As a teacher, a homeschool tutor, or even a parent, the first and maybe most crucial task you’ll have regarding your child’s education is to teach them how to read. After all, this skill is the foundation most of the child’s future learning will be based upon. So, what are the best ways to teach letters and sounds?
To help you understand why and how the below-mentioned activities will help children learn letters and sounds faster and more efficiently, we decided to turn this article into a comprehensive everything-you’ll-need-to-know guide.
Keep reading to learn more about some of the recent findings on phonics and other teaching methods, what we’ve learned so far, how to implement those findings into practice, and some tips for struggling students.
Understanding Phonics and Whole Language
If you go a little deeper into the topic of teaching children to read, you’ll certainly come across two methods: phonics and whole language.
Phonics is a teaching method through which children learn about the relationship between the sounds of spoken language and the letters or syllables of written language (Alphabetic principle/code).
This method was popularized as far back as the 1570s by John Hart who argued that there’s a better way to teach phonetics than simply reciting the letters of each word.
Since then, professionals in this field have done a lot of research with the sole purpose of trying to understand what’s the best way to study and understand the relationship between letters and sounds.
While phonics is arguably the most popular method, in the 18th century, the whole language method gained popularity and became a major model for education in a lot of countries throughout the world. Although, the research on its effectiveness is tinner than that of phonics.
Balanced literacy is yet another teaching-to-read method that was born in the 90s as an attempt to bridge the phonics and whole language methods.
But, what have these methods taught us about how to teach letters and sounds to kids?
According to the advocates of phonics, skilled reading requires instruction i.e phonics. They recommend that children in grades K-2 should have 20–30 minutes of daily phonics instruction.
This can be done in several ways:
- teaching individual sounds (letter-sound) and their corresponding letters (letter-name) in the context of words;
- teaching the sounds of groups of letters, consonant blends, or syllables;
- teaching through reading, playing, listening, and any other activities in which the kid makes connections between the sounds and the letters/words.
On the other hand, proponents of the whole language method argue that learning to read comes naturally to children, just like learning to speak. They instruct children to use context cues to guess the meaning of the word.
Harsh critics of the popular whole language method bring attention to the fact that a lot of fourth-graders in the USA are poor readers because, according to Thomas B. from Fordham Foundation, “nobody taught them to read when they were five and six years old.”.
Today, most people believe in the phonics method. Although you can find contradicting arguments on the internet, following the scientific consensus, we decided to share 9 best ways to teach letters and sounds that more or less follow the phonic principals.
9 Best Ways to Teach Letters and Sounds
There are numerous ways in which you can teach letters and sounds, but here are our favorite approaches with specific activities included.
Engage All Senses
One of the best ways to teach children how to recognize letters and, later, words, is to implement activities in which they’ll use all of their senses. This is because our senses impact how we perceive information, and research after research has proved that multisensory information (combining sight, hearing, touch) enhances memory and creates more vivid memories.
How to implement this in the classroom?
Use letter cards that are designed in a way that children can touch the letters while they hear the pronunciation. A good example would be a letter embroidered on paper.
You can divide the class into small groups and give them a stack of ABC touch-and-feel cards for them to inspect, while you introduce the characteristics of the letter and focus on explaining the sound in different contexts.
While most touch-and-feel books or cards are designed for children at the age of 2-5 years old, you can easily create a personal stack of ABC cards that are more suited for first graders who are just learning to read and write.
Use a Variety of Tools
You can take things a little bit further than the ABC touch-and-feel cards and ask children to create the letters using a variety of different tools. This activity also takes into account the multisensory information principle, but it also teaches children the fine motor skills needed for writing the letters.
How would this take place in a classroom or a homeschool environment?
In the classroom, you can bring students colorful modeling materials, like this Colorful Modeling Clay for Kids on Amazon, and ask them to recreate the letters they’ve learned that week. After that, they can make the letters of their names, or some other word using a specific letter.
In a homeschool environment, you can easily implement modeling clay, too. But, you can also make letter-shaped cookies with the child while teaching the sounds and uses of those letters in different words.
Modeling clay and cooking food are just two activities that should serve as an inspiration and show that almost anything can be a tool when teaching letters and sounds. Don’t limit yourself to a pen and a piece of paper. Children will have fun and they’ll use all of their senses, which means they’ll learn much faster and more effectively.
