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Alphabet Strategy Bank

Recognition of the letters of the alphabet and knowing the sounds they make is one of the key predictors of reading success. The alphabet is an invented system of symbols. Alone, each letter of the alphabet has limited value, but combinations of letters create words, the essence of written communication. In order to read an alphabetic language like English, children must learn the alphabetic principle—that letter symbols represent sounds. This knowledge is a critical precursor to reading words, since words are merely a combination of the letters that can be used to represent a word’s specific combination of sounds.

Children have to learn to recognize and attach sound to four sets of letters—uppercase print, lowercase print, uppercase cursive, and lowercase cursive. Some letters, such as lowercase b and d, and q and p, as well as uppercase M and W, and F and E, have subtle differences. It takes time and practice to distinguish one from the other in each pair.

By age four, most children can recite the alphabet in order. But this is not enough. They must know the printed form of each letter out of order, and they must know the common sounds attached to the letters.

It is important to assess a child’s knowledge of the alphabet at the beginning of kindergarten and grade one in order to plan the instruction needed. Accuracy and speed are both important, and both should be assessed. See the alphabet assessment reproducibles for ways to assess a child’s knowledge of the alphabet.

What follows are tips for teaching the alphabetic principle.

The Alphabet Song

Use the Alphabet Song, traditionally sung to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, to familiarize children with the letters and their names. Sing it often, if not every day. Take care not to sing it so fast that the letters run together and are not easily distinguishable, such as with l, m, n, o sounding like elemeno. You can sing it as a rap or to another tune for variety. It is also helpful to have a large alphabet chart so that you can point to the letters as you sing them.

Alphabet Books

Reading A-Z has an alphabet book for each letter of the alphabet. Because the books are downloadable, each child can have his or her own book to color, practice reading, and take home.

Use the alphabet books to acquaint children with objects that start with the target letter and sound, and to introduce them to concepts of print. This will also familiarize children with handling books. Focus on the pictures that represent the target sound. The second part of each book contains a sentence such as "A is for apple." Children can practice one-to-one correspondence, tracking print left to right and using illustrations to confirm word meaning.

Alphabet books are a good way to introduce children to vocabulary words. Second-language children will benefit greatly from the singular focus of word and picture.

You can start a letter chart where children can put pictures they find that begin with the featured letter. You can even have them make their own books or add pages to the Reading A-Z alphabet books.

Teaching Shapes

It is not enough to be able to recite the names of letters. Children must come to recognize their shapes. For preschool children and children lacking alphabet knowledge, don’t teach upper- and lowercase at the same time. Start with uppercase letters, as it is easier to tell one uppercase letter from another. Point out the similarities of features in letters—for example, the small circles that are found in the lowercase letters o, a, d, and b, as well as the lines used to form t, l, d, and b. Point out the common parts of letters like e and c, M and W, m and n, and P and R. Children should recognize that letters are made by combinations of straight lines, curved lines, circles, and dots. For example, if you show them that the letter c is formed by making a curve, you can point out that d is formed by adding a straight line to c.

The pace of introducing letters will vary from child to child. It is probably best to start with one letter per week. If children seem to have no trouble mastering one per week, you may want to try introducing more than one.

When it comes to teaching individual letters, avoid teaching, one after the other, letters that children confuse with each other. Make sure they have mastered one letter before introducing a visually similar letter. For example, don’t closely follow the teaching of lowercase d with b or vice versa.

Teaching Sounds

Focus on the most common sound for each of the letter symbols. Use picture words that begin with the sound, and have children recognize the sound by naming the picture. Be sure to segment the target sound and blend it back together. For example, show them a picture of a bat. Ask: What is this? Repeat the word by emphasizing the /b/ sound. Have children repeat and place emphasis on the /b/. Associating the sound with a picture will help them remember the sound.

Try to teach a combination of consonants and vowels that permit early word formation. For example, by teaching b, a, and t first, you can form the words bat, at, and tab. Children can then blend and segment the words to practice the individual letter/sound relationships they have learned.

Writing Letters

One of the best ways to teach letter shapes is to have children write the letters. The two most common forms of letter writing are Zaner-Bloser style and D’Nealian style. Whatever you teach, remain consistent with the method of letter formation you use. Start children off with practice on unruled sheets of paper. Then introduce them to lined sheets. Reading A-Z has practice letter-writing worksheets available for downloading and printing. These worksheets are available in both Zaner-Bloser and D’Nealian styles.

