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Using Meaningful Experiences to Teach Letters

ABCD… do your students know all their letters? How we, as preschool teachers, teach letters is important.

Letter identification is one of the first things parents, administrators and some teachers think of when they think of preschool learning.

Truth is there is a TON more that goes into supporting children in the area of literacy before they are readers (we are setting the foundation after all…).

But, that also doesn’t mean that letter learning is important- it’s just important to remember that it’s just a piece of the bigger literacy puzzle.

The education arena is always evolving. We learn new things all the time. And one thing we now know (that honestly we learned from Piaget, but didn’t take into consideration) is that the age of children we work with are ego-centric. It’s all about them.

So, when it comes to learning, preschoolers need meaningful experiences. And meaningful experiences for preschoolers means it has to do with them (ego-centric) and connect to their lives, family or experiences.

Now, if we take a second to stop and think about the many ways we have been teaching young children letters…we have to ask ourselves… is the way we are helping them learn in line with a meaningful experience?

Flashcards, letter of the week, worksheets and drill and practice – those were some of approaches we took to teach letters. But, when we put those practices through the lens of meaningful experiences – we see they fall short. 

So how can we teach letters with meaningful experiences in mind?

We start with the MOST important word to each child – their name.

And then we go even further and break it down to their first letter.  That is where we start when we teach letters.  

But, if you are thinking – I have more than one child in my classroom – how do I just focus on each child’s letter only. Well… you don’t. You focus on everyone’s first letter.

Since all the classmates are a part of each others lives and they have common experiences together (like a little family), the first letters of the other classmates now matter too.

“C is for Chloe”.  “B is for Ben”. “M is for Mara”. “V is for Vinnie”. “Q is for Quinn”. 

All those letters become significant because they represent someone that each child knows, that each child sees every school day and is a part of their school family.

How can we harness this power of using names to begin the letter recognition process?

We consider all the opportunities in our day to highlight the amazing letters that represent amazing children.

Whole Group? Yes.  Shared Reading and Writing? Yes. Small Group? Yes. Center time? Yes. Downtime waiting to use the bathroom? Yes.  Because learning letters doesn’t just happen in a bubble called ‘Literacy Time’. It’s always happening and never in a straight and concise line.

Here some ideas to get to started!

  • Do a shared writing activity where you write all the letters of each student’s name in your classroom on a piece of chart paper. Then, have each child come up and circle or highlight their letter while you say “(letter) is for (child’s name)” or “(letter) starts (child’s name) name”. This is a great way to first approach the idea of learning first letters.
  • Practice letter matching with letter cards and magnetic letters – using the first letters of students names as the letters used to match.
  • In whole group, play letter games – but start by using only the letters that represent each child’s first letter. The game in the photo below is a hiding game. A mouse was hiding behind a letter pumpkin and children took turns choosing a letter, saying it’s name and lifting the letter card to see if that is where the mouse was hiding.                          
  • Set up a small pocket chart on the wall with letter cards and small letter manipulatives. Place the letter cards in the pocket chart and challenge students to match the letter manipulatives to the letter cards. Start with only letters from student’s first names.  
  • For a small group table activity, write students first letters on a large piece of bulletin board paper. Give students dot markers for children to ‘trace’ or ‘decorate’ their letter. 
  • Another great small group activity, that also works on letter formation is to use Wikki Stix and a letter to trace. Students find their letter and use the Wikki Stix to create the letter. Then, if the students are still interested they could do another letter of one their classmates!                                      

There are so many hands-on, engaging and fun ways to approach letters.  When you are planning out your own ideas, just keep in mind…

  • Letter learning is essential – BUT it must be fostered through engagement – not drills, flashcards are worksheets.
  • Letter learning takes TIME, be okay with children being on different letter learning timelines.
  • Keep the experiences MEANINGFUL. We only have a finite time with our littles. Make sure the time is used in a way that your children benefit the most.

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I love helping preschool teachers be the best they can be, by providing quality resources and sharing fun ideas!

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