Tips for Teaching the Alphabet to Struggling Learners

Do you know how to teach the alphabet to children that struggle to learn?  The 52 letters that are necessary for children to learn, along with the minimum 26 basic sounds of each letter, can sometimes seem like a giant mountain to climb at the beginning of kindergarten!  In this post, I will tell you all about my best ideas in my "bag of tricks" that I have developed over the past 25 years of teaching kindergarten in a low income, Title One school in Southern California.

California now has state standards for preschool that say that children are supposed to learn the alphabet in preschool and pre-K. Children in California are supposed to start off Kindergarten only needing a short review of the alphabet and letter sounds, and then it’s on to the big adventure of learning to read!  But preschool is not compulsory, and times are hard.  Most parents in my community do not send their children to preschool, (though know most would have liked to,) and now I’ve spent the last five weeks doing everything I possibly could to help my babies learn the letters and sounds!

Unfortunately, most of my students were technically behind on day one of kindergarten, which is actually very sad for them, since it is only the beginning of their academic career.  I need to get them caught up quickly, otherwise the research tells us that they will likely spend the rest of their school career getting farther and farther behind from this point on, because the achievement gap just continues to grow.

With this in mind, here are a few things that I have been working on to help solve this problem.  Most of this has been on my method for many years now!  Hopefully they will be usable ideas that will be relevant to you!

In any case, we are doing pretty well so far!  Our class average for letter sounds on entry was just 9 letter sounds per child.  Now, after only five weeks, our class average is 24 out of 26 letter sounds per child!  And I think that is pretty great!  The child with the least amount of sounds now has 17 of them.  Our class average on entry for letter names was 32 out of 52, and now it is 42.  The child with the least amount of letter names has 15 of them.  I am so proud of their progress!  Here is how I did it:

1.  Letter Sounds Club  (AKA:  A Little Motivation, Please!)

Last year, one of my talented colleagues came up with the idea of making up a chart that the children could add their name to when they all learned their letter sounds.  It is very similar to the Number Club, in which the children get to add their names once they know all of their numbers 0-30.  I also sent home a note about it in hopes that the parents would want to help their children get their names up on the board.  I designed it to look like an awards ribbon, and I really like the way it came out!  I am including it today for you as a free download, too!  And in case you were wondering, my priority is this:  first I concentrate on the letter sounds, then the lower case letter names, and finally the capitals.  Why?   Because once they know the letter sounds, they can begin to learn to read.  Also, they will see the lower case letters much more often than the capitals, so these will be more important for them to learn first.  Once they know the lower case letters, the capitals will follow, especially since many of them are look-alike letters anyway.  :)

2.  Extra Progress Reports

I sent home a progress report at the end of last week to let parents know how their children were doing.  (Yes, I do realize that it was only the end of the fourth week of school!)  But I figure that if I am going to get them to help their children master the alphabet by the end of the first trimester, I will have to start lighting that fire ASAP, because it is not going to be an easy task for some.  I am attaching this progress report for you as a free download, just in case you would like to do the same!  Even if only half of them take the information and try a little harder to help their children, it's worth the effort.  Anything that the parents do is one less thing that I have to do myself, that’s for sure!  Even if it just helps a little bit, it’s worth a try.  I will also send home a fresh set of alphabet flash cards with some of them to practice with.

3.  Extra Parent Conferences for Those That Are REALLY Struggling (AKA:  Empower Those at Home to HELP!)

I held an extra parent conference last week with one child’s parents who were really concerned about her slow progress in learning the letter names.  At this conference, I showed the parents how I would work with the child at home, if she were my own.  I sat with them and showed them three or four different ways to practice the alphabet with their child, and also gave them a Letters and Sounds DVDSo basically, I sat and modeled how to teach their child the letters.  Last week, the little girl knew just four or five lower case letters, but today during after school tutoring, she identified SEVENTEEN lower case letters!!!!  So I think this must have really paid off!  Even I was amazed at the change in her ability to identify the letters!  Wow! Remember, any time you spend training parents to help children is time well spent, because they have MUCH more time to spend individually with their children than you do!

Tips for Teaching the Alphabet to Struggling Learners
RAN Board  (Also known as a Fluency Chart, which you can get here!)