Alphabet Activities

  • Take an alphabet walk around the school or neighborhood. Look for letters that you have been studying in environmental print. You can also have children identify objects that start with specific letters that the children have recently learned.
  • Play "I Spy" by having children try to identify what you spy that begins with a certain letter. You can give added hints if needed. For example, "I spy something that begins with B. You can read it." (book) Have the child who correctly identifies the object go to the board and write the letter. Have everyone practice saying the word with emphasis on the first letter.
  • Play letter card scramble by having children use letter cards to spell a CVC word that you write on the board. Then have them scramble the cards and put them back together by sounding out the word. Another twist is to have children write their names using the cards and then scrambling and putting them back together. They can also work with one or two classmates. They can make their own name with the cards, show them to a classmate, and then scramble the cards. A classmate then puts the cards back together to spell the name. Be sure that children sound out letters carefully, as the purpose of the activity is to practice recognition of letters and their sound correspondence.
  • Place children into groups of four to five, and have them use their bodies to form letters. If it takes only one or two bodies to form a letter, have the group form more than one of the letters.
  • Write the name of a common and familiar CVC word on the board. Say one of the letters in the word, and have a volunteer come to the board and circle the letter. Have children identify the letter’s position—beginning, middle, or end. Repeat by saying the other letters and having volunteers circle them. Then segment and blend the word.
  • Write word family pairs on the board, such as hog and dog, mat and rat, and pin and tin. Ask children to identify the letters that are different in each pair. Ask if they can name an initial letter that makes yet another word.
  • Play alphabet concentration using letter cards. Use no more than 16 cards (8 pairs). If 16 is too many, adjust the number of cards so as to not frustrate children. You can also use picture cards and letter cards. Each letter card is matched with its corresponding picture card.
  • Hand out a letter card or picture card to each child. Write a letter on the board. The child whose picture begins with the letter or who has a matching letter card stands up. That child says the letter and the word of the picture (if they have picture cards). You should reinforce the answer and have all the children repeat the sound.
  • Write a large letter on the chalkboard. It can be upper- or lowercase. Write a number of smaller letters around the larger letter. Many of the smaller letters should be the same as the larger letter. You can either put them in the same case or mixed cases. Have volunteers come up, one at a time, and circle a letter that matches the bigger letter. As they do, they say the letter out loud and name a word that starts with the letter. A sample might be:

M m m N n w s m M m W m U

  • Label objects in the classroom that begin with a letter you have just taught. Or you can give children cards with the letter on them and have them attach the letter card to anything in the classroom that begins with that letter. A more difficult task would be to have them place the letter card on an object that ends with the letter. This can only be done with certain letters that appear at the end of words and make the common sound you have taught.
  • Give children a clipping from a newspaper or magazine and have them circle or highlight all the examples they can find of a specified letter. You can challenge them to find a certain number of occurrences, such as seven. The number should vary with how common the letter is.
  • Give children letter cards. Call out four to five letters. As you do, those who have the card come to the front of the room. When four to five children have come forward, direct them to arrange themselves in alphabetical order.
  • Provide experiences for tactile activities related to letter formation. Use pipe cleaners, wax sticks, or salt or sand in trays. Children also enjoy using hair gel with food coloring in Ziploc bags.
  • Have children perform an action that represents a letter. If you say H, they hop. If you say W, they walk. If you say J, they jump. If you say Y, they yawn. You can give them a prop such as a ball and have them do things with it depending on the letter called out. For example, say B, and they bounce the ball. Say T, and they toss the ball. Say C, and they catch the ball.
  • Divide the class in half. Give one half of the class lowercase letter cards. Give the other half matching uppercase letter cards. Have children search for their match. You can play a similar game with letter and picture cards.
  • Write letters on paper plates. Mix them up. Have children make chains or a caterpillar using the paper plates. However, they have to put the plates in alphabetical order. Give them pipe cleaner "antennae" to put at the head of the caterpillar.
  • Reproduce connect-the-dot pictures that use letters for each dot. Have children draw the picture by connecting the dots in alphabetical order.