Letter names, letter sounds, and the whole alphabet
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Welcome to At the River News

February 2017
Happy February! This month, I'll share some thoughts about teaching letter names and letter sounds. I'll also discuss the best way to teach the alphabet: all at once, or in smaller doses? I have included a photo; if you don't see it, click on "view this email in your browser."

If you're attending TESOL in Seattle, please join me for a Pre Conference Institute on March 21. Laurel Pollard and I are co-presenters. It's called "Slow Down: Guide True Beginners to Mastery with Deep Learning." Also, I'm offering a session on Scaffolded Reading at 5pm on March 23. 

I'll also offer the Scaffolded Reading session at the NC State ESL Symposium in Raleigh, NC on May 19-20. Hope to see some of you there. 

Feel free to forward this newsletter to colleagues. New subscribers: send me an email and I'll add you to the mailing list. Remember that you can unsubscribe anytime. You can find previous newsletters in the archives:

I welcome your questions and feedback!

Shelley Hale Lee
At the River and Other Stories for Adult Emergent Readers
Letter names? Letter sounds? What's the big deal? 
Before my 3 year old son started a Montessori preschool, he went to a summer program at the parks and rec department. The Montessori teacher asked, "Are they teaching letter names or letter sounds? I hope he's learning the sounds." I thought, what's the difference, and why does it matter? It turned out that the summer program was teaching sounds, not names. I later learned this: 
Letter names help students spell words. 
Letter sounds help students read words. 

So, let's use letter sounds in class more often than names.
Letter names: What are they good for?  
It's important to teach letter names because beginners need to spell their first and last name, their street name, and the names of family members. Typically, during the first week of class, I give students a simple sheet with the whole alphabet, upper and lowercase. Students practice the letter names and learn how to spell their first and last names. Some students refer to this alphabet sheet regularly throughout the quarter.
Using letter sounds in class
After this first spelling exercise, I have found it most effective to stop emphasizing letter names and start teaching the sounds of the letters. I use flash cards for letter/sound practice daily. The best flash cards for ESL students include a picture of a key word, like apple for /a/.  Using sounds, not letter names, helps my students learn to decode English more quickly. See this post by Sue Watson for a review of single consonant and short vowel sounds:
Teach letter sounds in small groups
I've found that it's best to teach a few sounds at once, and to avoid teaching all of the short vowels at the same time. For ESL students, the short vowels sound very similar and are easily confused. That's why At the River teaches 4-5 sounds at a time and spreads out the short vowels. The goal is to teach each letter group or short vowel to mastery before adding more sounds. 
How to teach letter sounds
For me, flash cards with a clear picture of a key word for each sound provide the best way to teach letter sounds. Simple key words, like apple for /a/, bed for /b/, cat for /c/, door for /d/, and egg for /e/, help students learn and retain the sounds. Each unit of At the River introduces several new consonants or a new short vowel. During reading instruction, I start with a flash card drill on all of the sounds previously taught. You'll find two short video demonstrations of flash card practice at
Which flash cards are best for adults?
Many kinds of flash cards are available, but most are clearly designed for children. I have found some cards that are appropriate for adult students. PhonicsQ is a large set of cards that includes single consonants, short and long vowels, and consonant blends. TREND also has two sets of cards that use simple photographs for key words: Alphabet Pocket Flash Cards and Phonics Pocket Flash Cards. These are available online or at teacher supply stores. Some teachers make their own flash cards. Just be sure that if you are teaching short vowels, your key words actually start with the short vowel sound. For example, use apple, egg, India, October, and umbrella, not August, ear, ice, owl, and uniform. And be careful with x: xylophone teaches /z/, not /ks/ which is the most common sound of x. How about box or six instead?  
Using the decodable stories in At the River helps beginners learn to read, but they also need to read other "survival English" vocabulary words.

You can use the flash cards to connect reading/phonics instruction with "regular" ESL vocabulary words. This mini lesson on classroom vocab shows an easy way to do it: 1) Provide plenty of interactive speaking and listening practice with classroom realia. Don't put the words on the board yet. 2) When students are comfortable and confident saying the words, write the words on the board and ask students to repeat them several times. 3) Review consonant sounds using flash cards. To keep it simple, don't address vowel sounds at this time. 4) Students identify letters/sounds by underlining the sound in all of the words. Hold up the flash card for /r/. Students produce the /r/ sound. A volunteer underlines each r that appears in the list. Continue with more consonant sounds. This helps students build connections between the sound and the letter, the phoneme and the grapheme. It increases their automaticity in recognizing the consonant sounds, which usually don't change (unlike the vowels).
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