By Dr. Susan Bennett-Armistead, Professor of Literacy Education, Guest Blogger
Imagine kindergarten student A shouting at student B, “J is my letter!” I'm sure you can imagine student B responding, “It’s mine!” These kindergarten students have a beginning understanding of letters. However, their grasp of what letters are for, and what we do with them, is still in the early stages of development. If you asked either child why J is his or her letter, they likely wouldn’t be able to say, “Because it’s the first letter in my name,” nor would they be able to say, “My name starts with the /j/ sound, which is represented by a J in this word.”
Letter learning is complicated, and we often take for granted that children understand the complexities even if all they can do is name letters. Keep reading to see how to spice up your students' letter identification experiences with adaptable and fun DIY activities. You'll be amazed to see how easily you can incorporate these ideas into your lesson plans.
Using sidewalk chalk, or a pre-made hopscotch game, you can create a grid for children to play letter hopscotch. Be sure to substitute letters for the traditional numbers inside each square. Have children hop to a letter, then have them tell the group something that starts with that letter. If they can’t think of anything, they can ask a friend. You can also encourage them to look in an alphabet book, such as Alphabet at the Store, for ideas. Let them know that they can invite ideas from the whole group, too, which may quickly feel like a version of Cash Cab! Once they’ve identified a word with the same beginning letter, they can hop off so the next child can have a turn.
An alternative to letter hopscotch is to make a letter mat. This can be done with an inexpensive vinyl tablecloth from a dollar store. You can make a mat with a space for uppercase letters in the center, or you can use a separate mat with all the lowercase letters. Hameray also offers Letter Buddies LetterMats for all twenty-six letters as an easy solution, too. Spread the mat on the floor with children sitting all around the edges. Then put all the letters in the center.
Have a child cover his or her eyes and draw a felt letter out of a box, bag, or hat. The child should then name that letter, find it on the mat, and hop to it. When he or she gets there, invite the child to think of a word that starts with that letter. If he or she doesn’t know a word with the letter, suggest that the child check in a book, look around the room for ideas, or ask a friend. A variation to this is to stick letters on outdoor playground equipment and have the children find them. Running and ABC recognition games are a great way to infuse little bundles of energy with letter learning!
It’s very common for children to make mistakes in identifying letters when they’re still learning them. When making corrections, try what I like to call "Validate and Expand" as they develop phonics awareness. Here's how you could validate a child's mistake: “You thought that was an R. It makes perfect sense that you would. It has a long back like an R, and a fat belly on top, like an R." After you validate the child's efforts, you can try helping him or her expand by saying the following: "But look here . . . it has another fat belly! That makes it a B. Can you tell me the sound that a B makes? Can you think of a word that starts with the /b/ sound? Excellent work thinking about these letters!” Validating children's efforts while expanding their guess is an effective way to empower children in their literacy development.
Creating a letter scavenger hunt is another fun and easy way to help young learners. This can be a great letter A activity all the way to Z that you can do on different days. Using brown paper lunch bags, write a letter on each bag. You can decide if you only want a few with repeats, letters of each child’s name, or the entire alphabet. Pass one bag to each child, or one bag to a pair of children. Invite the children to look around the room for one thing that starts with the letter on their bags. Then have them place the object they find inside their bags so others can’t see it. Have students return to the group with their bags, and have their classmates guess what’s in their bags. This is a wonderful activity for indoors and outdoors.
Most of us have listened and danced to "YMCA" by the Village People. Similar to how we dance to the song by forming the letters with our bodies, having children make letters with their bodies makes for a really effective and engaging activity. Invite children to help you create a class alphabet by making the letters with their own bodies.
Have each child select an uppercase letter from a bag. If you don’t have twenty-six children, you may need to have some children do more than one letter. You can also have small groups create tricky and large letters like M and W. To create letters with their bodies, explain they can either lay on the floor or stand up. Take a photo of their letter creations. Encourage children to brainstorm in pairs as many words as they can for each of their letters.
You can create a class alphabet book from the collection of photos, or laminate the photos to create a wall frieze to put along one wall for other activities. Additional activities to use with the wall frieze include lining up by the beginning letter of their names, lining up by the last letter of their names, or lining up by the tallest letter in their names. Have fun with your new letter infrastructure! Later in the year, you can have students do the same activity with lowercase letters and match them up.
Learning letters and letter blends can be tricky for some children. Remember to reinforce their phonological awareness with helpful resources, such as alphabet books, knowledgeable friends, and environmental alphabets that they can look at. Offer many opportunities for them to playfully engage with letters and make them their own because every child can be a letter learner!
Susan Bennett-Armistead, PhD, is an associate professor of literacy education, the Correll Professor of Early Literacy, and the coordinator of literacy doctoral study at the University of Maine. Prior to doctoral study, Dr. Bennett-Armistead was a preschool teacher and administrator for fourteen years in a variety of settings, including a brief but delightful stint in the Alaskan bush. She is also the author of our My World Collection and several books in our Kaleidoscope Collection. If you like what you read here, be sure to read more helpful articles by Dr. Bennett-Armistead on our blog.