Incorporate Art Projects
Did you know that art has the ability to improve a student’s memory and concentration skills? Plus, since art is about creativity and personal expression, children can feel more confident in their learning skills. There are no mistakes when it comes to art.
How to use art projects to teach letters and sounds?
This activity can be as simple as drawing or painting the letters, drawing objects and their names, or as complicated as abstractly painting what the letter sounds feel like.
We suggest sticking to the basics with the youngest learners (2-4 years of age). You can show them the letter, try to get them to pronounce it, and give them color pencils asking them to try and draw what they see.
Pre-schoolers and first graders can paint words and draw little objects around them, or simply paint how they imagine the sounds in their heads and what they associate that sound/letter with.
Play With Puzzles
Puzzles are an extremely valuable tool for children’s cognitive development. They help kids grasp the concept of a “whole” constructed of smaller unique pieces, just like letters make words and words make sentences. Plus, they help children develop basic skills such as shape recognition, visual special awareness, patience, and a sense of achievement. But most importantly, they are fun and spark children’s curiosity which drives the learning process.
When it comes to teaching alphabet sounds, here are some spelling puzzles for three and four-letter words.
How to use them in a classroom?
Simply, divide children into small groups and give each group a puzzle to solve. Encourage cooperativeness and talking about “how you know this piece fist here” with the other members of the group. This will also help kids who have a hard time learning letters and sounds, as they’ll become aware of the mental process behind the solution.
Teach With Interactive Worksheets
Using worksheets to teach about letters and sounds is a great idea for a number of reasons. First, worksheets help kids explore multiple concepts and ideas. In this context, worksheets can help children explore the different pronunciations of letters in words and the rules behind.
Second, worksheets are effective but subtle. They encourage learning without kids’ feeling like the process is a chore.
If you visit our website, you’ll see that we offer a number of different worksheet bundles for reading and spelling which can the perfect tool for teaching letters and sounds.
Take Learning Outside of the Classroom
The activities you can line up to teach letters and sounds can stretch way beyond the classroom. This can come as a nice refreshment for the children and something they’ll certainly enjoy. A class outside the school walls is always remembered.
How to organize this?
All you’ll need is color chalk and a little bit of imagination. For example, give children different color chalk and ask them to write the first letter of their name in a certain area on the ground. After this, ask them to count how many “M” do they see, or any other letter. This will teach them to differentiate the basic structure of the letter when faced with different types of handwriting. You can discuss why some letters are recognized and counted as “M” while others are not.
You can also play “spray it and say it” where the kids have to pronounce the letter before they can erase it with water (if they’re right).
Organize Classroom Games
There’s nothing else that can captivate children and fully take advantage of their potential like educational games. They’re fun, motivating, and encourage passive learning. All of this can truly make a difference for many students that might find it hard to memorize letters and sounds through classic repetition teaching methods.
Which phonics games can you implement in your classroom?
There are quite a few, actually, but here are our favorites.
“I Spy” is a famous game for teaching English vocabulary, but it can easily be adapted for teaching letters and sounds. It works by instructing children to say ‘I spy with my little eye the letter…” (and show a card with a specific letter), while the others have to say out loud how that letter is pronounced. This game can take many variations depending on the specific skills you want to teach.
“Bingo” is another great game for teaching letters and sounds, as it’s incredibly versatile. Simply decide what you want to work on (consonants, vowels, syllables, etc) and place them in a grid. While you pronounce the letters, the students have to find them in the grid and mark them, until they get a bingo.
“What I want to say” is a partner game, where one student will think of a word and write part of it while leaving black space for the missing letters. The other students have to guess which letters are missing – pronounce and write them in the blank space.
While many schools have limited resources when it comes to technology, this teaching method fits perfectly in a homeschool environment. However, with a little bit of creativity, some of the activities can be adapted for a typical classroom.
Technology can transform the learning of phonemic awareness by allowing children to simultaneously hear and match sounds to letters and words.
For example, a relatively new creation is the touch-interactive technology that enables books to speak. According to The Journal, LeapFrog SchoolHouse used this approach and patented a NearTouch technology – a program that uses phonemic awareness as the foundation for teaching children how to read. They use this technology for their Literacy Center, where they created an interactive, multisensory curriculum for PreK-2 students. Children can touch images and hear sounds from any part of the books.
