Children may have a lot of difficulty learning to recognise letter sounds*. Here are some strategies that may help:
Get some alphabet magnets – often available from cheap variety stores e.g. $2 shops, or from toy shops. These are wonderful for children to learn letters and to read and make words. You can get lowercase and uppercase/capital letters (the terms “lowercase letters” and “capital letters” are fine to use with children- if you say “little letters”, this is misleading).
Make a set of letter cards with your child- use any kind of card, even cut up cereal packs etc -just use the blank side. Let the child help to colour in the letters, choosing how to decorate them. Make duplicates of letters such as e and s, so that your child can make familiar words and names.
Click on the image to the left for a set of letter cards to print onto A4 card. The letters are on a Word document, so you can change the font if you like (I've used a couple of different fonts, including the Victorian Cursive script used in our schools). You could also just write your own!
*Children need to know the common sounds that letters make, rather than their names, so that they will be able to "sound out" many new words when they learn to read. The letter names can be very confusing, so you don't need to focus on them at first.
Children have different styles of learning, so try to match your teaching techniques with your child's preferred style/s.
Some children have a very strong memory of how things look- shapes, colours, positions etc. This can be useful in learning; the letter sounds need to be learnt at the same time.
There are lots of beautiful alphabet books at your local newsagent, toy/book store or library. Try to choose books that don't have confusing examples of letters such s "ship" for "s".
Write letters in different colours; let your child choose the colour for each letter.
Let your child find different fonts on a computer to make the letters
Find different examples of letters in magazines, newspapers
Make your own alphabet book- use a scrapbook, or staple 28 pages together (or fold 14 sheets of paper in half and staple or sew down the middle). Glue in letters cut from magazines/printed from your computer, or write them in. Draw or glue in pictures. Concentrate on no more than 2 or 3 letters at a time, starting with those most familiar to your child. Use pictures that are meaningful to your child. Make sure that you use pictures of things that have the correct letter sound at the start (ostrich for o rather than owl, organ or onion) and try to use words with a clear initial sound rather than a blend (fish rather than frog or flower).
-Let your child sort letters (magnets or cut-outs), according to their features- tall letters, letters that hang down, letters with a circle, with a dot, with a stick on the left or right... anything that helps to identify the letter in their mind.
Most children will learn better by handling materials and objects. Use a variety of textures and experiences to help establish learning:
Alphabet magnets are good because they’re somewhat 3-dimensional.
Cut-out letters from different materials/textures- e.g. felt, fake fur, sandpaper, corrugated cardboard, shiny card/paper, textured wallpaper offcuts or samples.... children can trace over the letters with their fingers.
Make an alphabet book as above, but with textured letters/pictures: make a “f” with a feather or fur, “r” shape with red ribbon, b from buttons, a g from gold glitter, a hole in the h page, a line of lace for l,....
Put some sand, wheat or rice in a large shallow dish or deep tray (e.g. a roasting pan) and let your child draw letters in it.
Draw letters in fingerpaint (mix thick wallpaper paste with food colouring or paint and spread it on a table -protect the table with thick plastic or a plastic tablecloth taped over the top). Shaving foam is also fun.
Draw letters on a fogged-up mirror or window, or at bathtime, in soap on the side of the bath.
Play “guess the letter”- take turns to draw a letter on each other’s back - or on a partners' palm while they keep their eyes closed.
Many children learn best by "doing"; they may find it hard to sit still and learn, so it's good to involve some movement in their learning sessions. They can:
- make letter shapes with their bodies (lying down or standing etc); they need to say the letter sounds (and name too if they like- e.g. "I’m a dee and I say d”).
- act out something that represents a letter, or something that starts with a letter sound (like charades/I spy), e.g. a bee for b, a goat for g.
-draw huge letters: in the air/in the dirt/ on a fence or path (with water & paintbrush or chalk), with paint or fingerpaint on paper or a table...
- make enormous letters on the ground with sticks/rocks/shells/writing, then dance around the letter, chanting or singing its sound
- jump, dance, sway or clap in time to a letter/alphabet song, rhyme or tongue twister.
Many people are naturally auditory learners, "hearing" sounds, spelling, songs, rhymes etc in their heads. Here are some ideas to help with this kind of learning:
You can chant the letters and their sounds- “Ay says ay and Ay says a; Bee says b, Cee says s and cee says ck" etc.
