how we teach letters

My school uses the Tools of the Mind curriculum, which, like any curriculum, has its pros and cons. I supplement Tools with lots of Reggio and a bit of Montessori, and the curriculum is flexible enough to allow for that (and represent your children). You can read scholarly things about Tools here or here, but my favorite thing about the curriculum is the way that it teaches children to write.

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Every day, prior to make-believe play, after opening group, the children write a “play plan,” which is a picture of what they are going to do during play. As the children’s drawing becomes more representational, we move onto their spoken message, representing, at first, each word in their message with a line. When the children are writing their own lines, one line for each word in their message (also practicing their one-to-one correspondence), we start to segment the words into sounds (starting with the initial sounds). The children learn letters by breaking down the sounds in words that are meaningful to them.

I love this approach for two big reasons: when they are ready, the children learn letters in ways that are completely relevant and meaningful to them, and we focus on teaching letters first by learning the letter sounds (think about it: do you need to know the names or the sounds in order to read and write?).

As opposed to programs that do rote memorization or “letter of the week” approaches, this way waits until children are developmentally ready to learn letters (we know they understand symbolic representation and are confident in their fine motor abilities from their pictures). The students also learn letters when they’re relevant to them, and in ways that are totally meaningful to them. This approach never asks the teacher to assume all of her students are in the same place to, or have the same motivation to, learn the letter “A” at the same time. We focus on the meaning of letters, especially as they apply to words. In this same vein, we also do a lot of work with the names in our class.

I also heard recently about letter books, from a friend whose children is in a Montessori school. Her daughter’s teacher makes a “letter book” (a folded sheet of paper) of her daughter’s four favorite things (often it’s just the names of the members of their families), drawing out the first letter. I’ve started doing this for some of my kids who are loving letters right now during free choice times.

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