Monday, January 16, 2017

20 Meaningful Ways to Teach Letters

The Case for Letters That Connect

Remember the father in the movie "My Big, Fat Greek Wedding"* who thought that all ailments big and small could be cured with Windex? It's kind of like how many of us grew up learning about reading. "Sound it out" was our Windex! Stumped on the word said?  Just sound it out! Don't understand the overall meaning of a passage? Sound it out! Your teacher asking why a character made that particular choice, and how you know it even though it was never said outright? Sound it out!  :-)  Obviously, this can't take us very far in our holistic understanding as readers.  But sometimes we're similarly limited in our teaching of letters, in my opinion. I understand the absolute power of the ABC Song for its ease and permanence in young kids' memories. I also love flash cards and many of the other things we do to get letter knowledge to stick.  It's just that, as a Reading Recovery trained educator, I've been forever spoiled to the idea of isolated knowledge that doesn't connect to much. I've seen some children in the school setting who lack early literacy experiences and really have a hard time understanding what letters mean, therefore learning their labels means little to them.  So when it came time to teach my own young children about the role of letters in understanding the world, I knew I wanted more contextualized practice for them. Naming the letters is great!  Knowing what to do with them is even better.  Here, I'll share a list of 20 things parents and teachers can do to make letter learning practical and memorable.  This list is not exhaustive, but hopefully it is helpful.

[*Disclaimer:  In my humble opinion, "My Big, Fat Greek Wedding" was full of stereotypes and problematic in some important ways.  That one scene, however, stuck out at me as a truly funny one, as every family has a catch-all remedy story like that one...]

20 Meaningful Ways to Teach Letters

  • Create a word wall with names of people the child knows, including self.  Add environmental print images as their knowledge increases
  • I spy something that starts with the first letter...
  • Label things around the space with a word that highlights the first letter. Use card stock or craft store foam with a hot glue gun to attach a magnetic first letter and write the rest of word in bold marker.
  • Magazine hunt--choose a letter to focus on.  Go through children's or grown-up magazines searching for items that begin with that letter
  • Choose a child's favorite song and sing the first word of the first line.  Identify which letter/sound that line starts with
  • Find short words to say slowly and spell aloud
  • Grocery store or environmental print quiz: "Quick: Which letter is this? Capital or lowercase?"
  • Study the formation of a certain letter.  Give the child and pretzel and ask him or her to bite the shape of the letter from that pretzel.
  • Ask your child to help you write small words in your grocery list, saying the sounds slowly.  Better yet, choose one real-life writing task a day and have them "help" you, no matter what level of help they can really give, where they can help hold your hand while you say out loud the sounds and letters of words you want to write.  Their age will determine how much real help they give, of course...but there is lots of modeling and learning going on.
  • When they ask what's for lunch or dinner, tell them the first letter of the dish and make them guess.  As they gain proficiency with this, have them give the clues.
  • Attach adhesive white board or chalk board surface to a wall and give the little ones practice making the formation of letters in big motor movements. 
  • Use sidewalk chalk outside and make large letters that your child can trace by walking over them, in the correct formation.
  • Read lots of ABC books (there are so many cool ones out, like the ones below!)

  • Invest in an alphabet rug.  During different times and activities, ask your kids to sit on a particular letter, makes a certain sound or starts someone's name.
  • Get an old school toy from Leap Frog or a similar toy--almost any will do! Some of my favorites: 
    • Leap Frog Alphabet Pal (can review names, sounds, or songs that begin with the first letter); Word Whammer (lets students spell short words); Tiggly Words (interactive letter and word practice); Light & Sound Phonics (practices sounds, word spelling, letter names, etc., in English & Spanish.)
  • Make your own alphabet soup (did you know they make alphabet pasta?) or buy the canned version.
  • Listen to a CD like this, where each verse/song begins with a letter of the alphabet.  You can learn the songs first, then ask your child which letter the song title starts with.  As they get more sophisticated and start to request certain songs, you can have them help you determine where to fast forward or rewind to based on what letter you're currently on. 
  • Buy some alphabet rubber stamps, and have fun creating short words with your child or finding letters to stamp them as fast as possible on the page.
  • Create letters out of Play-Doh, or use finger paint or another medium to create letter shapes.
  • When reading aloud to your child, ask them to predict certain elements of the story, then to predict how a word they gave you would start.

This list, again, is not exhaustive.  But these kinds of learnings strongly solidify the meaning of letters and their role in spoken/written communication for our little learners.  The more anchors for learning we give to our brains, the better.  Anchors aweigh!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The other day while purging old documents, I came across a list I had written in a PD meeting.    I am typing the list below.

Some Influences on Vulnerable Readers

  • interactions with text at home and in community
  • interactions with school and teachers
  • parent attitudes/habits regarding reading
  • racial identity and history
  • socio-economic reality
  • class identity
  • prior performance in school
  • pop culture
  • relationships to stronger readers
  • labels received/embraced regarding self as a reader
  • social policies (welfare, etc.)
  • education policies (No Child Left Behind, etc.)
  • general self-image
  • access to role models who are strong readers
  • access to technology
  • access to reading materials
  • class size
I think the presenter had asked us to come up with our own list of factors we thought affected vulnerable readers, and all of these are influences.  But I'm blogging about these today as a reminder of the influence that we as educators have on our students' experiences.  I thought it a great opportunity to put before literacy educators this question:  of the influences listed above, which ones do you see that you could directly impact in your students' lives?  In which areas can you activate your power in order to help shift some struggling reader's identity, starting now?