Teachers can evaluate letter knowledge through asking questions, observing, using shared reading and using students’ names in activities.
When teaching letter names, it is crucial for teachers to identify the different stages their students are at in order to effectively engage with the entire classroom.
In Episode 73 of The Teacher’s Toolkit for Literacy, literacy expert Sharon Callen talked about the different activities teachers can use to check a child’s understanding of letters.
Why are letter names so important in literacy learning?
Letter names provide an important foundation for students.
“Involving children in instruction that helps them learn about letters is helping them learn about the alphabetic system,” Sharon said.
“Having names is an important thing for us to be able to anchor our students with. So knowing the names of letters means that, just like our name is a constant, so is a letter’s name. It’s very reassuring that every letter has a name, and it’s just such a powerful base for students to know that every one of these letters, in its uppercase form and in its lowercase form, has the same name.”
It’s particularly important to distinguish between letter names and letter sounds.
“Now sometimes the two terms of letter names and sounds, even with teachers, can be confused sometimes. So, we want to be quite solid around what is a name and what is a sound, because otherwise that’s very confusing for our students,” Sharon said.
“A letter name always stays the same. It’s constant. However, letters can make different sounds. So it’s about knowing that letters can occur in different positions in words, not only in the initial position, but in the final or the medial positions, and learning that most letters in English actually do represent more than one sound, and that this sound is influenced by the surrounding letters and the letter’s position in the word.”
Asking questions about words and letters
Sharon said teachers to start by asking some basic questions about words and letters.
“Firstly, we could get them to look at a word and tell us how many letters are in that word. So, do they know what we mean by letter? And can they tell us how many are in there? You’ll notice here that we are talking about within words now, so we’re not just doing them as isolated letters. And we do this because we want to understand their concept of letters and that letters are what makes words,” she explained.
“You could have some word cards that can be cut into letters. And then they can count the number of letters by cutting the words cards into letters, mixing them up and assembling them again. And while they assemble them as the original word, maybe they’ll see some other words in it, which in turn shows how letters work to make different words.”
Another key way to evaluate letter name knowledge is through sentence strips and alphabet charts.
“We can do a whole lot of work with either a sentence strip or an alphabet chart. So we can ask students, what are the letters of the alphabet in sequence, starting with letter A? Then we might ask them to start from a different letter. So if we start from the letter O, can you keep going?” Sharon said.
Providing visuals through shared readings
It’s just as important for students to see these letters being practiced by a teacher.
“They need to be seeing these letters and be engaged in lots of shared reading. So by shared reading, we mean seeing a large text as a class and being able to use our knowledge as we are reading together and doing interactive writing,” Sharon said.
“So they need to be doing it for themselves, but they also need to be having opportunities to see it and to do it with us as teachers, and together with the class.”
Roving and observing students in action
Observing the children when they’re reading will also help teachers gain a sense of what they know about letters. This can be achieved through classroom roving and having a checklist in mind.
“So how are they using those letters? As they write, what do we see them doing? So do we see them using alphabet strips to help them in identifying letters? Do they use random strings of letters?” Sharon asked.
“Do they use letters to represent sounds they hear in words? Do they use letter name strategy when writing? Are they aware that most letters occur in all positions? In words, can they form generalisations related to a letter’s position and the sound it represents?
“Do they comment on letters in words? Are they noticing things? Are they noticing letter patterns? Are they noticing, oh this is going to say this because that’s the letter T and that makes this sound.”
Using students’ names to build letter knowledge
Using a child’s own name when teaching letter names, especially at the early stages, can be effective in providing familiarity and a ‘hook’ into the exercise.
“When our younger ones are first coming to school, any work that we do with students’ names gets a lot of traction and a lot of mileage. It’s really powerful to work with students’ names because those letters in the names are like the hook. And that’s where we’ll often see students being most familiar with the letters in their names,” Sharon said.
“Again, we’d observe the children when reading. So, do they comment on letters in words, and do they relate the letters they see in books to the letters in their own names? So are they making those connections? Because if they’re making those connections, then they’re getting great anchors. They’re going, oh that’s like in my name!”
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