Use Children’s Books
Speaking about books, something that never goes out of style is reading books that are designed to encourage children’s reading and spelling skills.
Here are our favorite books for teaching letters and sounds, categorized by grade level.
- Phonics Bumper Book: Ages 3-5 (Collins Easy Learning Preschool)
- Phonics: Ages 4-5 (Collins Easy Learning Preschool)
- Phonics for Kindergarten, Grade K (Home Workbook)
- Learn to Read: Phonics Storybook: 25 Simple Stories & Activities for Beginner Readers
For first-grade children:
- Phonics for First Grade Workbook | Carson Dellosa
- School Zone – Reading Activities Workbook
- First Grade Phonics and Spelling (Highlights Learning Fun Workbooks)
- Sight Words and Spelling Workbook
- Phonics for 1St Grade: Children’s Reading & Writing Education Books
For second-grade children:
- Spectrum Paperback Phonics Workbook, Grade 2
- Grade 2 Phonics: Better Baby Speakers (Phonics Books)
- Hooked on Phonics Learn to Read – Second Grade: Level 2 (Ages 7-8)
- 180 Days of Reading: Grade 2
Tips for Teaching Kids With Speech Delay
Before we start, let’s get one thing out of the way. If you have concerns about your child’s development, please go see an SLP (speech-language pathologist). This section is only meant to help you as a teacher or a parent to encourage kids to understand and use words more easily (especially if the other activities are too challenging and frustrating), and it’s not meant to serve as therapy for children with disabilities.
Speech delay in otherwise a normally developing child can be due to a number of reasons, like teeth problems or lack of stimulation. Here are some tips and activities to encourage language development and understanding of letters and sounds.
- Eliminate all distractions.
Most of the time, children have a hard time learning because they can’t concentrate. This is not their fault, as concentration and focus are also skills that are developed with time. As a teacher or a parent, make sure that study time is special were no phones, TV, or other gadgets are allowed. Sometimes, when parents want to motivate the child they tell them they can play after they finish with educational activities are done. However, this is wrong as it will only make them think about the reward, instead of the task.
- Teach sign language.
Research has shown that including sign language into a child’s daily routine can encourage language development. Using sign language you’ll help children better understand letters and words, use more words, and compose longer sentences. Plus, the hand gesture can serve as a trigger to help children remember some letter names and sounds.
- Work on speech muscles.
Sometimes children have problems pronouncing some letters because their muscles are not strong enough to produce that sound. One simple activity to help children who have a hard time pronouncing some letters revolves around blowing a cotton ball with a straw. Simply, place a cotton ball on the table, give your child/student a straw, and tell them to move the cotton ball by blowing through the straw. This will help strengthen the oral muscles needed for speech production.
- Give children the time they need.
The problem can sometimes be where you least expect it. For example, some children might not speak because they’re shy or feel intimidated by the other children in the class. This is why you should always carefully follow the progress of each of the students and give more time for responding or provide a choice (the open-ended question is more difficult) when a student needs it. You can always give the answer and encourage the child to repeat after you.
- Praise efforts, not results.
Children should feel supported even if they don’t meet some language standards by the expected age. If you only praise results, once a child makes a mistake, they’ll feel bad or even scared to try again. This can very well be the reason for delays in speaking, reading, or writing. Make sure you make children feel like they’re in a safe environment where wrong answers are just as important as the right answers – that’s how we learn.
Before You Leave
Hopefully, you enjoyed our article on the best ways to teach letters and sounds. Although this is one of the most researched topics in education, we tried to briefly explain the two major teaching methods that most activities and school curriculums follow. As a teacher, a homeschool tutor, or a parent, you should try to understand these topics well before choosing the best course of action for your child.
Knowing that most teachers and parents stress if the child struggles to keep up with others in learning the letters and their corresponding sounds, we decided to also include tips and some activities to encourage speech and language development in kids.
If you need teaching resources to support you in implementing these activities, feel free to browse through our website. We offer high-quality and interactive worksheets that can help kids of all ages learn how to read and spell.
You can also find a lot more articles like this one on our blog and you can subscribe to our newsletter to make sure you don’t miss out on anything.