How to Teach Letter Sounds to Young Children

letter beads

Written by Cybil Holmes

Learning letters and letter sounds is an essential step for preschoolers and kindergartners as they begin their journey as young readers and writers.   This article will give you some ideas for how to teach letter sounds and letters to your children to help them build a strong foundation in early literacy skills.

To begin teaching letter sounds, start by introducing the letters. Talk about how letters have sounds, and letters have names.  I show animals such as cows, cats, pigs, etc, and we practice answering the question: Name? Cow! Sound? Moo!   I feel like this gets them in the mind frame for realizing that each letter has a sound and name and they are not the same. Again, I have found a lot of research that says kids are much more able to hold onto sound of letters if they also know the name.

I usually present 3 letters in a 4 day week. I do it at the end of the day, with a little build up such as “Ooooh, I have a new letter to show you. It is so exciting!…”etc. I show them the letter, and then show them what it is made of (I use handwriting without tears wording) For example, a B is one big line, and two small curves. A C is one large curve. A T is one big line and one small line. I draw the letter as I tell them the parts. I have them draw the letter in the air. I tell them the sound for the letter and show them the sign for it (I use the jolly phonics signs, but you can be creative and make up any movement to go along with each letter sound). We find it on the alphabet poster and I circle it with a dry erase marker. I add it to the letter chant.

The letter chant looks like this:




Etc. When you do the chant, you say name name, sound sound sound.  Always do the sign for the sound portion. I always keep the pointer and the chant in an accessible area, and I make a copy to put in house keeping so that they can teach the baby dolls.

So after I introduce the letter, I usually give them there own letter to take home. This can be done with a die cut (one year I got crazy and die cut, laminated and put a magnet on them…the kids LOVED them, but it was a lot of work) It can just be a 3 by 5 card with the letter written on it…but they seem to really like the cut out ones. I also put one at a time a large set of magnetic letters at the top of the board.

The next day (I use my entire morning ‘calendar’ time to teach letters, sounds and phonemic awareness. We work on patterns and math at other times of the day.)  The first thing I do is write with chalk the letter that they learned the day before on the sidewalks leading up to the school or classroom. I write it 20 or 30 times, very large…if you can, write it where they will step on it on the way to recess. Next, by their nametags, I put a letter mat on the ground with the letter they just learned (I usually have the most recent three letters they have learned, until I start looping and doing intervention…more on that later.)

We sing a welcome song, and then immediately review the letters we have learned. The first day, it is just one letter, say…the letter P. We find it on the alphabet poster…I say “Ooooh, a picture of a pig. Remember the sound for P is ‘p’, let’s see if pig starts with p. Let’s bounce pig: p-p-pig. Oooh, it does start with ‘p’!”  Well, we are going to sing the alphabet song and I can’t wait til we get to P!     I play a CD and we sing through the alphabet and I point to every single letter as we go. During this time, it is a good time to pre-introduce the letter that you will be teaching that afternoon. I do it like it is a secret and I sort of don’t want them to know. They love this!

I post the letters we have learned on large sheets of paper on the door we line up at. Before we go anywhere, I have them say the letters.

Then we do the alphabet chant. At the beginning of the year, that is it…I don’t start playing the games until I have introduced 12 or so letters.

Letter Games

Who has the A?  Pass out large magnetic letters. This game is typically not done until all letters are introduced. Give two or three letters to each child…according to their need or goal (if it is a child who has special needs, they might do best with the first letter of their name. If you already are doing interventions, give those children their goal letters) Have all of the letters written on the white board or magnetic chalkboard or filing cabinet IN the Same Size as the magnets!!! (or else it doesn’t work right!)  Start at the beginning and point at the written A and sing together “A A who has the A, who has the A today?” The person with the A will quickly come to the board and stick the A on the written A. Have the kids put their letters on the floor in front of themselves. They will end up helping each other and looking around to see who has the next letter. Go all the way through to Z, and if they start getting restless encourage them to go faster (and you can shorten the song to just ‘BB who has the B?’

Secret letter: I laminated an 8 by 11 sheet of red construction paper with a large black question mark on it. I tell them that they are going to guess my mystery letter behind the paper. I very obviously choose a letter and move it down on the board and cover it with the red paper. They have actually seen me do it, so it isn’t a mystery at all, but they love to think it is. The good thing about this game, is the ones who know the letter say it, and then the others know what it is. I ask them what they think the letter is and when they guess (I have never had them guess wrong!! If they do, correct them right away and then do this letter again in the game) I make a big show of revealing the letter and saying the letters name several times “You said that was a B? That is a B!”

Quiet/Loud: This is an alphabet poster game. Once all letters are introduced, I point to each letter in the alphabet and we say the first one loud and the second one quietly and so on. I don’t know why, but they love this game!

Jumping Beans: use only the letters you have introduced.  Write each letter on a green bean shaped piece of paper.  Draw some “jumping bean man” cartoons on 3 or 4 of the beans.  Show the beans one at a time and when the jumping bean man comes up, the kids have fun jumping up and down until you show the next letter.

Tracking data:

After two or three weeks, assess the letters and sounds you have taught. If after learning 6 letters and sounds, a child knows at least half…they might be on track. Check the missing sounds and letters in a week to see if they have gained them with the extra repetition. If a child knows none, or only one or two, this might be a sign of a problem. Watch them during instructional time. See if they are paying attention or not. Some students need to learn in smaller groups, some need to be taught one-on-one.

After about a month, if a student is deemed to be making inadequate progress they are pulled by an assistant during morning circle time. (my goal at the end of the year is 26 upper and lower case letters, 26 main sounds and several blends. This informs the pace at which I teach letters. Knowing 12 by Christmas break is typically not enough to reach this goal. I expect most students to know about 20 by break, and the rest of the year is reinforcing, and using the letters and sounds to begin blending (applying their knowledge!)

Pull out groups…make it fun, and rewarding. Use stickers or treats…most kids will want to be in the special group, they don’t realize it is remedial. Also, this requires stellar classroom management, because it leaves you with about 12 kids at circle time!! With no aide. Sooooo this may not work for some classes, or you might have to do the intervention groups during another time in the schedule.

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