4.  Individualized RAN Boards for My Tutoring Group (Break Down the Task Into Manageable Chunks)

For my after school tutoring group, I made an individualized Rapid Automatic Naming (RAN) Board for each child to work on.  If you are unfamiliar with these RAN boards, they are charts that can be used to practice any items that need to be memorized, such as letters, shapes, numbers, or words.  They are sometimes also referred to as Fluency Charts.  The basic idea is that you need to limit the number of items on the board to just few, and repeat them over and over.  Then the child practices reading the entire chart as fast as he or she possibly can.  It is really the equivalent of giving the child a stack of flash cards, but with the same words or letters written several times on lots of different flash cards for lots of practice.  So during my tutoring group, I had these children each try to find all of a certain letter on their RAN boards and color them all the same color.  For example, find all of the lower case a’s and color them all red.  Then find all of the lower case c’s and color them yellow.  I am including one of these RAN boards for you here as a free download in Word format, so that you should be able to edit it yourself. Or we have prettier, pre-made ones available on our website for $3! :)

Meanwhile, once I got all of the children in the group started, I stopped ONE of them and asked that child to practice saying the letters on his or her RAN board with me.  When that child finished, I went on to the next child and did the same thing, and so on.  It’s a method that has worked for me fairly well, year after year.  I also send a copy of these RAN boards home with each child so that they can work on them at home, and I update them regularly as well.

5.  Tricks for Learning the Alphabet Names (Try Some Mnemonics On For Size!)

Once I have the children in small groups, I try to show the children the relationship that many of the letter sounds have to the letter names.  For example, the sound of the M and its letter name have a definite connection, so these letters will be easier for them to learn.  The “Sounds to Letters” song in our Letters and Sounds video collection, available on DVD and on our HeidiSongs Internet Video Streaming Site (shown above and below) is also useful for establishing this connection.

But over the years, I have developed a few tricks to help the children remember some of the letter names that have no connection to the letter sound, such as the letter Y.  Below I have listed the ones that I know of.  If you know of any others that work well for you, I would LOVE to hear about them!  Please leave a comment on this blog and tell us!  I am confident that if we all put our heads together, we can come up with a MUCH better curriculum than anything our district can hand us, so let’s go for it!

1.  Y:  For this letter, I tell them to throw their hands up in the air and make a letter Y with their bodies.  Then they should say, “WHY can’t I remember????”  This always makes them laugh, and they usually remember it from that point on.

2.  G:   For the lower case G, I have them trace it in the air, but when they get to the “tail” of the G, they turn it into a “pirate-like” motion, and say, “GEE, I wish I could remember!”

3.  For H:  I have them make the H sound and start running, just like they do at the beginning of my H song.  Once they start singing the song, the lyrics of the song itself will lead them to the letter name.

4.  Q:  The beginning of the Q song has the children making cuckoo clock motions, which the kids seem to remember, but I tell them to say “Q, Q!”  instead of “cuckoo!” (with my head popping forward and back, of COURSE!)  They think that is hilarious, too, and anything that tickles a kids’ funny bones is more likely to help them remember something, at least according to research.

5.  C:  I have them make a sign language C, which is also in my C song in the video collection.  So the children start singing the C song, which includes sign language for the letter C, and then a second or two later they have already said the letter name, just like magic!  “To make a letter C, C, C, it’s half a circle, C, C, C....”

6.  I:  We start singing the beginning of the I song, and that’s it!  “/i/, /i/, I!  /i/, /i/, I!”

7.  J:  The children usually really like the J song, so when I show it to them, I have them shout out the end of the song, which ends just like “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,” but it goes “J, J, J, J, J, J, J, J!”  They raise their hands up in the air and bring them down to the ground as they do it, so it makes it fun.

8.  U:  I draw a couple of eyes on top of it and say, “Its YOU!”  And then we sing a snippet from the U song:  “It’s a smiley, smiley, letter U!”

9.  W:  I have them draw a W in the air and start to sing the W song, which goes with the motion of drawing the W.  “It’s a W, a W!  Everybody make a W!”

6.  Zoo Phonics, and Home Made Zoo Phonics “Transitional” Flash Cards

Tips for Teaching the Alphabet to Struggling Learners
This is an "Old Style" Zoo Phonics card.  They have newer, updated artwork now, but since all of my supplies are in the old style of cards, I never switched over.

Tips for Teaching the Alphabet to Struggling Learners
This is what their new artwork looks like.

If you are not familiar with Zoo-Phonics, it is a multi-sensory method of teaching the letter sounds.  I am not connected in any way with the Zoo Phonics company, nor have I been compensated for this section of my blog.  I have just been using their products in my classroom for many years since my district purchased it for me sometime in the early 1990's, and I have been a believer ever since!

