Intervention. We all use this word and hear it on a daily basis. As teachers, when we hear "intervention resources" our ears perk up a little. That's because we all stay up at night thinking about those students who struggle to master certain concepts or skills. I'm obviously a believer in intervention. I've seen what can happen when a student receives good intervention that works. It's amazing to watch a child reach their goals and make real progress.
I used to think learning the alphabet was simple and basic. How hard could it be to learn the letters, right? WRONG! Many children pick it up so naturally. They are exposed to letters and literature, told what the symbol represents, and they remember it. Still, there are many that need explicit interaction and significantly more repetition to learn the letters and sounds. I've broken down the process of learning the alphabet. I watch my students and my own kids go through these steps at different rates. That's the important thing to note here. Every child goes through these steps, but some race through and others struggle through slowly.
The Process for Mastering Letters and Sounds
Step 1: Introduce the letter.
When teaching the alphabet, we want to think about how to help our students really learn these letters and sounds. We don't just want them to know how to sing the alphabet song. First, we introduce the letter. We show them the grapheme (visual representation) and tell them the name and sound associated.
There is debate about the order of when to introduce each letter as well as upper case or letter case first, and sound or name first. I have no research to back me up- just my own experience. I teach upper and lower case together. I don't believe there is a sequence that necessarily works better than another. However, it is SO important that DO have a sequence, planned out ahead of time.
Some basic tips for introducing letters (things that have worked for me):
- Try to introduce letters in a way that doesn't have too many of the same looking letters together (so b and d are not learned at the same time.)
- Be systematic and explicit about how and when I teach them. Get a sequence that works for you and stick with it. It's always good to have them learn the letters in their name first, but in a small group, I use a pre-deterined sequence.
- Introduce the letters in tiny groups, not necessarily one at a time. I introduce 4 at a time, upper and lower case. (But in the very beginning with my most intensive intervention groups, I may pull back and just start with 2.) We do several activities with these letters, then I introduce another set.
- Always review the previously learned letters. Every. single. day. Once I start a new set of letters, I begin the day reviewing the previously learned letters. I mix them into activities as well. There are two reasons for this: (1) It gives them confidence to see those letters they know. (2) Your intensive intervention groups are likely to forget things they've learned recently. (3) We want them to increase automaticity with their letter identification.
Step 2: Once kids are introduced to a letter and have practiced a bit, they begin to recognize letters when mixed with other letters. They may or may not remember the name and sound yet, but they can point it out as one they know. After that, they may be able to point to the correct letter when the teacher asks them to find an A (when mixed with other letters.)
Recognize a letter among other letters takes both memory and visual discrimination. Visual discrimination is the ability to identify differences in any visual image. In this case, we need students to see the differences between each letter. Many of these differences are so minor. At first, the letters of the alphabet look like random squiggles, curves, and lines. Kids must first identify the random shapes that make up a letter and the placement of these lines and curves (p, b, and d all have the same shapes but in different places.) Then they have to remember this imprint in their minds AND remember the name and sound that matches that imprint. When students struggle to recognize letters, we need to determine if it is a memory issue (in my experience this is most common) or a visual discrimination issue.
Step 3: Retrieve the letter and sound.
After kids can recognize the letter, we want them to retrieve it from their memory. This is slightly harder because they have make their own visual picture of the letter shape in their minds and remember the letter sound and name.
Being able to point to A when the teacher says A is one thing (still difficult for many.) But have you ever had a student say, "Hey, we've learned that letter!"or "That is Valerie's letter." Often they may recognize it but not remember the name or sound.
Being able to recognize AND retrieve letters and sounds takes time. Your intervention students need a lot of opportunities to see, hear, feel, match, and sort these letters. It will take patience on your part because you may feel like you have provided plenty. Remember, we want to make a permanent imprint in their brains of that letter so repetition and multi-sensory instruction is key!
Step 4: Fluently write the letters
Finally, we want our students to be able to write the letters, forming the shapes correctly. This can also be broken down into two levels:
- Students can look at a letter and form it correctly. This requires fine motor skills as well as a knowledge of how to form the letters correctly. Keep in mind that many kids will develop their own way of making letters so they may have bad habits to break.
- Students can write the letter from memory. This takes retrieval as well as fine motor skills. They have to remember what that letter looks like, think about how to form it correctly, and have the fine motor skills to follow through.
