Beginning to learn letters and sounds

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Over the next while, I will be posting a variety of ideas on how to help your child learn letters and sounds. Today’s first post in this series focuses on children who are just starting to learn their sounds and letters (and yes, helping children who have already been taught, but just don’t seem to “get it”).  There are so many ways to introduce these important concepts–you’ll be sure to find some tips that will help your child.

But what if my child is struggling with letters and sounds? If it seems your child is finding letters and sounds impossible to learn, my suggestion is to back off, and learn together in other ways: read to your child, do hands-on learning activities together, do lots of music and other fine arts, explore in nature, watch interesting documentaries, and so on.  Many children, especially young boys, simply are not ready (even up to ages 8 to 10) to learn letters and sounds. If you give them a sound foundation in learning through other approaches, you’ll almost certainly find that they will quickly learn to read and write when they are ready developmentally, and when they feel the need to read and write to accomplish some personal goal of their own, and are thus motivated to learn those literacy skills.

And now, here are a series of tips for beginning sounds and letters:

Relate letter sounds to personal experiences: If a child is having trouble with a particular sound, think of something that makes that sound. For example, the sound for “h” at the beginning of a word is like a puppy panting. Have the child pant like a puppy; ask them if they’ve ever heard/seen a puppy pant, and discuss their experiences/memories. Making these kinds of personal memory connections, and physical/sensory connections will help your child easily remembers letters, letter combinations, and even numbers. Once the child has “played” with the sound, write a list of words that use that sound. At first combine the “connection” with each word (pant: h-h-h-h-hat), then read normally.

A useful commercially-available method for introducing sounds and letters: You might want to check out the book, Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, by Seigfried Englemann. This method of teaching letters, sounds, and basic sight words has sold over 1/2 million copies, and is very reasonably priced. While it works well with even preschoolers, due to its emphasis on “sounds,” it is also useful for children who have had some reading training but do not seem to be “getting it.” While you might think that your child is “beyond” this apparently very beginning level method, it is a great way to solve some issues your child may be having.

For example, children often are taught their “ABC’s” with capital letters and the “letter name” sounds. But Englemann’s method wisely focuses on lowercase letters and short vowel sounds. With the prior method, children often end up sounding each letter separately and distinctly, using the letter name sounds. But this “100 Easy Lessons” method emphasizes stretching and blending sounds together, and using the “short vowel sounds” before introducing “long vowel sounds.” Also, this method uses some symbols, such as the short and long vowel symbols above those letters, and adds blends and digraphs as part of the alphabet with blended letters actually attached to each other.

It also integrates handwriting immediately, and uses kinesthetic-tactile methods from the start. Rhyming and sequencing skills are also integrated from the start. The overall effect is to focus on reading “skills” rights from the beginning. As reading is introduced, comprehension skills are also immediately introduced, even with the simplest sentences and stories. It is a very step-by-step method with lots of repetition, which is also helpful for many children. And for parents, you truly don’t have to “learn” anything. Everything you are to say and do with your child is laid out step by simple step. Even if your child has already been taught with another approach, if he or she is still struggling, why not “go back to the beginning” with this method; often, doing so quickly and clearly shows “gaps” in a child’s learning, fills them in, and provides the firm foundation the child needs to carry on.

Another commercially available reading method I have used which I find extremely useful for absolute beginning readers, but also for readers who have been having a lot of difficulty and really need a “re-start” is the Recipe for Reading method by Nina Traub and Frances Bloom. This is another method that has been around for a long time and has been proved successful. You need only to buy the book, and follow the step-by-step instructions, which include directing you on how to create your own homemade flash cards and other materials, making it a very inexpensive approach as well. The method starts with a limited number of consonants, and introduces one short vowel at a time. It teaches words using those letters and sounds only, with lots of use of “word families,” then adds other consonants and vowels a few at a time.

This encourages your child to feel she is learning a lot of new words, and therefore reading well, even as you are actually taking her back “to the beginning” to relearn, or fill gaps in reading, printing, and spelling. In the early lessons, your child is given an ending blend (e.g.: -at) and learns to read and write lots of new words by adding different initial consonants (bat, cat, mat, fat, etc.). A few common sight words are also introduced along the way, so that simple sentences can be created from the word family words (eg. The top of the pot is hot). Rhyming is another important part of this method, and there are also kinesthetic and graphic methods integrated into it.

What about computer software and tablet/smart phone apps? There are so many apps out there, and many of them are free. I highly suggest trying out the free ones first, before purchasing apps. If your child enjoys an app, and you can see learning taking place, you can upgrade to the full (paid) level, or purchase a similar, but more complex, app. Children love apps and computer games/software, and they are a good support tool–but I do strongly recommend also using traditional methods–face-to-face between child and parent/tutor, with hands-on use of pencil and paper, crayons, and other tactile methods. Even with apps and computer games, you need to be there and interact with your child’s learning!

Phonics booklets: Many companies have made sets of simple little books, each of which focus on a different sound (letter, blend, digraph, etc.). You can often get packages of these books very inexpensively at thrift stores or used book stores; or you can sometimes get them quite inexpensively through book fairs (such as Scholastic) at schools. Before you read each little book together, discuss the sound that it focuses on (usually this is found on the back cover, or inside at the back of the book).

Then, as you read the book together, have your child watch for words with that sound. Have your child list them on a paper or white board, and circle the letter(s) that make the sound in each word. Then he can practice reading aloud, writing, and spelling the words. You can also discuss together other words you know that have this sound. Write them for your child; some will follow the spelling sound rule you’re working on, and your child can add them to her list; others may not “follow the rule” and you can then discuss that, too. This searching for word sounds while reading will not only help your child with the particular sound, but will also teach your child the skill of looking for particular information in a document.

