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How To Teach Letter Sounds To Struggling Students

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There are plenty of ways to teach letter sounds to struggling students, no matter what their age or stage.

Not every student learns their letters straight away. Different people sometimes need a different approach or a different learning style. That’s no problem. I can show you plenty of different ways to learn letter sounds using lots of different learning styles so that your students will start to recognize and process the letter sounds and can begin to successfully read and write.

We are all individuals, and we don’t all have strengths in the same areas. Some students are more naturally drawn to music than others; some are naturally more physically able, and others are very visual and can hear something just once and remember it. The fact that we are all different makes for a more interesting world, but it also means that we need to work hard at meeting the needs of all our students.

Here is my guide to setting up your classroom so that all students have an equal chance to learn their letter sounds, no matter what their preferred style of learning is.

Whatever the letter sound or blend of letters you are working on, I like to spend time together with the children first, saying the sound aloud, drawing it in the air with our fingers and modeling how to write the shape of it, talking about the sound it makes and thinking of words that begin with it –  then set up as many of the areas below as you can and allow the children to choose their preferred area to practice writing and learning their letter sound.

If you haven’t got all the areas straight off, there’s no need to worry. Aim to build up and add new experiences each time you learn a new sound or blend. Don’t be afraid to add new experiences that aren’t mentioned here if you think they will help. I taught in this way for many years and had the best results I’ve ever had.

For creative learners

  • Set up a painting easel with a selection of colored paints, aprons, and different-sized brushes to practice painting the letter sound.
  • Provide a table with large colored paper, glitter, glue, chalk, felt pens, and crayons, and encourage the children to write and decorate their letter sounds. You could add decorations like sequins, stickers, or buttons if you have them.
  • Try using masking tape, scissors, and cardboard to create letters, or use wire pipe cleaners and bend them into the shape of your chosen letter. This is also a good chance to reuse junk materials to model with.

Creative children will naturally be drawn to these areas and activities and will be learning letter sounds without even realizing it.

Kinaesthetic learners

  • Set up a table with either play dough, salt dough, plastercine, modeling clay, or pastry so that the children that choose this area can mold the shape of their letter sound by rolling, squeezing, and shaping their dough into a letter sound.
  • If you have a sand tray, let the children mold the shape of their letter in the sand or draw the letter using their fingers. If you haven’t got a sand tray, it’s not a problem – you could also use a small tray filled with sand on an individual level.

Kinaesthetic learners learn best from hands-on experiences. Using their hands to mold and sculpt the letter sounds will help their brains to make the connection to the letter quicker than simply hearing it or writing it down.

Tactile learners

  • Fill a small tray with glitter and practice writing your letter sound in the glitter with your finger- this feels lovely, and if you give the tray a small shake, the letter will disappear like magic, and you can start all over again. If you haven’t got any glitter, no problem – you can try this idea with sugar, icing sugar, or salt instead.
  • Try printing large letters by dipping a toy car into a saucer of ready-mix paint and making car tracks on a large piece of paper in the shape of your letter sound.  You can repeat this idea with other printing tools too.
  • Slowly draw the shape of a letter on each other’s back with your finger and see if you can guess which letter it is.

Similar to kinaesthetic learners, tactile learners learn best when they can feel and experience something. Providing opportunities to feel letters will work best for them.

For more ideas, try the following:

Physical learners

  • Work together as a team to physically make the letter shapes with your bodies.
  • Run and jump to try to reach the letter sound tied on a high washing line.
  • Using skipping ropes and hoops, make your letter shape in a big space.
  • Dance and draw your letter sound in the air with a glitter ribbon stick.
  • For fine motor skills, form letters with pegs on peg boards.
  • Use building blocks like Stickle bricks, Duplo, Lego, or wooden blocks and physically build the letter shapes.

Physical learners are also similar to kinaesthetic learners and discover the world best when they are using their hands or bodies. Most children are natural physical learners, so these ideas will help them learn in a deeper and often quicker way.