This is how it works:

1.  Show children a Zoo Phonics lowercase flash card.  (I always teach just the lower case letters first.)

2.  They must respond by looking at it, saying the sound, hearing others say the sound, and doing the motion associated with the card- ALL AT THE SAME TIME.  I introduce all of the cards from A-Z (in any order) on the first day of school, and we practice them every single day for the first month of school.  (The video below shows the motions for the Zoo Phonics cards.)

3.  After about three weeks of school, if it seems like most of the students know the sounds, I take my cards and flip them over to the back, where I have printed plain lower case letters.  (See "Transitional Cards," below.) I ask the children to "do Zoo Phonics" with the plain letters, even though the Zoo Phonics characters are not there.

4.  It takes most of the children in my Kindergarten class about three to four weeks to learn ALL of the letter sounds- that's it!  (There are of course, always a few stragglers, and that's what this blog post is about.)

5.  If a child has not learned a letter sound, it is usually because of a couple of reasons.


- If the child's attention wanders, and he stops looking at the cards, then this affects learning.  This could be due to simple behavior, or actual medical issues such as ADHD.   Working with a child one-on-one daily usually can solve the problem, though.  Also be sure to check the child's vision to make sure the child can physically see!  When in doubt, use nice BIG letters.  Print them out so large that they fill up the whole 8.5" piece of paper (holding the paper vertically "portrait", not "landscape").

- If the child is doing the motions, but doesn't say the sound, then this affects learning.

- If the child says the sound, but refuses to move his or her body, then this affects learning.

- If the child cannot hear the sounds, (due to a physical disability), then of course this affects learning.

- If the child is having trouble discriminating (telling the difference) between the sounds that he hears, than this affects learning.  For example, if the child confuses the beginning sound of the short E (as in "elephant") with the beginning sound of - I (as in "inchworm") then this will affect learning.  Each time you test the child on these letter sounds, he or she may respond with a totally different sound!  It's hard to tell if the child actually learned it.

Of course, you can buy a Zoo Phonics kit.  OR, you can make your own flash cards by using their Zoo-Phonics Font.  I do have the kit, and I also make my own flash cards because my old ones wore out YEARS ago from over use!  Plus, I wanted to make a set to put on the wall.
One thing that their company does not offer (at least not that I know of,) is something that I like to refer to as “Transitional” flash cards.  To make these, I print out the Zoo-Phonics card and glue it on one side of the card, and then I print out an ordinary matching letter and glue it on the back of that card.  Then I laminate the cards, trim off the excess lamination, and voila!  I have a set of “Transitional” Zoo-Phonics Flash Cards.

These cards are very important to me in helping the children learn the names of the letters, because once they know the letter sounds, (which are fairly easy to learn with the use of their cards and my Letters and Sounds Videos) I can help them transition over to the letter names with the use of these cards.  I can also train them to tell me the sounds of the letters WITHOUT looking at the Zoo-Phonics card by using these cards.  This is what I do; it’s actually pretty sneaky, I think, because the children don’t even seem to notice the change!

One day when I’m about to drill the children with the Zoo-Phonics cards, I just flip them around to the back and simply start using the other side and ask them to respond the same way.  Usually, I don’t even have to ask!  Somebody will start going “/a/, /a/, /a/!” and making alligator chopping motions, for example when they see the letter A.  If the kids are stumped, I flip the card to back for a quick peek at the Zoo-Phonics card, and then quickly flip it back again to the regular letter.  That way, when they are making the motion, they are looking at the regular flash cards, NOT the Zoo-Phonics card!  This “imprints” the sound on their minds, and most children make the transition away from the Zoo Phonics cards onto plain letter cards very quickly.

Now here is the "magic" part about including special needs kids in the regular classroom setting in an activity like this:  all it takes is just ONE student to remember the letter sound and the motion that goes with it.  He or she starts doing it, and the rest of the children follow.  They all just imitate the ones that know, and so this helps the children that are struggling.  But generally, with enough repetition, the children that are struggling will get it!  Cooperation is the key, though.  The special needs child needs to be trying to participate, if not understanding the activity.  So this can be difficult to come by if the child has ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder.)  Comprehension of the activity can come later, but cooperation must usually come first, in my experience and humble opinion.  The only way I have gotten uncooperative children to learn the alphabet is by playing the Singable Songs for Letters and Sounds CD in the room when the special needs child was there.  The child in question appeared to be not listening or participating at all, but the message still "went in" somehow; and one day we realized that she had learned most of the letters.  The only thing that had changed was the addition of the CD.

