Letter Recognition for Reading in Special Education

A Foundational Skill for Emerging Readers

Boys and girls (6-9 years) showing alphabet block, directly below
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Letter recognition is the first skill a child needs to learn before beginning the task of learning decoding skills and then word recognition. Small children often learn to recognize the letters in their name first, and with that, they gain the understanding that letters, when put together, lead to meaning. Learning disabled children often do not.

A reading disability can start anywhere on the chain that leads to reading fluency.

It can often begin at the beginning: with letter recognition.

Teachers sometimes make the mistake of “piling on,” trying to teach letter sounds at the same time as teaching letter recognition. Children who are clearly developmentally and intellectually ready to begin reading will quickly begin to see the relationship between letters and letter sounds. Learning disabled children will only find it confusing.

Helping Learning Disabled Children with Letter Recognition:

Consonants: When matching letters to pictures, stick to initial letter sounds for any letter matching and stick to one sound. Stick to the hard c and hard g. Never use “Circus” for the letter C. Never use gymnasium for the letter g. Or the vowel Y sound for the letter Y (Yellow, not Yodel.) Don’t try to get children to master the consonant sounds in the middle or final position until they are 100% with lower case d, p, b, and q.

Vowels: When teaching the vowels, stick to words that start with the short vowel sound, a is ant, not auto, aardvark, or Asperger's (none of which start with the short a sound.) Stick to short vowels, since they will be the glue for single syllable words. In Wilson Reading, a direct instruction program for reading, these are called closed syllables.

Problems with Letter Orientation. Back in the 70s, reading professionals focused a lot on “dyslexia” with the belief that the primary problem was letter or word reversal. It is true there are some children who do have a problem with letter orientation, but often learning disabled children have weak left right orientation. I have noticed that young learning disabled children often have poor coordination and lack muscle tone.

Multisensory Approaches to Letter Recognition

Multi-sensory approaches are good to help learning disabled students build strong directionality. Hand over hand students who are not starting their letters correctly. This is not a place for creativity. Lower case d’s are circle stick. Lower case p’s are tail and circle. In that order. Always. 

  • Sand writing: Wet sand in a dishpan or a wading pool. Have the children working on letter recognition make the letters as you call them out. Then give each of the children a turn to call out a letter for the others to make. Stick to one or two problem letters: b and p, g and q, or r and n. Try using a ruler for your letter bases.
  • Pudding writing: Be sure hands are clean before initiating this activity. Tape waxed paper or clear wrap practice in on a table surface, and spoon out some chocolate (or another favorite) pudding on the paper/wrap. Have children spread the pudding out, like finger painting, and write the letters in the pudding as you call them out. Licking is allowed. Be sure to have plenty of paper towels handy.
  • Sidewalk writing: Have your students write letters with sidewalk chalk as you call them out.
  • Letter tag. Write letters on a hard surface playground. Stick to the ones you are focusing on. Call out a letter: anyone standing on the letter is safe. Call out another letter: the children need to run to another letter to be safe.