According to Richard Allington’s article What At-Risk Readers Need
“the one-third of entering kindergartners who don’t know all their letter names are likely to become the one-third of 4th graders reading below the basic level.”
Explicit teaching of letters is a necessity for students who enter Kindergarten with low letter name knowledge. Kindergarten teachers can start the year out by screening their students with a simple letter ID assessment to see which students are at-risk. Once the at-risk students are identified the intervention process can start right away.
The following are suggestions for the classroom teacher or literacy specialist to use during a small group intervention time targeting increasing letter knowledge.
Teach Letter Features
Letter sorts help students to notice what is the same or different about letters, which in turn helps them to distinguish one letter from another. In early learning when children haven’t learned to look closely at letters all of the letters with bumps may look the same to them, all of the letters with circles may look the same, and so on.
Students can begin by matching the magnetic letters that look the same. Once students are able to match letters that look the same they can move on to more complex letter sorts such as sorting letters with sticks and circles. This activity isn’t as much about naming letters as it is about noticing the different features of letters.
Children need to be able to notice the features that make each letter unique. They should learn how to scan letters left to right in order to notice that the lowercase “b” starts with a stick and the lowercase “d” starts with a curve. We can put two magnetic letters next to each and have the child compare and contrast the features they notice. In the beginning, we should compare two letters that are quite visually different.
Teach letters within continuous text
A more challenging letter recognition task is for children to notice letters within words. In the beginning stages, words look like nothing more than scribbles to young eyes. As children start to sort out letter learning they will begin to notice and be able to find individual letters within words.
Interactive Writing: Interactive writing is an approach where the teacher and the students create a message together. I often guide my students to create messages based on a book that we have recently read. The students “share the pen” while writing the message. It is important to pick only a few focuses during interactive writing. You want the activity to move quickly to keep students engaged and you don’t want to blur the learning. For example, with one of my Kindergarten groups, our focus for the past couple of days has been saying words to hear the beginning sound and putting a period at the end of our sentence. My students actively help me with those pieces while I quickly complete the rest of the task. Having students work with letters and letter sounds while writing an authentic meaningful message is a great way to expand letter learning. When writing for an authentic purpose the learning becomes more memorable.
Shared Reading: During shared reading, the teacher has text that is large enough for all of her students to see. It may be a big book, a poem written on chart paper, or a book, poem, reader’s theater script projected on to a Smart Board. The teacher and the students read the text together. The text is read together for a few consecutive days with different teaching focuses during each of the readings. When students share the experience of repeated readings in which they are exposed to letters and words they will start to notice the letters they know and will even start to see that words are composed of letters that go in a particular sequence. You can lead your students in activities during shared reading that not only help with letter learning, but also with encouraging cross-checking behaviors. An easy way to do this is to cover a few words in the story. When the students come to the covered word have them make a few meaningful predictions about what that word might be. Write their predictions down for your students to see. Uncover the first letter of the word to have them check if the word could be any of the predictions they made.
The Importance of Using Names
A child’s name is closely tied to their identity. It is a special event when they know the letters in their name and are able to write their name all on their own. There are many name activities that can be done to help with letter learning.
- Name puzzles: Write the child’s name on an index card and on the front of an envelope. At first, you can cut the name into 2 pieces and have the child use the front of the envelope to help them put it together. As this task becomes easy, cut the name into more pieces. You can also have the child flip the envelope over so that they can not see their name while they put the puzzle back together.
- Rainbow write: Print off the child’s name in a large font and put it in a page protector. Support the child with using correct letter formation while writing his name with a wipe-off marker. Have the child continue to use different color wipe- off markers to “rainbow write” his name.
- Name Chart: Creating a chart with the names of your students is very useful. During interactive and independent writing students can make connections with their friends’ names to help with writing words.
Here are a couple of blogs with great examples of name charts and name activities:
Letter mini-books: Have students read letter books that have the letter and pictures that start with that letter. I often use the letter books that are included with the LLI resources. I would love these Rosie and Bella letter books! They are beautiful and adorable!
Alphabet books: In my experience children love books about the alphabet. There are some great quality alphabet books out there. Here are some of my favorites:
Whatever activities you choose to do be sure to provide for overlearning. Students who are struggling with learning letters will need to see the letters over and over and over and over (you get the point) again to really know them and to become fast, fluent, and flexible with the letters they know.