Play “I spy”, using letter sounds rather than names
Make up silly sentences using one letter sound as often as possible, e.g. “Annie and Alice ate ants and apples”.
Look for (or make up) tongue twisters using a repeated sound, e.g. “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers..”
Play “Categories”: pick a category, e.g. countries, food, TV shows etc, then take turns to pick a letter. The other player/s have to see how many words they can think of in the category that start with the letter sound.
Most children fit into at least one of these learning categories, and often more than one.
It’s easy and fun to say the first sound of an item of food as you eat, to involve the taste buds. You can also have fun with related sounds- “Mmmmm”, “y for yum”, “d-d-d-delicious”, etc.
Use smelly textas to write sight words; use scented oils, concentrates (e.g. eucalyptus, peppermint) or perfume to add an extra sensory experience to an item or activity; or use scented notepaper to write on. Smell is a very evocative sense, so try to link one kind of smell with a particular learning experience or letter.
Research has shown that children learn well when they experience positive emotion- so make learning lots of fun, with plenty of encouragement and praise for effort, not just for achievement!
Try to plan activities that will be fun for you, too – this can be a special sharing time for adult and child, and your enjoyment will make the learning extra powerful and memorable!
Most children learn the alphabet as ABC.. etc, using the letter names, when they are young.
At school, I prefer to concentrate on teaching letter sounds rather than the names of the letters, as the names can confuse children when they try to “sound out” words.
Letters can have several sounds, so this technique also has its problems, but most letters have no more than one or two common sounds:
> vowels have a short sound – e.g. a as in cat- and a long sound – e.g. 'long a' as in cake. The long sound is usually the letter name (u can have a few long sounds, e.g. as in use, true and ruler).
> most consonants just have one common sound; g and c have a hard sound (as in got, cat), unless they are followed by a “narrow” vowel- i, e or y- when they usually have a “soft” sound as in giant/city, gentle/cent and gym/cycle (there are some common exceptions, e.g. get, give).
Voiced and non- voiced sounds-
It can be very difficult for children to naturally hear the difference between the sounds of letters such as d and t, v and f, b and p, g and k. These letters have very similar sounds- the difference is that the first letter in each of these pairs is voiced, whereas no voice is used for the second letter.
Say them out loud to see. Make sure you don’t add an extra “eh” sound (e.g. p is just a little puff, not “perh”).
I prefer to call these sounds “puffy” (non-voiced) and “voiced” sounds, to make it easier for children to distinguish. Children can put their finger on their throat to feel the vibration for g, d, b, v, and in front of their lips to feel the little puff of air for puffy sounds such as p, f, k, t.
Get your child to practise the pairs- see what their lips and tongue are doing when they make the sound for each pair (look in a mirror if you like), then alternate using voice /no voice. Letter/sound pairs are listed below.
Play “oops”: make up a silly sentence so children can pick up the “wrong” sound: use word pairs from the list below, or make up your own. Example: “It’s cold, so before I go out, I’ll put on my goat -oops, not my (...), I meant my (...)”. Let your child say the words in the gaps.
Sound pairs: letter sounds- extras/digraphs -
Word pairs- some examples:
k-g : cold-gold, card-guard, coast-goast
f-v: fan-van, fail-veil
p-b: pin-bin, park-bark, pear/pair-bear, pet-bet, pest-best
t-d: tie/die, tip-dip, train-drain, tile-dial
s-z: Sue-zoo, sit-zit, sap-zap, said-z (zed)
ch-j: cheap-jeep, chill-Jill, chug-jug, chain-Jane
Games to play to help with learning letter sounds
(also see Learning Sight Words page for more ideas)
Other games to learn letters-
When your child can identify the starting sound of a word, vary the games to identify the end sound- then the middle sound in short words!
(If you need pictures for the games, find them in magazines/print from computer/let your child draw them – make sure you choose words with clear sounds in them, e.g. owl is not a good example for the o sound, chocolate does not start with a c sound...)
Read alphabet books with your child, but again watch out for the "s is for shark", "o is for owl" problem.
June, 2013 update:
For free, simple games to play online or download, visit Owl and Mouse: yourchildlearns.com/learnletters