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Planning a Successful Phonics Intervention

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How to Teach Letter Recognition

If you are wondering how to teacher letter recognition to your students, then you are in the right spot!

Keep on reading because we are going to be learning all about exactly what to do and I’m going to share 5 tips for teaching the alphabet and letter recognition to your kids.

Let’s dive in!

Tip number 1: Teach the alphabet together with phonemic awareness

In order to become a reader, kids need both phonemic awareness and phonics. When we’re teaching students letter names and letter sounds, these skills are going to help them to begin to decode words. This is part of that phonics piece. 

When we’re teaching letter names and sounds in kindergarten and first grade, we also want to be teaching phonemic awareness. We want the kids to know all of their letter names and sounds by the end of kindergarten by teaching them phonemic awareness activities.

When we are teaching letter recognition, we want to tie it together with our phonemic awareness instruction. For example, let’s say that you are going to be teaching students the letter M and focusing on this standard: blend and segment onsets and rhymes of single syllable spoken words.

The activity for phonemic awareness would be to have students blend words. All of the onsets start with the “mm” sound because that’s what we’re working on as far as the letter recognition. We’re teaching them the letter M and the sound “mm.” We’re going to tie that in with our phonemic awareness instruction. 

Now remember, phonemic awareness is all auditory, so we’re not writing these words anywhere. We’re saying to students, “Tell me the sound, the first sound that you hear.” “Mm-at”. What is it? “mm.” What’s the word? Mat. We’re having them blend those sounds together, but then also paying attention to that first sound being that “mm” sound. That’s what that looks like when we teach the alphabet together with phonemic awareness.

Tip number 2: Tie in handwriting practice with your instruction

It is really, really important that kids learn how to write these letters and that they have time to practice. We know that writing helps kids as they’re developing towards reading. It really goes hand in hand and there’s a lot of great research out there talking about how handwriting helps kids with their reading.

You always want to be tying writing in with reading. 

This can be done when we’re teaching the letter name and sound. We’re also going to be explicitly teaching the formation of the letters. When we do that, it gets tied in together. Let’s take a look at this in a little bit more in detail. We want to make sure that students are being explicitly taught how to write the letter that you’re working on.

Kids do not just pick things up by reading text or being exposed to it. There has to be explicit instruction where you’re saying, “Boys and girls, today, we’re learning the letter M. The letter M makes the sound “mm.” What does the sound make? “mm.” What letter is this? M.”

You have to constantly be very explicit. There is no, “Who can tell me what this letter is?” That’s not explicit instruction. You need to make sure that you are explicitly teaching students how to form the letters. When you do this, you want to start off by starting with large motor skills. A lot of times, you’ll see teachers have students write the letter in the air. Therefore, before the kids even pick up a pencil, they’re working on those large motor skills.

A lot of times teachers will have kids write the letters in a stand if they have a stand table or have them write the letter on the student’s back in front of them. Do it however you want to do it, but you want to always start off with those large motor skills first and then have the kids put it to paper. 

One tip to consider is that teaching letters that have the continuous stroke (where you don’t lift up your pencil) are more helpful to students as they learn how to write letters. For example, the letter S is a letter that’s a continuous stroke because you are not picking up your pencil as you write that letter, versus the letter T where you’re picking up the pencil to make the line across the top. To start, you want to look at introducing letters that it can be formed with a continuous stroke for kids.

The other piece is to use arrows. A lot of programs do this. If you’re teaching it on the board you’ll want to use arrows to show students what way to form the letters. This technique is aligned with explicit instruction,

This type of instruction and the pencil grip are so important!

Pencil grip is so important as well as the way that students form the letters because if kids don’t learn the correct pencil grip right away, and they have an incorrect pencil grip, they’re going to struggle with that for the rest of their life.

When kids are first learning to write, it can be difficult but we have to correct them immediately. It is so, so important to do that! 

Tip number 3: Separate Confusing Pairs

When we’re teaching the alphabet and letter recognition, we want to make sure that we’re not putting letter pairs too close together.We know that b and d are confusing pairs, but sometimes there are letters that may not necessarily jump right out at us and say, “Oh yeah, that can be confusing for kids.” Here are some to consider:

  • Uppercase confusing pairs are the letters M and N. You can see how those letters have similar forms and how they have similar ways of writing. 
    • Other confusing uppercase pairs include O and Q, and E and F.
  • Lower-case confusing pairs are the letters:
    • g and y
    • k and x
    • u and v. 

When we’re teaching and introducing letters, we want to make sure that these are not put together. Not only do we not want to introduce confusing pairs together in the same week, but we also want to make sure that we’re looking at the way that weeks are laid out. Let’s say one week we’re not teaching k, and then the next week we’re not introducing x. We want to really be very aware of how we’re teaching our students the letters.

The top reading programs that are based on reading research usually are really good at making sure that they’re separating these pairs, but not all of them. If you have a program, go look at your scope and sequence and see where these confusing pairs are taught to make sure that they aren’t too close together. If you don’t have a program and you’re having to do your own, just keep this in mind as you’re going through and figuring out where to teach these letters.

Tip number 4: Teach visually similar upper and lowercase letters together

We know that we want to make sure that we teach the confusing letters apart, but when it comes to visually similar letters, we want to teach these together. 

For example, K is almost identical to the lowercase letter. Therefore, teaching them together is easier for kids to get because they’re formed and look the same.

As you’re going through and you’re making sure that you’re not teaching confusing pairs when you’re introducing letters, you also want to make sure that you are putting together pairs that are visually similar because they’re easier for kids to learn. 

Tip number 5: Teach letter names and letter sounds together

When you introduce a letter name and a letter sound, make sure you’re doing it at the same time. If you’re working on the letter M, you’re telling students, “Boys and girls, this is the letter M. The letter M makes the sound ‘mm’.” 

Then you’re focusing on doing work around that. So going back to that tip number one, you’re going to be making sure you’re timing your phonemic awareness instruction with that and making sure it’s all tied together. This really helps students as they go through and learn the letters. 

There is no research that agrees on the order in which to teach the letters, and there’s no research that agrees on what should you teach first… the letter name or the letter sound. Therefore, it’s often suggested to teach them together. 

There you have it! The 5 Tips for teaching the alphabet and letter recognition to your kids.

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