How comfortable are you with writing the letter e? I think, at this point in our lives, we’re pretty solid. Since we are so good at it, we could probably teach it to others, right? How would you explain writing the letter e to a child who is just learning their letters? “You start kind-of halfway down the line. But more like three-quarters. Okay and then you pull your pencil to the left. Oh, you don’t know what your left is? Oh, okay, just go backwards, and then up, and then down. No, your other down.” It’s not as easy to explain as you would originally think, is it? My point here is this—as proficient readers, we have many processes internalized. The act of writing and reading happens virtually instantly, so we don’t have to pause and think about how these acts are occurring. As teachers and parents, we have to try to take apart those processes and find ways to explicitly teach our students the skills that will eventually lead to proficient, instant word recognition and effortless writing.
Today, I’m writing for teachers and parents. I’m writing to give teachers ideas on how to help their parents prepare their pre-school and kindergarten students for success. I’m writing for those parents at home who are doing everything they possibly can to help their little ones be successful (Hi D.M.P! I love you and you’re an amazing mother!) I hope you can figuratively walk away from this blog post with ideas you can try today with your preschooler or kindergartner.
Letter-Sound Knowledge and Phonemic Awareness
In a society where every company in the world is trying to push a curriculum for 4 and 5 year olds, what is the most important? The amount of information presented is overwhelming—does my child need to know 10 sight words and all their letters if they ever want to be successful? Luckily, the research is very clear. The two best indicators of how well a child will learn to read in the first two years of school are phonemic awareness and letter sound knowledge. Letter sound knowledge gets much more attention than phonemic awareness, and yet without phonemic awareness, letters will never be anything more than just arbitrary symbols. As for “sight words”? I wouldn’t even touch them yet.
Phonemic awareness is the ability to manipulate individual sounds in speech. It is part of a larger umbrella of skills called phonological awareness. Phonological awareness includes phonemic awareness, but also skills such as rhyming, syllables, alliteration, and counting words in sentences. If a child can hear the word “hatch” and know that it is made up of the sounds /h/-/a/-/ch/, that is an example of phonemic awareness. If a child can say the word slide and then eliminate the /l/ sound to make side, that is phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness develops at 3 different levels—the syllable level, the onset-rime level, and the individual phoneme level. I won’t belabor the definition of phonemic awareness, but I want you to remember this one thing: when you are working on phonemic awareness, you are not including letter names or pictures of letters. This is purely sound work to prepare for phonics. Phonemic awareness is critical because if a student cannot master skills like segmenting and blending orally, we cannot expect them to do it in print.
Tips for Phonological Awareness
With your preschooler and kindergartner, building phonological awareness is important. Luckily, it’s also one of the easiest things to practice! Since it has to deal purely with sound, phonological awareness can be built during their bath, the drive to school, or during everyday conversations. Here are some tips to get you started.
- Rhyming. One of the best ways to help build rhyme awareness is with nursery rhymes. Sing well-loved nursery rhymes with your child until they are memorized (Or let Cocomelon do it. No judgment here). Then, you sing part of the line and have your child finish with the rhyme. For example, “The itsy bitsy spider, went up the water spout, down came the rain and washed the spider….” and have your child finish. Point out that they sound the same at the end. I also love silly rhymes! With my daughter, we do “Ember Bember Member, Fee Fi Fo Dember, Ember.” I sing silly rhymes like that with her every single day, just to make her laugh. At the same time, I’m building sound awareness. You can also start drawing attention to rhyming and non-rhyming words simply by mentioning them. “I see a cat. What rhymes with cat? Hat, pat, sat!”
- Syllables. I know that a lot of people clap syllables, but that is not my preferred method. I find that when children clap a syllable like “flag,” they tend to split it into onset-rime (fl-ag) and say it is 2 syllables. Instead, I invite children to put a fist under their chin. They count the number of times their chin comes down to count syllables. This is an easy thing to practice every day. Choose family names, pet names, favorite games, ANY WORD WILL DO!
