Q: Most of the children in my program are able to vocalize many letter sounds, however, I recently discovered they have difficulty identifying and naming individual letters. Any tips on how I can better teach letter recognition?
– Judith Wesley, Clovis, CA
A: It’s so exciting for children to master the building blocks of prereading, and so thrilling for adults to witness that sometimes we don’t realize there are supports missing from the foundation.
As a child becomes more aware of the wealth of printed words in her environment, she starts to develop the concept of letters forming words and those words conveying meaning. A successful reader first develops the ability to identify the different sounds that letters and letter combinations make and to associate these sounds with written words. Sometimes, though, the focus of early literacy fails to help children learn to recognize and name each letter of the alphabet. You can promote the development of all the basic literacy skills by engaging children in activities that focus on naming the letters of the alphabet, as well as learning the sounds which are attributed to those letters and the words they can make.
Introduce the Alphabet
The prevailing theory that we learn letters by memorizing their shapes is overly simplistic. Prereaders learn a letter based on the sequential formation of features, not simply as a wholly formed shape. For example, an “A” is made by a long line up at a slant, a long line down at a slant and a short line intersecting the middle. To encourage letter recognition, give children opportunities to make the connection between the name we assign a letter and its shape by introducing activities that encourage them to feel how many parts go into the formation of a letter. For example, lead your children in shaping letters with their bodies. Encourage them to curve like an “S” and stand tall like a “T.”
For a somewhat less “full-body” approach, remember that children need strong, basic language cues to help them remember the abstract features that form the shape of each letter. When working with children, some teachers use imagery such as “rooftop” for the top line, “fence” for the crossing line and “sidewalk” for the bottom line – others use “back,” belly,” and “head.”
Hands-on activities that introduce the concept of how a letter is formed include tracing a finger in grains of rice or sand while repeating the name of the letter, or using small manipulatives, puff paint, or modeling clay to form the letter’s shape. Simple alphabet tracers or connect-the-dots introduce a child’s hand to the formation of a letter, while saying the letter out loud reinforces that letter’s name. Blank paper is fine for art projects, but when working with letter formation stick to primary paper with guidelines; the grid helps the children grasp the sense of letter scale and proportion.
Ask the children to pretend their finger is a magic crayon. Have them put their magic crayon into a pretend pencil sharpener (the child’s fist) and turn to sharpen. As you slowly list the alphabet or hold up each letter for easy viewing, have the children write the letter in the air in front of them. Ask the children to each draw his or her favorite letter in the air; can the rest of the group guess what the letter is? Place items with different textures, like sandpaper or felt, under blank paper and have children draw or write letters with crayons.
Place a large bowl filled with felt, magnetic, or wooden letters in front of the children. Remove one at a time. Ask them to name the letter. Ask if they can think of a word that starts with that sound, and have them draw a picture of the word. To make this activity more concrete and meaningful, have the children look around the room and see if they can find anything in the classroom that begins with the letter.
Letter recogniton begins by immersing children in a literacy-rich environment and fostering a love of language and reading. You can support young children’s emerging literacy skills by planning activities that involve identifying print, recognizing letters, developing a love of books, writing, and appreciating the rhythm of language.
Barbara Atkinson is the Associate Editor of Earlychildhood NEWS.