Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Moving Beyond Letter of the Week

When I first began teaching kindergarten 20 years ago letter of the week was my primary focus. I loved my weekly letter routines and planning read-alouds, cooking, and art activities centered around the letter.

Over time and through workshops and professional reading, I began to implement shared and interactive writing and to teach all of the letters everyday. However, for many years I continued to hold on to parts of letter of the week- brainstorming words that start with a certain letter, reading books all week that start with the same letter and switching center activities out and planning craftivities based on the letter of the week.

Eventually, I broke away from letter of the week completely and begin teaching all of the letters in a way that was relevant and meaningful to all of my students. For those of you who are still clinging to letter of the week in any capacity, here are a few things for you to consider.

Research and Background
In their book, Literacy Beginnings: A Prekindergarten Handbook, Fountas and Pinnell state that the practice of "letter of the week" implies that letters are what child learn first and in a specific sequence and then they learn to read. When in reality, children learn the letters and how to read all at the same time. In fact, research indicates that the more connections children make between the multiple understandings necessary to read, the faster they learn the letters and how to read. Letter of the week may actually slow down how children learn letters and it does not help them make meaningful connections.

Supporting Young Children as They Learn about Letters
You can support literacy development in your classroom through a wide variety of authentic and meaningful experiences. Here are a handful of alternatives to letter of the week.
1) Read Books (read books with lessons in all content areas)
2) Write (take dictation from students, shared and interactive writing, use interactive writing to write simple sentences about student's lives, have students sign-in daily and write their names often)
3) Name Games (sort student's names based on the first letter or how many letters they have in their name, place several charts with student's names on the walls of the classroom, incorporate poems that lend themselves to inserting student's names, cut-up sentences with student's names, and name puzzles)

4) Alphabet Books (read and incorporate alphabet books into your centers- students can use the books to point to and say letter names, match large letters in the book with plastic, foam, or magnetic letters, make a class alphabet book, or make individual alphabet books)

5) Letter Sorts (children need to learn to notice the unique features of each letter and to notice what makes it unlike any other letter- letter sorts help students focus on how letters are alike and different and what shapes they are comprised of (examples of ways to sort letters: by uppercase and lowercase, letters with holes and letters without holes, letters with straight lines vs. letters without straight lines, etc. )

6) Sing Songs Related to the Alphabet
7) Environmental Print (have students bring in pictures that represent stores and places around town that they recognize, then use the print in centers, for sorts, etc.)
8) Alphabet Chart (display clear and simple alphabet charts in several places in the classroom, students can use the charts to read letter by letter, to read the picture, to quickly find a letter or picture, and to read letters or pictures as you point to them)

9) Tactile Experiences with Letters (magnetic, plastic, and foam letters are great tools for helping students learn the alphabet, students can sort and match letters)

10) Play Games Involving the Letters (letter bingo, letter matching games, letter memory, etc.)

11) Incorporate Student Names (have students find their own names in charts, poems, and sentences, "read" the name chart, find letters that are alike, name the letters in their names, talk about the first letter of their names, talk about the last letter of their names, count the letters in their names, select magnetic letters to make their names in sequence, write their names, notice one of "their" letters in another word, or "sign" their drawings and stories with their names

When you spend a lot of time on letter of the week, many of your students work on letters they already know, while others see and study letters out of a meaningful context. In some cases, student's forget the letter from the previous week while they are learning the new letter because they are only looking at one item at a time.

Closing Remarks
In the book, The Intentional Teacher, Epstein writes that research has shown that there are four specific abilities that young children need to develop in order to become speakers, readers, and writers. Those abilities include: phonological awareness, comprehension, print awareness, and alphabet knowledge. Letter of the week does not engage young children in all of these areas, but reading books with rhymes, pointing out concepts of print as you read big books, providing students with opportunities for conversation, using student names for class books, name charts, and games, and drawing students' attention to the way letters are formed through letter sorts or verbal path directions does.

I encourage you to examine your schedule and ask yourself these questions. How can you integrate literacy skills throughout your entire day and in all content areas?How can you weave literacy skills throughout your day to make your instruction more effective (through read alouds, reading and writing materials in every center, add props to centers to facilitate conversation, language learning, and alphabet knowledge)? Are you still teaching the letters in isolation? If so, how can you integrate their names into your instruction?

I know many of you might be thinking that letter of the week and drill and practice activities are effective instructional strategies because you have used them for years and your students leave at the end of the year knowing the alphabet and its sounds. Keep in mind that just because a student can memorize something does not mean that they truly understand it or that they can apply it beyond rote memory.

For those of you who are still hesitant or who are completely resistance to the idea of doing away with letter of the week, I give you this wonderful quote from Maya Angelou to consider "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better."


Becky said...

I have only taught 4 years.. but I was going nuts because I desperately wanted to teach like this. So many of my teammates were convinced the alphabet had to be taught 1 letter at a time.... ugh! Love this post!

martha brown said...

This is a GREAT post.
I was moved out of Kindergarten a few years ago :( and am currently teaching Grade 1 in Canada. Here, my students are 5 and 6 years old -- is the Intentional Teacher book appropriate? I can't find any reviews on Amazon.

Kayla said...

this is SO interesting. i am in my second year of kinder and i have found letter of the week is challenging in quite a few areas.

the biggest push back i have heard for doing away with letter of the week is that you "can't do too much too fast with kindergartners". do you know if there is a reading series that does away with letter(s) of the week? or if there is research that documents the progress of readers in a traditional, letter of the week program vs a nontraditional program? would love to share that info with my team and admin!

April Larremore said...


I do not know of a curriculum that does away with letter of the week. Even the curriculum we use promotes letter of the week. We tell our teachers that is the only part of the curriculum we do not want them to follow.
I would love to find some solid research comparing letter of the week vs. not using it. Maybe I should have written my dissertation on that :) Fountas and Pinnell write against it in their work and they are big literacy gurus. Honestly, all of the literature I read these days writes against it. Most of the research that the literature falls back on related to children learning better when something is put in meaningful context rather than in isolation. If I find any more information or references then I will post them.

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