What Is It?
Letter identification instruction includes teaching the name, characteristics, and formation of the 26 uppercase and lowercase letter symbols used in the English language. The goal of teaching letter identification is to ensure that students are able to recognize and name letter shapes, as well as discriminate among them before they are faced with the task of learning the letters' sounds. (Adams, 1990)
Why Is It Important?
Among the reading readiness skills that are traditionally evaluated, the one that appears to be the strongest predictor of reading success on its own is letter identification. (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998) Upon entering school, most students have some knowledge of letter names, usually from singing the alphabet song. Some students can recognize letters used in their own names and in environmental print. In order to have true fluency with letter identification, students must be able to identify letter names in and out of context and sequence. It is not just accuracy of letter recognition, but the automaticity that comes from practice and familiarity, that contribute to eventual reading success. (Adams, 1990)
As students learn phonics, this understanding of an ordered sequence of letters and sounds will facilitate strong and efficient decoding skills. Finally, research has shown that learning about letters frequently leads to interest in their sounds and in the spellings of words. (Baron, Treiman, Wilf, & Kellman, 1980) Many letter names share an auditory link with their sounds, bridging the gap between phonemic awareness and letter identification to phonics.
How Can You Make It Happen?
Explicit instruction in letter recognition, practice printing the letters of the alphabet, and exposure to letters in print are all essential practices when teaching letter identification. It is important to assess students to see which letters they can name and write, and to determine their rate of fluency with letter naming.
Planning for instruction requires an understanding of the challenges students face as they attempt to recognize and name letters. Research indicates that the visual system analyzes each letter into its elementary features-its horizontal, vertical, and diagonal line segments and its arcs-and then represents the letter's overall shape in terms of the relative positions, orientations, lengths, and sizes of these elements. (Whittlesea, B.W.A., 1987) Therefore, it is essential to explicitly "think aloud" as you describe letter shapes and features to students. Ask students to describe letters in the same way as they practice printing them. These activities dovetail nicely with a geometry unit because visual discrimination of shapes and their features are prerequisite skills for letter identification.
Think Aloud for Capital F Formation
Capital F touches the head, belt and foot line. It is made up of three straight lines, one that goes up and down (vertical) and two that go side -to side (horizontal). The vertical line is longer than the horizontal lines. It starts and the headline, and goes straight down through the belt line and ends at the foot line. The first horizontal line touches the vertical line at the head, then goes straight out to the right. The second horizontal line touches the vertical line at the belt, then goes straight out to the right.
Instructional Sequence of Letters
There are several guidelines to follow when determining an instructional sequence for teaching letter identification. Keep in mind that the guidelines below refer only to letter naming and letter identification, not to teaching sound spellings.
Prerequisite skills for letter identification include visual discrimination of shapes, and differentiating between straight and curved lines. Students must also be able to discriminate between random symbols, letters, and numbers.
Begin by teaching uppercase letters to preschoolers and kindergarteners. Uppercase letters are easier to discriminate visually than lowercase letters. Most early literacy experiences with print involve uppercase letters, therefore, teaching these first will build on students' prior knowledge. If, however, first graders demonstrate little letter knowledge, it is best to teach lowercase letters first, as students will be exposed to them more frequently in print. (Adams, 1990)
When teaching lowercase letters, teach high-frequency letters first.
Separate letters that are visually confusing. Ensure students master the first letter prior to introducing a similar letter. After both letters have been mastered individually, provide sorting activities to reinforce the differences between the two letters.
Letter formation and printing will reinforce letter identification. When possible, teach letters that are simpler to print before more complex letters.
Finally, when sound spelling instruction does begin, research endorses the use of letter/keyword/picture displays. (Adams, 1990)