One of the most important skills for children to develop in the kindergarten year is the recognition that letters and sounds are related. We often call this "the alphabetic principle," which is the notion that speech sounds can be connected to letters in a predictable way. To grasp the alphabetic principal, children need to understand that:
- letters represent speech sounds
- letters go together to make words
- changing the letters changes the sounds and the words
This is not an easy concept for many young learners to absorb. As opposed to many other languages, English has many more sounds (what we traditionally call "phonemes") than letters. This means that many of our letters make more than one sound. The letter E, for example, can stand for as many as eight different sounds in English. Just try this sentence: "The smell of the fern reeked despite our efforts."
Because the roots of English come from different languages, we also have many sounds that can be spelled in more than one way. For example: ow, ou, and f for gh. There are also many words that sound alike but are spelled differently, such as bear and bare.
Our vowel sounds alone can produce lots of confusion for young children. In fact, many teachers stay away from teaching vowel sounds until later on in first grade. At last count we have about 19 different vowel sounds, and only five or six letters to spell them with (A,E,I,O,U, and sometimes Y). We have long A as in cake, short A as in bat, and R controlled A as in bark. No wonder it takes children two to three years to learn how to match sounds to their letter names!
There are plenty of specific activities you can engage children in to help them learn to make letter-sound correspondences. Try to stay away from workbook-like tasks, as they can make the joys of learning the alphabetic principle seem deadly dull. Here are some activities to try in your own classroom:
BEGIN WITH BOOKS
Reading to children is often the best way to reinforce letter-sound connections. You can help by pointing to the print as you share picture books. Alphabet books are especially useful, since they often include pictures of words that begin with the letter name.
Provide labels, captions, and other print wherever they serve a purpose. Enriching your environment with labels and signs helps children begin to see the connection between words and their corresponding sounds. seeing a menu at snack or lunchtime gives children a meaningful experience with letters and words.
BUILD A WORD WALL
There are lots of ways to reinforce letter-sound correspondences throughout your day. Create a word wall that emphasizes common sounds children hear.
PROVIDE LOTS OF LETTERS
Children notice the shapes of letters when they do alphabet puzzles or use letter-shaped cookie cutters in damp sand or play dough. Magnetic letters and alphabet blocks allow children to explore letter-sound connections, arrange and rearrange letters to form words, and become more aware of the sequences of sounds within words.
DISPLAY LABELED PHOTOS
Young children love to look at photographs of themselves and their friends. Display snapshots of every child in your class, then ask them to match up faces to names. This provides experience in letter recognition, naming, and noticing the initial sound (or phoneme) in a name.
Once children start to make connections between letters and sounds, they'll be able to begin to read some very simple texts. First, they'll sound out the words very, very slowly, as if they're "glued to the print." Soon they'll begin to polish their newfound skills, recognizing letters and sounds very quickly, while connecting them to smooth, meaningful reading.
The alphabetic principle is definitely one of the more important skills for children to develop. But don't try to rush it. Lots of experiences with print will put them on the right track toward learning—and loving—to read.