Daniel finished Kindergarten. His parents were shocked to discover that their son couldn’t recognize letter sounds. Not a single one. They worried that their son had dyslexia, a memory deficit or another learning disability. Why didn’t our child learn letter sounds, they wondered. What is the best way to teach alphabet recognition?
If you’re a Kindergarten teacher, you might have a student in your class that’s struggling to learn letter sounds. Since other kids have surpassed him, it’s difficult to provide instruction to this one child. You also wonder about the best way to teach alphabet recognition to kids with learning disabilities.
It might be surprising that some kids leave Kindergarten without the ability to recognize a single letter sound. I’ve worked with several second graders that could only identify 3-4 letter sounds. How does this happen?
Surely, it is very likely that these kids do have a learning disability like dyslexia. However, the research on how to teach struggling readers letter sound recognition is conclusive. The best methods are established. Any child, including a child with dyslexia, can learn letter sounds.
In this post, we’ll look into the best way to teach alphabet recognition.
Hold continuous sounds
Continuous sounds can be held for a long time without sound distortion. For example, /m/ is a continuous sound: mmmmmmm. You can say this sound for a long time.
When you’re teaching letter sounds, be sure your student holds ALL continuous sounds. Furthermore, be sure you hold continuous sounds too; after all, your student will do what you do. Hold continuous sounds for 3 seconds—this is longer than you think. It’s longer than is comfortable. It even feels awkward.
However, if you hold continuous sounds, your student will begin unlocking words sooner.
Clip stop sounds
There are two types of letter sounds: continuous and stop sounds. What are stop sounds? These are sounds that you have to say quickly to prevent yourself from adding an “uh.” For example, you have to say /b/ quickly to avoid adding “uh.” There are lots of stop sounds. Be sure to clip—or avoid the “uh”—for all stop sounds.
Some other stop sounds include: c, d, g, j, k, p, q, t, w, y.
What happens if you don’t clip stop sounds? You’re student will struggle to read words. For example, if you’ve taught your child that /b/ says “buh” and /g/ says “guh,” your child will read “bag” as “buhaguh.” These sound distortions make unlocking words nearly impossible for struggling readers.
As a teacher to struggling readers, set them up for success. Correct your student EVERY time he fails to clip a sound. Also, ensure he holds ALL continuous sounds.
Check to see if you—the teacher—are saying letter sounds correctly. Record yourself with your smartphone. Are you really holding continuous sounds for 3 seconds and clipping all stop sounds?
If not, practice. Yes, you’re an expert reader. But you still need to practice the best way to teach alphabet recognition.
Do NOT teach letter names
This is counter to everything in our culture. Everyone, including grandma, has taught your child letter names since birth. At the library, you see other loving parents teaching their child letter names. Finally, you assume that teaching letter names is the best way to teach alphabet recognition.
Reading Elephant is dedicated to struggling readers, including kids with dyslexia, memory-deficits, auditory-processing deficits, dysgraphia, language delays and kids that need a methodical step-by-step approach to learning to read. This amounts to a lot of kids!
If you’re teaching struggling readers, letter names can cause regression. Letter names do not unlock words:
“Sometimes the child knows the names of letters (ay, bee, see, dee…). Unfortunately, this knowledge, far from being helpful, may even delay the acquisition of reading. To know that “s” is pronounced ess, “k” kay, and “i” eye is useless when we try to read the word “ski.” Letter names cannot be assembled during reading—the hookup only concerns phonemes.” –Stanislas Dehaene (pp. 200) from Reading In The Brain, The New Science Of How We Read.
I’ve worked with entering first graders that went all through Kindergarten without learning a single letter sound. I’ve worked with multiple second graders that knew only 3-4 letter sounds. In these situations, time is of the essence. Your goal should be to get the child to unlock short vowel words like get, sip, let, fad…etc.
Letter names do not unlock words. They are a hindrance for many beginners. In essence, they are most definitely a hindrance for struggling readers. Teaching /c/ as “see” /b/ as “bee” and /a/ as “ay” can cause a child to read “cab” as “seeaybee.” Or even worse, letter names can cause a child to flip flop between names and sounds. In this situation, the child might read “cab” as “seeaaaaab” or “caybee.”
Drop letter names from instruction. Completely drop them. If you do, you’re implementing the best way to teach alphabet recognition to struggling readers.
Teach the correct letter sounds
We’ve learned to read so long ago, we’ve forgotten what letter sounds are! Can you even define them? By definition, letter sounds are sounds used in short vowel words like cat, set, lit, pop, cup…etc. This means, vowels say the following sounds:
a_ as in apple
e_ as in elephant
i_ as in itch
o_ as in octopus
u_ as in umbrella
The above are short vowel sounds. Teach only short vowel sounds for vowels.
Lastly, teach the hard c as in cat and hard g as in got. Avoid teaching later phonics rules like, “Well g can say j like in giraffe” or “c sometimes says ssss as in cycle.” This sort of approach is not methodical.
Start with one sound per letter.
Only teach 2-4 new sounds at a time
When working with a struggling reader, you might be tempted to bombard him with too many letter sounds. You’re concerned that he’s left Kindergarten without the ability to recognize a single letter sound. You wonder what went wrong. Desperately, you try to teach him lots of letter sounds at once.
First, slow down.
Next, realize struggling readers need a step-by-step approach. Throwing many letter sounds at him at once simply will not work. Introduce 2-4 new letter sounds at a time. Once he consistently gets over 70% right, you can introduce 2-4 more new letter sounds. Again, give him time to master the new letter sounds.
Don’t ever rush your student.
Finally, do phonemic awareness activities
The best way to teach alphabet recognition involves phonemic awareness activities. For beginning readers, the idea that words are composed of sounds is novel. “Cat” seems like one utterance: cat. The idea that “cat” has three sounds is groundbreaking to beginning readers: c-aaaa-t.
Also, if you’re working with a struggling reader, he won’t know how to blend sounds. As a teacher you might say, “c-aaaa-t. What is it?” A struggling reader won’t know! He might say can, cap, or even tap! Blending sounds is a real challenge for kids with learning disabilities.
Thus, target this weakness early and often. Select 10 short vowel words. Hold continuous sounds. Clip stop sounds. Do something like the following:
Teacher: mmmm-aaaa-t. What is it?
Teacher: Listen for the first sound. Mmmm-aaa-t. What is it?
Phonemic awareness activities will help your student read short vowel words. Phonemic awareness is the very foundation of reading. Build this skill in every lesson.
It is a gift to teach a child to read. As a reading interventionist, you’re teaching a student a skill he’s almost guaranteed to use his entire life. Make sure you’re providing the methodical instruction he needs.
Reading Elephant offers phonics books for kids that know letter sounds. The books are methodical and offer a step-by-step approach.