Building Blocks of Reading: Letter Knowledge

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Hey y’all — welcome back! Last week we spoke about the importance of beginning phonological awareness, which is a cornerstone among the building blocks of reading. This week we’ll be exploring something just as important: LETTER KNOWLEDGE. Specifically being able to identify the symbol and primary sound of each of the letters of the alphabet. 

While I recommend beginning with phonological awareness, especially since that skill can be sharpened at an earlier age and reinforced in classes outside of literacy, letter knowledge is equally as important. Research clearly shows that visual letter recognition and the ability to produce the primary sound each letter makes plus phonemic awareness (coming in a later post!) are the necessary prerequisites for decoding (Yep, you guessed it – coming in a later post!!).

Therefore, as early as possible, students MUST be able to identify the uppercase, lowercase, and primary sound for each letter. Some preschools will start with identifying uppercase letters first, but in a kindergarten situation you might teach both upper and lowercase together. 

Not Too Basic

While letter knowledge can feel “basic” (it’s something we can hardly remember not knowing at this point!) it cannot be skipped or rushed over. Do not assume students are getting additional support or practice at home. Think about it like teaching a color, shape, or attribute of an animal.  Students need a basic understanding of what the color is, what makes that shape a triangle vs. a square, or the features all fish or mammals may share. 

Letters are the same way. Students must  be familiar with what they look like (uppercase, lowercase, and in varying font styles) in order to attach meaning to the sounds that they make. One layer goes on top of the other, like a scrummy layered cake from British Bake-Off. This applies to both kindergarten AND first grade. As teachers, we must know without a doubt our students have mastered these skills, and we do them a disservice if students miss out. 

Exposure, practice, manipulation, etc. of letters must be done until it’s AUTOMATICStudents cannot succeed in decoding and writing if they are spending their brain power trying to identify letters or recall what they look like. Repeat: IT MUST BE AUTOMATIC!

In kindergarten, this should be done as a whole group. PLUS, you’ll need to incorporate it into small groups as well (such as guided reading time). The amount of time and depth spent on letter knowledge will vary based on the group needs. Remember to keep it FUN and vary activities! 

Here are some easy ways to start today!  

Whole Group Activities

Each week, you should introduce 2, possibly 3 new letters. Depending on your group, you may be able to do more but I caution against doing less. If you are only focusing on one letter per week it will take you 26 weeks (roughly end of February or Mid-March depending on your start date).

Have students use their pointer finger of their dominant hand to sky write each letter, write on their leg, or on a friend’s back. They can make the shape of the letter with their body either standing up or lying down (if you’re in a big enough space — this makes a good outdoor activity!). This engages the brain in solidifying the formation of each letter. Make sure to remind students and have them repeat the letter they’re practicing out loud as they practice. For primary sound recognition, you may play a simple game of “I Spy” where you or a student picks something in the room beginning with a certain sound and other students guess. Make sure to start with something easy so students can succeed quickly! 

Alphabet Cards 

Alphabet cards are one of my FAVORITE tools to have on hand for letter practice. I like to keep these on a binder ring so they’re easy to use. The teacher says aloud the letter name, picture, and letter sound. Students repeat. Make sure to practice out of alphabetic order so students aren’t learning to associate letters in a particular order!! Having a picture with each letter can be very helpful for children to cement that knowledge in their brains.

You can grab your FREE copy of these cards down below!

Another fun way to incorporate the alphabet cards is to play Take Down. One of my all time favorite whole group games! Specific instructions in a previous math post — notice how versatile this game is for nearly any subject or skill! Plus, it’s great because students already know the rules and are eager to play “a new kind of take down” 😉 

Use Your Room!

There should be a clearly visible alphabet in the classroom – this may seem obvious to all lower elementary teachers, but really think about your decor style and accessibility for students. Is the alphabet placed across the top of the room and not within students’ eye level? This is not as effective as having it at their eye level.  It needs to be useful and not just decoration. Another helpful tool is for each student to have their own alphabet strip or card in their personal supplies (either in a bin or a baggie). 

Small Group Activities

Create with play doh, gems, beads, or buttons. This is best suited to small groups because you want to ensure students are working on focused letters and that they can tell you what letter they are working on forming. Too often we use this activity with the best intentions, but students don’t actually know what the letter is they are building and the time is not used effectively. 

Go Outside! Have students use found objects to create the week’s letter. This works well if you’re in hybrid learning as well. Have students return from a break with a few found objects from their house (nothing breakable!) that they can use to create the letter. 

Alphabet Arcs. A small group is perfectly suited to create their own alphabet arc. Students can create an alphabet arc at their table, using manipulatives like magnets, blocks, or even paper letters. They can even match upper and lowercase and have one arc below the other!

Tracing practice pages in plastic sleeves. Plastic sleeves are my favorite thing of ALL TIME! They’re so versatile y’all!! Using them for quick and easy letter practices gives students a visual model as they write with a dry erase marker, and you can reuse them until the cows come home. Tip: Have them say the name of the letter out loud every time they write it.

Inventive Spelling. Whenever there’s an opportunity outside of designated “letter practice time”, allow students the freedom to incorporate inventive spelling. Think captions or speech bubbles on pictures, short stories, or even labelling drawings. This is critical as students create their foundational letter knowledge, plus it’s FUN and opens up their imaginations to what language will allow them to create. And **BONUS** it’s a fantastic way to informally assess a student’s knowledge of what sounds letters make.

In future posts we’ll touch on phonics patterns more, but be aware that as students start to learn sight words and explore more word families, you should notice these patterns being incorporated correctly into their writing. 

More Intervention

If students are in need of more intense intervention with letter knowledge, I recommend  starting with the letters of their name. These are meaningful and personal for students and are easy to create activities for. You can create baggies with magnetic letters that make the students name. Make sure they say the name of each letter as they build their name! Or write their name on sentence strips and cut into puzzle pieces. Again, as they  build the puzzle, have them say each letter aloud. 

Next week we’ll be moving on to Intermediate Phonological Awareness — stay tuned! And make sure you’re caught up with last week’s post as well. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you — what are some of your favorite ways to teach letter knowledge? Comment below!

Grab Your FREE Alphabet Cards

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