Once most of us have the letter sounds down, I add a third element to the drill (and by the way, this is all usually done in a whole group situation.)  Each time I show a card, I say, “Sound?”  Then they make the sound.  Then I say “Letter name?”  Then they say the letter name.  Given that this is a whole group activity, the more advanced children tend to pull the struggling learners along, and that really helps!  They hear their peers responding, and do the same.  I watch the entire group, and NOBODY is allowed to just stand there and so or say nothing.  They MUST all try, even if they are only repeating what they hear after somebody else says it first, AND I must see their bodies (and mouths) moving with the motions.  This full body response is vitally important to the learning process for young children.  Insisting that everyone participate may seem a bit “over the top” to some, but I am convinced that this is the key to learning, so I continue to insist upon it each year.  Once the children understand that I don’t take “no” for an answer, I do get full cooperation, and learning usually follows.

Having trouble teaching number recognition?  This is the exact same process I use for teaching the names of the numerals, but I use the Jumpin’ Numbers and Shakin’ Shapes flash cards  and the Number Jumble videos and it works like a charm!  If you would like to read my blog post on how to teach the numbers and shapes in a similar way, click here.

7.   Try Over-Sized Letters

Some children just do better when you drill them with VERY large letters.  I print out single letters that are large enough to for one letter to fill an entire 8.5 x 11" piece of paper.  (I have a set that is laminated that I use every year to drill my class whole group.)  Last year, I had a child that was struggling terribly and really making virtually no progress at all on anything except for the Zoo Phonics letters.

This very sweet little boy could not even identify any of the five letters in his name, even though he had no problem writing his name!  I worked with him in a small group of three or four children after school, three days a week, using the RAN boards mentioned above and the Zoo Phonics cards.  He simply couldn't remember ANYTHING when I switched from the large Zoo Phonics cards to the smaller RAN boards.  But the kicker was that he had had his eyes checked, and apparently he had 20/20 vision!  Both the school nurse, his pediatrician, and his optometrist said that he did not need glasses.  But I was determined to figure out what the problem was.

After a month of trying, I gave up on the RAN boards, because they were obviously not helping at ALL.  I noticed that when I asked him what the letters were that were printed on the backs of the Zoo Phonics cards were, he often knew them!  So we switched to only using alphabet cards that were just as large as those printed on the Zoo Phonics cards.  The font was 300 point comic sans, so that's BIG!  I sent home copies of the over-sized flash cards, and THEN we started seeing some progress- although it was slow in coming.  But at that point, I was just so happy to see that he was learning, that I didn't care how slow the progress was!  I had found the key!

He did eventually learn most of the alphabet by Christmas.  The interesting thing about this child was that he had many skills and strengths in other areas; his only real deficit seemed to be in remembering items presented visually and attaching labels to them, such as letters, numbers, sight words, etc.  He was great at phonemic awareness, and had a nice sized vocabulary.   He developed very good fine motor skills and was very cooperative and easy to work with.  He was clearly an intelligent little boy, and his parents were helping him every single night with everything that I suggested.  They read to him at night, they did all of the homework, they were supportive in every way.  They spoke only English at home, so there were no other languages at play.  He was very cooperative, and had lots of friends.  Essentially, absolutely everything was in place that should have been in place.  He simply couldn't remember visual symbols and attach a label to them as quickly and efficiently as his peers.

I learned a lot from working with this wonderful little boy.  First of all, it is possible to have problems with visual processing and have perfect vision, from an optometrist's point of view.  The other thing that I learned is that SIZE MATTERS- at least the size of the flash cards matter, in any case!  If a child can't seem to remember anything at all, and seems to have completely given up, his or her brain may not be processing ("seeing" the letters and understanding them, from an intellectual point of view.)

The best way I can describe this is to any one is to look at a bunch of writing in a foreign language with a completely different way of writing and try to remember a few symbols and see what happens.  When I look at Chinese symbols and try to make sense of them, they tend to all look the same to me!  The same thing happens when I look at Arabic.  My brain hasn't learned to figure it out, understand it, or memorize it.  I just can't process it- they all look the same.  I give up!  (Notice, there is nothing wrong with my vision...)  Do you see the difference?
Now enlarge the symbols to the max and go sloooooooowwwwwlllly.  Only show the child just a few letters from his or her name and make sure he or she knows just these over-sized letters.  Once you are confident that he knows these, then you can start to reduce the size of them.  But when you introduce a new letter, start with a nice BIG one!

I hope that these tips are helpful to you!  If you have any questions that I might be able to help you with, just send them to, or leave a comment below.

- Heidi

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