In my years of experience as a Dyslexia Therapist, one common denominator with most of the students referred to me for evaluation is basically a lack of understanding of the alphabet. Most people would argue that this problem is primarily for the “Littles”, (Pre-K through Kindergarten aged) but that’s not entirely true as many older students share the same difficulty in spelling and/or reading. It goes without saying, Dyslexia has no real age limits.
The English language is alphabetic and as such, the essential component of learning to read the language is understanding that each letter of the alphabet represents a sound. This is called the Alphabetic Principle.
The importance of understanding the alphabet is grossly underestimated. As a result, the teaching of the alphabet is abandoned way to early in the learning process. It is as though the sole purpose of learning the alphabet in Preschool grades is to sing the alphabet song. When that’s accomplished, the alphabet is pushed aside.
Our education system appears more focused on students just being able to read. While this is an important goal, the rudimentary steps to becoming a successful reader are being passed by too quickly or in some cases left out completely for the emerging reader.
In my expert opinion, Judith R. Birsh’s book, “Multi-Sensory Teaching of Basic Language Skills” offers the best rationale for the importance of teaching the Alphabetic Principle. This book was my “bible” when I studied Academic Language Therapy back in school. Birsh understands the value of letter recognition and its importance in spelling/reading development.
The Role of Letter Recognition and Naming within the Reading Process:
- Letters are the data that make reading possible and are visually processed by every reader.
- Beginner level readers who readily recognize individual letters soon develop and start recognizing orthographic patterns (familiar letter sequences) – an essential step to becoming a good reader.
- Knowing letter names provides a springboard for learning and remembering letter-sound relationships.
- The ease or difficulty with which a student acquires letter knowledge determines how easily and successfully a student will learn to read.
Knowing letter names provides the stable property to which other variable properties, such as sound and shape can be attached.
So, how can a teacher or home-school parent dig deeper into the aforementioned points?
Keep reading and find out!!
I have implemented this process with not just my dyslexic students, but also with non-dyslexic students as well and I believe you would achieve the same level of success if you do, too.
- Letters are the data that make reading possible and are visually processed by every reader.
Skillful readers visually process virtually every individual letter of every word as they read, and this is true whether they are reading isolated words or meaningful connected text (Adams, 1990b, p.18).
This process is not perceived on a conscience level, so as unbelievable as it mas sound, studies show that misprints of even very familiar words are detected by skillful readers. However, struggling readers who have difficulty recognizing individual letters are usually unable to identify letter sequences or letter patterns in words as well as a skillful reader dose almost naturally.
I begin each of my classes with multi-sensory alphabet activities. Simply using 3-D plastic letter and an alphabet arc.
Students name (aloud) and place each letter, in order, around the arc. This activates the tree important learning modalities – Auditory, Visual, & Kinesthetic. Each of these modalities is important in helping struggling students make connections with letter formations and the name. “Children who know letter names have a foundation for learning the alphabetic principle which struggling children do not know automatically.” (Birsh, p.87) Knowing the letter names gives students the ability to make a more successful connection to the sounds each letter makes, bringing them closer to understanding the Alphabetic Principle.
So, spend time on this skill. Repetition is key.
As the year progresses, we play alphabet games to reinforce letter names as well as alphabetical order:
- Guess the Letter: put plastic letters in a non-clear container. Students pick a letter with eyes closed. Using only their hands/fingers to feel the letter, they try to guess which letter it is. They keep the letters named correctly and incorrectly named letters go back into the container. The student with most letters at the end of the game is declared the “alphabet guru” for the day.
- Before & After: once students have named and placed their plastic letters on the alphabet arc, say a letter name aloud and ask a student to find that letter on the arc and name the letter before and after it. As they become more comfortable, play this game without the arc in front of them. Sometimes I provide an alphabet strip, but find that students want to try to answer with out looking. In such cases, set a time limit on giving an answer.
- Closer to A / Closer to Z (Two Players): put plastic letters in a non-clear container. Decide prior to starting whether you want the “winning” letters to be closer to A or Z. Two students choose one letter each from the container. The students have to decide who has the letter closest to either A or Z. Then they place the letters on their arc or alphabet strip. Repeat this process until all the letters have been chosen. This is a great thinking game and help students develop a better understanding of the organization of the alphabet.
2. Beginner level readers who readily recognize individual letters soon develop and start recognizing orthographic patterns (familiar letter sequences) – an essential step to becoming a good reader.
This is the point where my students have a strong grasp on recognizing letters in isolation and are now ready to start learning about letter patterns. I being by teaching the two basic syllable patterns: Closed and Open.
Introducing these two basic syllable patterns opens the door for teaching the short and long vowel sounds. Vowel sounds (a,e,i,o,u) are the most important sounds to know before word building begins. Having a grasp of the vowel sounds and being able to differentiate between hearing a short or a long vowel sound in a word or syllable will set students up for success in making connections with the application of these and other syllable patterns in spelling, reading and writing.
3. Knowing letter names provides a springboard for learning and remembering letter -sound relationships.
4. The ease or difficulty with which a student acquires letter knowledge reliably, predicts how easily and successfully a student will learn to read.
So, we know these points to be true. Repetition of the activities discussed in points 1 & 2 will set our students up for success in digging a bit deeper toward building a solid foundation for reading, spelling and writing.
5. Knowing letter names provides the stable property to which other variable properties, such as sound and shape can be attached.
At this point in laying a solid foundation in the Alphabetic Principle, I share with my students that every letter has a:
- Name (we know this now!!)
- Shape (we also know this!!)
But now we are going to learn that every letter has a
- Sound and a…
This introduction to a letter’s SOUND and FEEL opens the door to discovering word building skills, launching our students into the world of becoming successful readers!!
I purchased small mirrors for each of my students to view how their mouths make each sound of the alphabet.
When making VOWEL sounds, the mouth will be open (to varying degrees) while CONSONANT sounds will be blocked by the Tongue, Teeth, or Lips.
Another multi-sensory practice to show students in order to help them become aware of the use or non-use of the voice when making sounds is to have them place two fingers gently around the middle of their throat. Say a vowel sound aloud & have your students repeat the vowel sound while fingers are gently resting on their throats. They will feel a vibration because when making a VOWEL sound we use our voice, so our voices will be “on” when we make a vowel sound. VOWEL sounds are VOICED sounds.
CONSONANT sounds can be VOICED or UN-VOICED —> For example, the sound of ‘B’ uses the voice to project its sound; while the sound of ‘P’ uses air to make its sound. It can also be said that unvoiced sounds are “quiet” sounds.
Once these multi-sensory practices are understood, word building skills should begin in order to help students understand the importance of the application of the multi-sensory strategies. With automaticity of these strategies, student will process sounds more successfully in spelling, reading and when writing.
The Kindergarten, First, and Second grade teachers at my school began implementing a more purposeful & explicit phonetic multi-sensory teaching process in the areas of Alphabetic Principle and Word Building. In just three short years, we have seen a growth in letter knowledge & improved reading skills overall. Taking a purposeful & explicit approach to teaching the foundation steps for reading beginning in Kindergarten, allows us to see clearly, if you will, those students truly struggling with a learning difference, whether it be Dyslexia or another language-based learning difference.
Take a peek at the multi-sensory alphabet activities I use with my students to begin laying a solid foundation in the Alphabetic Principle:
Have a GREAT start to your school year equipping your students for success in spelling and reading!