Over the years, I've slowly added to my alphabet "toolbox." I put together some resources that I use with my students. This is the first set of activities that I will be posting on TPT. The next set will be printable activities and games. These are mainly visual aides.
The following activities can be used with any student learning their alphabet, but they are designed for your students who are struggling to master these letters and their corresponding sounds.
Having a visual picture to go along with graphemes really helps your students remember them! All of the visuals are the same throughout this pack. This helps with retrieval and recognition.
These are resources for your students to use when they haven't quite reached the retrieval phase yet.
I use these picture cards to help students master the sound/symbol correspondence. With these and the grapheme cards, you could do sorting activities and play Memory. More ideas of how to use these are included. Here are a few ideas below:
This is perhaps the most important, although seemingly basic. A scope and sequence. You may already be bound to a scope and sequence at your school. If you do already have a sequence you have to follow, I encourage you to create a program similar to this to keep you on track with your RTI. It's simple really. I divided the alphabet into 6 groups. I gave each group a color. I introduce group one first, using all the resources I've mentioned. I hit it hard with this one group. I communicate with parents that these are the letters I want them to practice at home. We do several activities with these letters, giving them opportunities to feel, see, write, match, and sort. I keep track of their progress with remembering. They need to retrieve each letter (upper and lowercase) three times before moving on to set 2. They color a crayon in their crayon box (pictured above) to show they have mastered these letters. Then I introduce set 2 and send home set 2 to practice. I review set 1 at the beginning of every group to make sure it sticks. I work with ONLY the letters in set 1 and 2 when planning activities. LOTS of repetition. Once they master set 2, they move on set 3 and so on. This doesn't mean that they won't be exposed to the other letters. They will be exposed in their regular ed classroom plenty! They will be exposed when writing. They will be exposed through learning each other names. They will be still learn other letters that you have not focused on yet. The goal here is set up a sequential, systematic, and explicit program during your small group intervention time to assure that they get plenty of practice and opportunities to master every letter.
One more thing, we I'm introducing each set, I'm also working hard on phonemic awareness. You can read more about that here and here. Once they have good phonemic awareness skills, I will integrate sounding out words with the letters we've learned so far. For example, if they know t, s, m, a, p, and b, they can practice reading and spelling tap, pat, sat, sap, pam, map, mat, bat, tab, bam. I begin with sounding out word parts though: at, am, ap, and ab first though. More about that later though!
I love using these cards when I introduce a letter. I slowly add the letters to the ring. Each student has their own ring. These have tiny letters, showing them where to start tracing. I keep these out when we are doing our handwriting too. I have them trace the letter card before writing, which reminds them how to form them correctly. These help with correct letter formation. Also, it provides that multi-sensory practice of tracing the letters.
These will help with writing, specifically forming the letter correctly and improving fine motor skills. Before they are able to do it on their own, they may need a lot of practice tracing.
One of my favorite resources. I use this daily with students. We use it to learn how to write new letters as well as review other letters. I'll introduce a letter as a groundhog letter that goes underground, a shorter letter that is the same size as squirrel, and a tall letter like a deer. This visual has really helped my students with letter formation using lines.
You can download this handwriting mat for FREE here.
I also use this activity daily. I use the letters that I've introduced so far. I call out a name or sound. My students pull down the grapheme that represents that sound. This is good for practicing letter recognition. Students also like to take turns calling out the letter names and sounds for their classmates to find. That way, they are practicing retrieval. At the end, each student points to the letters and says their sounds. Once I am confident that the group has mastered a certain letter, I "retire" that letter and put in a new one. (I never retire vowels though.) When I start this activity, I just start with four letters. In the picture above, students had been working on b, s, m, t and a for a while. Then I introduced p, r, f, and c. After that, I introduced h and n. In order to add in another letter, I need to retire some letters. My students are now all solid with s, b, and m, so I will probably put those aside and add in one new one at a time.
I also practice blending sounds with this. In the picture above, the students have learned only the letters shown. That is plenty of letters to make words with though! I start with two-phoneme words or word parts. I explain that "ap" is a part of a word like cap, map, and tap. We practice sounding out these words and word parts (blending sounds) and we practice building the words and word parts (segmenting. ) For example, I'll say "Pull down the letters that make ap." We'll stretch that word part with our invisible slinkies, then finger spell the word. Finally, they grab the letters that make those sounds.
If you are lucky enough to have parent involvement, that can make a big difference. This is packed with ideas for parents. You could put it all together for a little take-home kit!
You can get all of these activities HERE.