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Teaching the Alphabet: Tailoring Instruction

One of my favorite things about being a learning specialist and educational therapist is creating a unique approach for each of my students.  Each learner comes with a one-of-a-kind set of strengths and weakness, as well as likes and dislikes.  Therefore, with the help of my students, I'm continually fashioning new instructional approaches and materials.  But meeting the needs of my students is just half my professional pie, as I also strive to assist and guide colleagues and parents in solving onerous, remedial needs.

Cracking Difficult Student Cases:
I often get emails from my followers asking for my advice about how to meet the needs of students that are challenging to remediate.  I recently received an email from a reading specialist asking me to help with a tricky case.  As my response could benefit others too, I decided to share my ideas in this week's blog!

Teaching Peter the Letters:
Peter is four years and eleven months and is presently in preschool (student name changed for anonymity)

Here is a quick summary of Peter's case from the perspective of his reading specialist  

"Peter is very willing to learn, and he has a good attitude...  He has almost no recall of letter naming and sounds.  I would present a multi-sensory activity where I would have him repeat the letter that I said while pointing to it on the magnet board.  Then I would have him pick out the letter from the letter cards on the floor.  When I asked him after he found it, to tell me the name of the letter, he would have already forgotten it.   His mom has been reviewing the letters A through F everyday at home, and he still does not remember them.  He only knows the alphabet in the song.  Peter cannot name the letters when out of order with accuracy.  He is not able to write the alphabet nor name the letters of the alphabet when being shown the letter.  I would say that he does have some letters memorized, yet I have not recorded which ones other than “r.”  The list is small...  He seems to have a weak visual memory and working memory...  I believe that he would benefit from the tactile/kinesthetic approach given that he is an athletic boy who has excellent control of his hand/eye coordination."

Here is a quick summary from Peter's mother:

"Peter is a lover of sports, primarily golf.  He currently takes private golf lessons and is unbelievable. He does not like to play contact sports, but enjoys watching them.  Peter also loves cars, the faster, the better.  He has 2 go-karts and has been driving them for 1 year.  He LOVES his friends and is a great playmate.  He also enjoys Wii and Legos. He can trace letters, but can not write them freely. He has been practicing writing his name for quite some time. We work on 7 letters at a time. (A-G). He does enjoy coloring... He has never been tested and to my knowledge, does not have attention difficulties.  He is so good behaviorally in school for the fear he will get in trouble. He does NOT like to be yelled at at all!!! Now, if he is paying attention, not sure.  He is a very sensitive child on all levels.  Peter is very gifted athletically and has a lot of self confidence in sports; however, his confidence in school this year seems to be plummeting; which worries me greatly!" 

Suggestions for Peter:
As Peter is very sensitive and his confidence in school is suffering, it will be important to bring the fun factor into learning.  I purposely asked for information about what Peter loves to do, and believe that integrating this into his lessons will help him find joy in the learning process, and it will motivate him to master his letters. Also, getting excited about these strategies and making a big deal about his accomplishments is key!


 Here are my recommendations:
  • Begin with one letter at a time.  The reading specialist can introduce the letter and Peter can

    work with that letter for the whole week.  If this method is too slow, he can do two letters a week, but work on them separately.  One letter for 3 days, the other letter for 3 days and then both letters for the final day.  
  • Use the App Touch and Write to help Peter have fun forming the letters.  
  • Create a "alphabet golf game." Once Peter has learned a few of the letters.  Scatter the letters on a carpet.  When you say a letter, Peter must hit the golf ball to that letter.  As another option, multiple players may have to spell out a word such as "cat," by hitting each letter with the golf ball in sequence while calling out the letters.  The player to do this in the fewest number of tries is the winner.  Since, Peter "loves his friends and is a great playmate," this could be a great game for him when he has a playdate. 
  • Create activities for Peter to complete for each letter. Generate fun names for the activities to enhance motivation.
Here are 13 suggestions:  

  1. Create a colorful collage of the letter by asking Peter to tear out that letter from magazines.  
  2. Let Peter do a coloring activity for this letter.  Mr. Printables offers alphabet coloring pages at no cost.  
  3. Ask Peter to create both the capital and lowercase letter out of legos. 
  4. Outline a large copy of the letter or cut a letter out of black construction paper and ask Peter to turn the inside of the letter into a road by drawing white dashes (see image).  He can also add details around the letter when drawn on a large piece of paper, such as trees and houses.  Help Peter learn to form the letter properly by taking one of his toy cars and helping him learn how to properly trace the letter with his toy car.
  5. Let Peter come up with his own creative ways to make the letter by thinking of a word that starts with that letter and associating the image of that word with the letter.   For example, Peter could make the letter A look like an apple.  Allison McDonald from No Time for Flash Cards offers some great ideas.
  6. Let Peter make the letter out of cookie dough and bake cookies.  When eating the cookies, try to think of a word that begins with that letter.
  7. Help Peter use tape to draw the letter on a carpet and have Peter use a golf ball and a putter to trace the letter.  
  8. Create a printout of letters and ask Peter to circle only the letter that he is working on.  You can also use print materials such as magazines. Like a hidden picture, Peter may have to find all the letter Bs.  
  9. Help Peter take a picture of the letter in nature or around the house. To learn more about this as well as some other fun letter strategies, click here
  10. Take pictures of all of Peter's creative letter creations and make a scrap book.  You can also
    take pictures and create a photo book in IPhoto or sites like SnapFish.  
  11. Create a song or rhyme for each letter.  YouTube offers a number of options.  Here is one about the letter B.  
  12. Create your own tongue twisters for each of the letters.  For example, Billy Butler Bought Buttery Biscuits.
  13. Once Peter has learned a few letters.  Place them on a balloon.  Toss the balloon to Peter and ask him the name of the first letter he sees.  Once he has mastered this, ask him to make the letter sound.  Another options is to ask Peter to think of a word that begins with that letter or ask him to act out a word that begins with that sound.
Cognitive Tools for Peter:
Because Peter's working memory and visual memory appear to be areas of deficit, it is also important for him to build these skills through cognitive remedial games.  I have two publications in mind.
  • Reversing Reversals Primary - This publication develops visual memory, visual reasoning, spatial skills, auditory and visual memory, sequential memory, visual discrimination, tracking, attention to detail and more.  It is ideal for learners that exhibit confusion with letters and numbers.  Better yet, the game-like activities use animal characters, so the students won't even realize that they are developing the foundation skills behind reading and math.
  • Working Memory, Hemisphere Integration, Sequencing and Attention Building Activities: Beginners - This publication helps to develop working memory, hemisphere integration, sequential processing and sustained attention.  Peter should try these activities after he has been working with Reversing Reversals Primary for some time and he has learned the letters and his numbers up to 20.
I hope you found this blog helpful.  If you have some other ideas for Peter, please share them!
Dr. Erica Warren is the author, illustrator and publisher of multisensory educational materials at Good Sensory Learning and Dyslexia Materials.  She is also the director of Learning to Learn, in Ossining, NY.  To learn more about her products and services, you can go to www.goodsensorylearning.comwww.dyslexiamaterials.com & www.learningtolearn.biz  

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