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How to Teach Letter Sounds to Struggling Students

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Has your child hit a bump on the road to reading? 

Learn how to teach letter sounds to struggling students. 

Teaching Letter Sounds to Students Who Struggle

Students often struggle with recognizing and blending sounds together to form a word, and they need some targeted instruction to help them master this skill.  

How to Teach Letter Sounds to Struggling Students

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What Are Letter Sounds?

Words are made up of individual sounds, called phonemes, and letters are the symbols of those sounds.

Students who struggle with letter sounds may have hurdles in four areas. 

They may:

  • have difficulty recognizing the letter. 
  • have trouble hearing and distinguishing the sounds.
  • not have memorized which letter goes with which sounds.
  • struggle with breaking words up into individual sounds.

Why Is Phonemic Awareness So Important?

Recognizing that certain letters represent certain sounds is a mile marker on the road to reading. 

This skill is called phonemic awareness, and it prepares a child to read printed words. 

Even beyond the early stages of reading, strong phonemic awareness helps students recognize new words and correctly decode them.

How to Teach Letter Sounds to Struggling Students

What to Do When Students Struggle with Letter Sounds

When a child struggles with letter sounds, you need to take a systematic approach and pinpoint the area of difficulty. 

If you are not sure, or you suspect that more than one area is giving your student some trouble, work your way through the list.

Issue 1: The child has trouble recognizing the letters

No child should start with printed letters on a page. 

In order to learn the shape of a letter, it needs to be three-dimensional.

Use wood or foam letters, or try flashcards made of sandpaper.

(Check out this article on How to Teach Letters.) Introduce the letters one by one. 

Move on to the next letter when the first is learned. 

If you notice your child consistently has trouble with reversals (mistaking b for d, for example) or simply struggles to identify many of his letters after patient and frequent instruction, consider having him evaluated for dyslexia.  

Issue 2: The child has trouble hearing and recognizing the sounds

Start with an awareness of sounds. 

Do lots of activities with rhyming words, syllables, and alliteration. 

Clap along with songs, syllable by syllable.

Read books or poems with lots of rhyme.

Play games with matching pictures of words that rhyme. Compose silly sentences with words that start with the same sound (“The Grinch’s green grapes were great!”).

Issue 3: The child can’t remember which sounds go with which letters

Just as you systematically taught the letter names one by one, do the same with the sounds. 

(Check out this article on How to Teach Letter Sounds.) Teach one sound per letter in the beginning.

That means you should teach only the short vowel sounds (the sounds in the words at, egg, it, on, and up). 

Teach the hard sounds of c and g (the sounds in cup and gum). 

Hold up a letter and have the child say the sound.

Memorize a poem or song that reinforces the letter sounds with the letter names.

How to Teach Letter Sounds to Struggling Students

Issue 4: The child struggles to break up words into individual sounds

A word is a whole, and its sounds are parts. 

If your child has difficulty breaking the word “cap” into its individual sounds, you will need to do some targeted reinforcement. 

Take a multisensory approach. 

Tie hand movements to the individual sounds as you say the word slowly. 

Count the sounds with your fingers.

Focus on stretching out the vowel sounds (and using an accompanying hand motion for each vowel). 

Say a word and ask her to identify the beginning sound, ending sound, or vowel sound. 

Use a Systematic and Multi-Sensory Approach

Reading is a skill, and skills must be practiced.

The same is true for phonemic awareness.

If you are working with a struggling student, you know that frequent, patient, consistent instruction gets the best results.  

Reading is a visual and auditory skill, but there is no reason to target only those two learning areas.

Kinesthetic activities that require movement can help with phonological skill-building. 

The Orton-Gillingham method is both systematic and multi-sensory. 

It’s a time-tested method that is particularly successful with children who have dyslexia. 

Two reading programs that incorporate this method are the Barton Reading Program and the Wilson Reading System. 

How to Teach Letter Sounds to Struggling Students

Teaching Letter Sounds to Struggling Students

Many children learn to read almost intuitively, recognizing patterns and phonemes for themselves.

But some students need explicit instruction that walks them through each step of the road to reading. 

This is not a failing or a sign of low intelligence!

Both types of students can be successful, lifelong readers. 

When you learn how to teach letter sounds, you give your struggling student the key to open the door to reading success.

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