Ways to use flashcards, magnetic letters, alphabet jigsaws and more : If possible, get flashcards that have lowercase letters, or a combination of lowercase and uppercase. If you can only find cards with uppercase (capital) letters, write the lowercase (small) letters beside them. Of course you can easily make your own cards: often these are best, especially if you make them a larger size, such as 6×8 inches. Here are some tips on how to use them:

  • Place ABC/abc flashcards in a path on the floor, a sidewalk, or a lawn. Have your child step or hop from card to card, saying its “sound.” Do this until your child knows all the basic sounds. Then you can do the same, teaching the letter names. When the child knows both the letter sounds and names, you can introduce the ABC song. Once the child has memorized the alphabet in forward order, do this activity again in backward order (just not the singing part!).
  • You can also divide the cards into several parts–perhaps ABCDE, FGHIJ, KLMNO, PQRST, UVWXYZ. Do this exercise with the parts–forward, then backward. The reason for this is to help the child with alphabetization, so that she can more easily find words in a dictionary, think of what letter comes before or after, and so on. This is a very useful skill, and this is a fun way to develop it.
  • Using magnetic letters or alphabet letter cards that have uppercase and lowercase letter separately, match the capital and small letters. You can just spread the alphabet cards out and match them; later, try playing “Concentration” (aka “Memory”), or “Go Fish.”
  • Make the sound of a letter, have your child imitate the sound, and then have the child choose the correct letter from a choice of 3 or 4 alphabet cards. Finally, have her write the letter on paper or a whiteboard, making the sound as she writes it. Once she can identify and say the “sounds” easily, do the same activity, except this time using the names of the letters.
  • Trace a letter using two fingers together on your child’s back (or on his hand, while his eyes are closed); as you “write” it this way, say the letter sound. Then have the child do the same to you. When the child is doing well with the “sounds,” use this activity to teach the letter names.
  • Sing the ABC song (and say it), using a variety of different ABC cards, jigsaw puzzles, magnetic letters, alphabet sheets, and so on. Give your child experience with lots of different looking alphabets (size, colours, etc.).
  • Once your child is confident of both sounds and letter names, sing the alphabet song, first with sounds, then with names, and once more with sounds. If your child likes a challenge, try singing the alphabet song, alternating sound/letter/sound/letter, etc. It’s good for a laugh, and at the same time good practice!
  • Get a set of alphabet cards and a set of animal picture cards (or a book of animal pictures). Have your child name the animal, say the beginning sound, and then choose the letter card with the initial sound. After the child can do initial sounds easily, have her stretch out the animal name and find the other letter-sounds for the word and put them in order, then “read” the word. In the beginning, the child may use mostly consonants; congratulate your child for finding the right sounds, then gently introduce missing vowels, and correct consonants if necessary (for example, a child may use a “c” for “kangaroo”). Of course some words are spelled in odd ways (“oddballs”); don’t spend too much time at this early stage trying to “correct” words like that, but for simple words (cat, dog, etc.) do put some gentle emphasis on correct spelling.
  • If your child is feeling restless when you are trying to teach letters and sounds, make a game out of it. Toss a foam ball back and forth, and say alphabet sounds/letters, or hop up and down stairs, or play hopscotch, etc., while you say the sounds/letters. You can also do the same for numbers, skip counting, etc.
  • Lay out 3 or 4 animal picture cards (or other picture sets–you can also use picture books or even toys or other objects for this). Ask your child which one begins with a certain sound. Then have him find the alphabet card that has that sound; or have him find the sound on an alphabet (ABCs) strip.
  • Look around the room, or go outside, or look out the window as you drive, and play “I spy” using initial letter sounds (and later, letter names). When the child becomes good at this, try using final letter sounds, and then middle sounds. If a child is having trouble with beginning sounds, give both the beginning sound and the ending sound. If you are not driving, you can also help the child pick out the sounds from a set of alphabet cards.
  • Set out magnetic letters or alphabet cards, in order, but with every 2nd or 3rd one set aside. Have your child use the extra letters to fill in the gaps.
  • Start with a simple word spelled with alphabet cards. Then delete, add, or substitute letters or syllables. Sound out each of the new words. If they are real words, have your child write them and say them as he writes them. Manipulating sounds is a great way to broaden a child’s understanding and use of letters and sounds, and quickly build reading skills.
  • Play the “Pick Two” game. Orally name 3 words; your child picks two that start (or end, or have the same middle sound) with the same sound/letter. Also do this game with pictures. Another alternative, once your child is beginning to write words, is to draw a blank line for the beginning (or middle, or end) sound, and print the other letters of the word. Then your child can also write the sound after saying it. Another alternative is to have four words that start with the same sound, but three rhyme and one doesn’t. You can do this orally, with pictures, and later with written words. If using written words, start with words in which the rhyming part is spelled the same; once a child is very competent with that, you can add other words that are spelled differently but still rhyme. (Of course, if you’re just using pictures, the actual spelling doesn’t matter; it’s the rhyming sound you are working on).
  • Instead of using cards or magnetic letters, go to the thrift store, and pick up a few games that have letter tiles or letter dice, such as Scrabble or Boggle. You can use just the tiles/dice at first for many of the activities above; then as your child’s skills improve, try playing the games themselves.

What are your favourite tips for beginning to learn letters and sounds? Please share them in the comments below! Thank you!

Looking for other useful tips on helping your child read and write? Check out the list of topics in the second half of our Tutoring Tips page.

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