the 1960s and first appeared in schools in 1968, then aired on PBS beginning in 1972. It’s very much of its time. Letter People Land is a black void populated by garishly designed puppets with letters affixed to their chests. It’s the Muppets set on the moon, or the Manson Family of learning.
There was a TV series on Syfy called Channel Zero that aired until January of 2019. The first story arc on it, Candle Cove, involved Paul Schneider remembering a children’s puppet TV series that he watched as a child, except the show didn’t actually exist. I had put The Letter People out of my mind for about 30 years before remembering it recently, and it almost felt like Schneider remembering Candle Cove. Was this a show that actually existed?
Well, let’s take a look at an episode. The entire thing is on YouTube so I picked one at random.
Mr. N! He has a noisy nose, as you may have gathered. If you made it through the entire clip, more power to you. I didn’t and I’m writing the article. I started skimming three minutes in. The general sequence of one of the episodes is the Letter Person introducing himself or herself via a song in which its letter is used as often as possible. This particular installment then segues into a story being read by what appears to be a Non Letter Person. She infiltrated their land! Every time Mr. N hears a word with a N sound, he reacts by blowing his noisy nose like a horn. The next scene is the very same concept as the previous one, this time with the noisy nose people in cartoon form. Next comes another puppet sequence, this time with Nardo the detective looking for a big hairy Nasty that will “only be frightened away by words that start with the same sound that starts noisy nose.” That means the return of Mr. N! This is followed by another cartoon, and the episode wraps up with a quick lesson on shapes.
Episodes of The Letter People are a lot longer and feature many more sequences than I remembered. In fairness, I saw these when I was 5. My main concern every day at 5 was finding my next door neighbor who was also my classmate so she could tie my shoes for me. I used to accomplish this by walking up to her and thrusting my foot out, never uttering a word. Thanks Rachel! Once I got the shoes tied there was plenty of time left to watch a 17 minute episode of The Letter People, plus we also only tackled one of these a day.
The creators of the Letter People built an entire module of teaching tools around the characters, including cardboard cut outs of them that ringed our kindergarten classroom. We had Mr. Noisy Nose and his crew staring down at us during nap time. Being immersed in this land of creepy muppet hippies was effective though. I learned to read and to love reading early on. If you have a kid and want to creep him or her out while employing valuable learning tools the entire series of The Letter People videos is on YouTube.
Did you learn to read from The Letter People? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.