Teaching Letter Identification to Students

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

One important step in learning to read and write is learning letter names. How do teachers instruct letter identification? This lesson will describe where this skill fits into reading instruction, how to teach it, and why it matters.

Defining Letter Identification

Debbie is setting up her new kindergarten classroom. As she hangs her alphabet, she tries to remember what she learned about teaching students how to identify letters. It seems like such a long time ago that she was sitting in a classroom herself, taking notes and dreaming about being a teacher. Now that she's actually in a classroom she isn't sure she remembers what to do.

That night, at home, Debbie looks up her notes and begins to feel better; she reads that teaching letter identification, or assigning letter names to the shapes representing them, isn't such a difficult topic. In fact, it's pretty straightforward. Sure, there are several components to teach - letter name, all 26 letters in upper and lower case, the characteristics of each letter. Plus she understands how important this step is to the pre-readers she will be teaching since they'll take this knowledge and soon assign sounds to go along with the letters. But she's ready; she knows she can handle it.


First Steps for Teaching Letter Identification

Debbie's notes are great. She's glad she was a meticulous and detailed student. The first thing she reads is teaching letter identification begins with screening her students to find out which letters they already know. This pretest will arm her with information that will drive her instruction and guide her to make sure each student gets what is needed. She also remembers that teaching letter identification has three interwoven components:

  • Direct instruction of letter recognition
  • Exposing students to many opportunities to see the letters in print - books, posters, signs, charts
  • Printing practice of the upper and lower case letters

So the first things she will do is use a screening method to determine each student's ability to name and write letters and see how rapidly they're able to do this. It's important to know these concepts without much 'think' time. But once she does this, what's the next step? She seems to remember there was a specific process….

Method for Teaching Letter Identification

Direct instruction of letter identification relies on students being able to visually analyze, or see different aspects of, each letter. The letter Z, for example, has straight lines as opposed to the letter B, which has curved and straight. Upper and lower case letters have vertical, horizontal and curved aspects that make up the shape. There are also different sizes - upper and lower case as well as differences in each letter size - and ways to write letters. Some letters, for example, are printed with the pencil beginning on the lower line while others begin at the top line.

Making these differences known to students is an important part of the process of instruction. Debbie remembers learning the think aloud method; as she demonstrates how to name and make each letter she speaks the characteristics and formation method. As each letter is named, seen in print and text, and practiced in printing by students, they will be immersed into the life of letters.

Where to start? Debbie remembers kindergarten for herself. The teacher began with A and ended with Z, but that doesn't quite sound right.

Sequence for Letter Identification Instruction

Many schools choose to teach upper case letters first, as those are more readily identified and easier to tell the difference between. Then the teacher circles back and teaches lower case, keeping similar looking letters separated.

Debbie knows most reading programs now teach letter identification, phonics and early reading all at the same time. These schools teach letter identification in conjunction with the sounds the letters make; this method lets students begin putting letter sounds together as they learn the names. Schools using the sound/symbol method teach simple sounds first. Letters that are formed using the front of the mouth, like B and M, are easier for children to see than those in the back of the mouth, like G.

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