Outdoor learners

  • Outdoors, try sculpting letters sounds with mud. Keep a bucket of water nearby to help with the texture.
  • Write letter sounds in the mud or in the sand pit with twigs or sticks.
  • Paint letter sounds on the wall with paint brushes and buckets of water.
  • Use leaves, twigs, and other natural materials to make transient letter art.
  • Willow weaving – Provide willow and string and weave it into letter shapes.

Biophilia is our natural human instinct to connect with nature, and for some children, this can be the key to learning. The natural world can have a very calming and soothing effect on all of us, but for children who have experienced trauma in their past or have had adverse childhood experiences, being able to learn in a sensory way in the outdoors can actually produce chemicals in the brain that calm, soothe and allow more learning to take place. If that sounds like magic – try it! It works.

Being outdoors feels less pressurized, and many children will have a longer attention span than they will ever have in a classroom.

If you don’t have an outdoor area or can’t access one every day, you can try adding as many natural resources into your indoor area as possible, as these can produce similar effects.

Visual learners

  • Provide foam or plastic letter shapes in a water tray and ask the children to fish to find the letter sound and collect it in a net.
  • Bury a selection of letter sounds in a sand tray or sand pit and dig to find the correct letter sound.
  • Provide a large template of the letter sound you want the children to learn, and ask them to copy and write over it as many times as they want to.
  • Play videos or YouTube clips of the letter sound being formed and ask them to copy them.
  • Provide old magazines/newspapers and ask the children to use a highlighter to find as many of the letter sound as they can. You can make this into a game by adding a timer and seeing who can find the most in one minute.
  • Take the children on a walk around the school or street and see how many times they can spot a specific letter sound.
  • Provide a selection of pens, pencils, papers, and a large roll of wallpaper and scribble and graffiti the letter sound all over it.
  • Mirror writing. Prop a mirror up on your table and try to write your letter by only looking in the mirror  – don’t cheat by looking down at your paper. See if you can write your letter correctly.

Visual learners prefer to look at things rather than absorb information by listening to them or using their hands. They would rather look at the letters or look for the letters than listen to the sounds.

It is important for all children to actually be able to see an alphabet or a chart of letter sounds displayed in their classroom, but this is particularly true for visual learners. I like to provide each student with a simple laminated alphabet strip on their table so that if they are struggling to remember a letter shape, they always have got this prompt in front of them.

Audible learners

  • Listen to a recording of the letter sounds and write down what you hear or record yourself saying specific letter sounds and words that begin with it.
  • Provide a selection of percussion instruments and make up a song or a rap to help you remember your letter sound, for example, s,s,s, sounds like a snake,  or Kick like a kicking K.
  • When taking part in all of the activities mentioned, for all the different learning styles, make sure you say the letter sound aloud as you or the student forms it.

Children who prefer an auditory style of learning learn best by hearing or listening, and they are more likely to understand or remember things that they have heard. They are better able to store information by the way it sounds than the way it looks or feels.

It is important to remember that we are all individuals, and no one style will be the only way that we learn. Usually, we have a preferred learning style and are more likely to learn in that way, but the best way to learn and remember letter sounds is to provide a wide range of experiences covering lots of different learning styles so that children will have opportunities to absorb the letter sound deep and remember it. When this happens, the learning will be secured, and we can start to build on it.

All of the activities above can be used with single letter sounds and letter blends like th, ch, bl, or br, or you can use the same activities to learn to spell simple words. There is no age limit to working in this way either. If children are struggling, it may well be because they have only ever had opportunities to learn letter sounds in one or two formal ways. Providing these activities will cover a full range of learning styles can sometimes be the key to unlocking a child’s potential. It’s also a lot more fun than sitting down and writing out letter sounds and spellings.

I set my own classroom up to work in this way, and we would spend a session every morning practicing either letters or spellings in every area, depending on the stage of the student. I have honestly never seen children make progress so quickly.

Give it a try – it genuinely works. And the best part? – You will have more fun as well!

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