Teaching Identification Unknown Letters.
One reason some students have difficulty learning letters is because they do not know how to look at the distinctive features that make up a letter (Ehri, 1994). Therefore, when teaching unknown letters student’s need more than just seeing them printed on a card with the teacher saying, “This is “d.” What is it?” Clay (1995) says that seeing letters in print is an important part of letter learning, but she prefers instruction that incorporates Three Ways of Remembering unknown letters. (Note these three areas should also be used to help children learn unknown words.)
• Seeing letters in print (Printing the letter on a card)
• Talking about what the letter looks like (As the letter is written on a board or a white board, the teacher names the letter and talks about its salient features.
For example, the letter “t” is ‘straight line down, put on its hat.)
• Learning the unknown letters using movement. Writing the unknown letters in various ways saying the letter name, stroking pattern, or sound as it is written.
In fact, over learning and massed practice is necessary for a student to master unknown information. Therefore, asking students to do the following will aid learning: 1. Write the unknown letter once saying its name,
2. Write it again saying the stroking pattern (e.g. manuscript “a” is “circle starting at the top, line down touching circle.)
3. Write the letter again saying the sound that goes with the letter.
Teaching Identification of Unknown Sounds of Letters
Most schools use some sort of program to teach letter/sound identification. But, in order for this learning to transfer to reading and writing Bransford (1999) states that teaching must meet the following criteria:
1. Teaching must occur in multiple contexts.
2. The new learning should be presented through “what if” problem solving.
3. The new learning should be presented in a way that it requires children to invent solutions to a broad class of problems rather than simply to attempt to solve a single problem.
Teachers should ask themselves, is my letter/sound identification program meeting all these criteria. For example, Word Their Way (Bear, et. al., 2008) teaches letter/sound identification in a systematized way that meets criteria #2 beautifully. The sorting activities in this program require students to solve the problem of matching a letter/sound relationship in the correct category.
But, this knowledge must be presented in other contexts, and students need to view letter/sound identification as a way to solve a broad class of problems. This can be accomplished by teachers stressing letter/sound identification in all components of balanced literacy. For example, before a small group lesson with student reading Levels
C or D, a teacher could say, “We are going to read a story about a family who goes to the beach. I’m going to write a letter or some letters on this white board, and you tell me
something that you would find or do at the beach that begins with that letter.” Teacher writes the letter “w” on the white board. Students say the letter, its sound then predict the word that goes with the letter would be “water.” Teacher asks them to explain how they came up with that answer. After congratulating the student on his good thinking, she moves on by writing another letter (s) or (sp) on the white board.
Notice how the activity suggested above meets Bransford’s criteria. First, it takes the letter/sound learning from the phonics program being used into a new context. Second, the activity is presented in a problem-solving format. Finally, students are learning that attaching a sound to a letter is not done for letter sound matching only. They learn that learning letter sound relationships will help them to read a tricky word if they think about what is going on in the story. Notice how