Teaching Letters: Are You Doing It Wrong?

Learning letters and their sounds is the first step in learning to read. It’s also one of the most intimidating to parents – it’s a slow and frustrating process, and parents feel a lot of pressure to do it “right” – since reading is such an important skill.

Reading is an essential skill in life – not just for pleasure, but for completing college or tech school, learning new skills for a current job, reading contracts or other agreements that commit you to specific actions (like paying on your mortgage), and understanding the rules of places you might go. For many kids it takes extensive, even excruciating, practice, so anything you can do to make that practice time interesting for them is of benefit to you both.

Reading comes easily to some children, and then your focus as a teacher just needs to be on providing interesting reading materials and letting them at it! I have one child who taught himself to read at 4, so I know that those kids are out there. I also have 2 dyslexics and 1 reluctant reader, so I also know that if your child doesn’t easily pick it up on his / her own it’s not your fault!

Teaching Friends

Why Is It So Stressful?

For most kids – early reading is HARD! They have to memorize the sounds associated with specific symbols, and they don’t have any practical use for the information. Anything you can do that will a) make it easier or more fun to remember, and b) make the information useful will speed up the process and reduce frustration on both of your parts.

And – it’s hard on the parents as well, especially if you expect the process to be quick. Making it fun and anticipating a long slow process will help in reducing frustration on both the teacher and the pre-reader side.

The Quickest Way to Start

There is a lot of research showing that kids learn to read most quickly when you focus on the letter sounds rather than the letter names at the beginning. They will learn the letter names eventually, do not worry! – but their brains have so much to learn that it’s best to focus in on what will give them the most bang for the buck, if you will, at the beginning.

There are LOTS of letters!

Use the short vowel sound for all vowels, use the most common sound for consonants (adding to it over time), and be careful not to add a long “uh” at the end of the sound – so “B” is “b” not “buh”.

Start with the most commonly used letters rather than going in alphabetical order. For instance, start with “A”, “B”, and “C”.

Once they can remember those sounds, put the letters together into the word “CAB”. Run your finger under the letters, clearly making each sound but without a space between them – “CCCCAAAABBBB”. Then, run your finger more quickly under the letters and say “CAB”.
Letters CLetters ALetters B
Have them try it next – so they can start to understand how to combine sounds into words. I used capital letters here to make the example clear – but I’ve seen recommendations to use only lower case at the beginning, since most letters in a book will be lower case.

And, be patient! This takes a while to sink in for many children. As they are able to remember these sounds add more – just one at a time, and then combine them with sounds they already know to make words.

Fun Ways to Practice Letters

It’s also important to practice making the letters – it helps in remembering them since you involve more senses, and leads to handwriting ability going forward.

Here are some fun ways to practice the letters:
• Trace sandpaper letters with a finger (you can purchase a set on Amazon.com).
• Locate magnetic letters and place them where they can easily be seen – perhaps on the fridge or a white board.
• Spray shaving cream on a plate, and draw in it with a finger
• Using finger paint to create the letter on paper (though this can be frustrating for some children early on, as they can’t erase if they make a mistake)
• Write them super large (can be much easier for those with less motor control) – in chalk on your driveway, or on a large dry erase board.
• Spread sand on a tray, and trace the letter in it
• Create letters out of pancake batter and cook / eat them
• Create the letter on a pancake with syrup, or on a sandwich with jelly or mayonnaise
• Create letters out of clay – and either let them dry for later, or squish them up and use them again
• Create letter crafts. Oriental Trading (www.oriental.com) has craft kits for every letter, or you can cut your own out of construction paper and then decorate them.
• Create letters out of licorice, and maybe eat a piece at the end of the lesson

As students get more proficient in sounds, start to point to things around the house and ask them to identify the first sound in the name of that item – for instance, point to a table and they should say “table” – “t t t”.

Create simple words on a white board or fridge, using only letters that have been covered. For example, “CAT” once you’ve worked on C, A and T. Then, teach “F” – and show them how a simple change in the first letter become “FAT” instead.

Best Programs

If you prefer a more structured program, here are a few suggestions:

Reading Reflex: The Foolproof Phono-Graphix Method for Teaching Your Child To Read” by Carmen and Geoffrey McGuinness. In this book there are scripted lessons for early letter sound combinations, and there are pages you copy and cut out letter cards from, so that your child can arrange letters they’ve learned into short words.

Reading Eggs (www.readingeggs.com) is online, fun, and requires very little parental intervention so it can also give you a few minutes during the day to clean up the kitchen or work with your other children. We used it as a supplement and I definitely saw improvement from the activities, plus my children enjoyed it and were willing to work on it daily.

Primary Arts of Language” (www.iew.com), and “All About Reading” (www.allaboutlearning.com) are complete learn to read programs. Both have extensive activities to make the process fun, and are well scripted so that they don’t take too much preparation time for the parent. Both, however, do require you to work with your child for the entire lesson, which can be time-consuming if you teach more than one.

Next Steps

It’s also good to have your early reader read out loud! Once they have most of their letter sounds memorized and are able to “squish” them together into simple words, it’s important to have fun books for them to read. The BOB books are well known for this, though they weren’t our favorite – my children all preferred the Starfall readers, which are now available to read online for free at www.starfall.com.