Evidence-Based Instruction for Letter Recognition & Formation

Instructor: Sharon Linde
Educators know that students with early reading skills, like phonemic awareness, develop more quickly than those without. This lesson explains how evidence based instructional practices promote better learning for young readers.

Defining Phonemic Awareness

Leia is a kindergarten student whose parents worked hard to make sure she learned her ABCs before starting school. She started off the year able to identify each letter and even knew the sounds some of these letters made. Leia's parents were confident she would make progress as a reader quickly, so it came as quite a surprise when her teacher, Ms. Gilbert, called them in for a conference about Leia's lack of development.

What went wrong? It may be that Leia lacked phonemic awareness, or the understanding of sounds in speech. You see, part of literacy development relies on students knowing that the words they read and write are representations of those we say. All sounds in speech, called phonemes, are represented by letters or letter combinations. Ms. Gilbert explains that students who enter school able to hear and manipulate phonemes and identify letters develop more quickly as readers. Let's break that down a bit.

Understanding Phonemic Awareness

Most of us probably learned the ABCs in preschool or kindergarten as we were learning to read. Teachers taught us that all letters represented sounds, and that we could use this knowledge to read and write words. Research now shows that going a bit deeper and teaching students about the sounds in speech along with alphabetic concepts is the best approach for reading instruction.

Phonemic awareness is one's ability to understand that all speech is made up of individual sounds. For example, the word 'cat' has three phonemes, c/a/t. When we talk about phonemes, we identify them by the letter sound, not by a letter itself. So while the word 'cat' has three phonemes, it also has three letters. The word 'knife' also has three phonemes, n/i/f, but five letters. Do you see how phonemes, or the sounds in speech, don't always match up to the letters that represent them? Luckily, teaching phonemic awareness and letter recognition skills in tandem helps clear up confusion.

Assessing Phonemic Awareness and Letter Recognition

Back to Leia and her struggles in reading. At the beginning of the year, Ms. Gilbert was impressed with Leia's ability to identify the letters of the alphabet, but she became a little worried soon after. Ms. Gilbert knows that the first step in instruction is assessing student needs. In order to design lessons students like Leia need to make progress, she first needs to identify what they know and understand. At the beginning of the year, Ms. Gilbert administered several assessments to help guide her instruction, including:

  • Phonemic awareness assessments
  • Letter identification assessments

Students who are phonemically aware are able to demonstrate their understanding that there are individual sounds in speech, phonemes, that come together to make words, like we see in 'cat'. Ms. Gilbert determines a student's phonemic awareness by testing a student's ability to:

  • Isolate phonemes, such as the beginning sound in 'cat', /c/
  • Segment phonemes, or take apart sounds in words, such as s/t/o/p for 'stop'
  • Blend phonemes to combine sounds to read a whole word

Phonemic awareness assessments are given orally and recorded by the teacher.

Ms. Gilbert also gives her students an assessment to determine their understanding of letter names and corresponding sounds. A simple assessment is to show students the letter, ask them to give the name, and tell what sound the letter makes.

Knowing which letters and sounds students are aware of helps Ms. Gilbert plan future instruction. Let's go ahead and take a peek at some of her instructional practices.

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