- Beginning Sound Awareness Children need to be able to hear the first sound of a word and identify it. This will help strengthen the sound-symbol correspondence in print. Turn it into a game. Gather a variety of objects from the house. Say, “I’m thinking of a word. It starts like the word ‘mom’. Which object starts like mom?” Have the child identify the object that starts with that same initial sound. In the car, have the child come up with as many words as they can that start with a target sound (remember to use sounds, not letters.) For example, ask “How many words can you think of that start like ‘car?’” A simple, powerful way to prepare your child for reading tasks.
- Words in Sentences. The concept of a word is not something that appears in oral language. We do not pause after each word; instead, we speak in phrases. So, when children are first learning to read, they may not understand that sentences are made up of individual words. You can help by saying simple sentences and clapping the number of words. Start with sentences that only have 1 syllable in them (I like the cat. I help my mom.). When they have mastered single syllable word recognition, you can add in 2 syllable words (I like to play soccer.). Gradually increase the difficulty of the sentence.
Tips for Letter Sounds
When teaching letters, my personal belief is you should teach lowercase letters before you teach uppercase letters. 98% of the letters we write are written in lowercase letters. Of course it is important for students to be able to recognize and write uppercase letters. I always show my students the uppercase letters when I am introducing a letter, but we focus our energy on learning proper lowercase letter formation.
My top 5 tips for teaching letter formation.
1. Teach keywords to help make the sound stick. Find flashcards for your children that have an image that starts with that sound. Teach them the name of the letter, the keyword picture, and the sound. When they are writing, have them repeat all three parts until they know it automatically. (Below I link a set of cards I like. Not an ad, just what I found and like!)
2. Start big, then go smaller. Before you have students write letters on paper, use a variety of other methods to make the letter. Write it big in the air while saying the name, keyword picture, and sound. Use shaving cream or playdoh to make letters. Take your child outside and practice with chalk. In the end, though, you should always bring it back to paper. DO NOT have a beginning writer use regular wide-ruled paper. I highly recommend getting paper that has a dotted midline.
3. Practice known letters every day. You can practice letter name or letter sound. Sometimes, I just ask them to write the letter t, b, d, f, etc. Other days, I say, “I’m thinking of a letter that makes the /f/ sound” and turn it into a game. Can you tell I like games? No matter what, though, take 1-2 minutes each day to practice reading and spelling the letters your child knows.
4. Teach letters together that are formed similarly. You should not start at a and end with z, because our alphabet is randomly put together. Instead, focus on letters that are made similarly. The letters a, c, o, d, g, and q all begin the same way. T, b, f, h, l, and k all start at the top line and go to the bottom. M and n are made similarly. There is no one correct sequence. My school uses the sequence from Wilson’s Fundations, and a quick Google search will give you that sequence.
5. Focus on proper letter formation, not speed (at first.) Kiddos don’t need to write it fast when first learning—they need to write it correctly. Remember, practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. When children are first learning to write their letters, this is the time we stop and correct them. Do not allow invented formations that will eventually slow them down. Encourage proper letter formation from the beginning.
Resources and Recommended Products:
- You Tube video for teaching letters. This video is really aimed at teachers and parents. It was originally on my Instagram, but I want to make sure everyone has access to it. It will give you hands on, practical tips for teaching letters.
- Reading Rockets is an amazing resource for teachers and parents. There is a search feature that can help you find anything you are looking for. It has both articles and activities for you. It’s not limited to letter-sound knowledge and phonemic awareness. It is a researched-based website that includes information on all components of reading.
- Sounder and Friends is one to watch! They are coming out with a tv show and a COMPLETLEY FREE APP! The show and app deal solely with phonemic awareness in a world where phonics television dominates. Go to their website, and follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to keep in the know!
- Alphabet cards with keyword images. I did not make these cards, but I have purchased them for my own use. I think the pictures are fantastic because they are actual photographs and not clipart.
- Interactive Alphabet Notebook This is a product I made. It is 56 different interactive notepages for uppercase letters, lowercase letters, and digraphs. I love the multisensory nature of them, and that they can easily fit into a composition book or a folder to create a beginning reader phonics notebook.
- Phonological Awareness Worksheets are another product of mine. It includes 25 worksheets to practice rhyming, alliteration, syllables, counting words in sentences, and phonemic awareness.
Adams, Marilyn Jager (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, MA: Bolt, Beranek, and Newman, Inc.