letter of the week?

I teach my students a letter of the alphabet each week.

Phew.  I said it.  I know that those are fighting words to some teachers, so I’m prepared to hear why some of you DON’T do a letter of the week.  And also to respect your arguments.  Here’s a little bit about why I do it.

When I got my master’s degree, I was taught to use a very naturalistic, child-centered, theme-based approach.  That’s what I did in my first year of teaching, and in my second year, I had to face the fact that I had sent my kindergartners off to first grade unprepared.  Sure, I’d talked about letters a lot, and we had played with letter puzzles and magnets, and we had read a ton of books, but none of it really sank in, and they arrived at first grade without being solid in the alphabet.  Granted, this may have had quite a bit to do with the fact that I was a first year teacher, but I also felt that my approach was part of the problem.

The kindergarten team was made up of four women, all of us relatively new to teaching, so we used our lunch breaks and our team meetings to hash out — and agonize — over what we had been taught to do, and what was actually going to work for our students, 98% of whom lived in poverty.  One woman on the team, who is African-American, started teaching her students in a more thorough, teacher-directed way, and we saw that it was working.  We read Other People’s Children, by Lisa Delpit, and we visited an Afro-centric charter school that was using direct instruction, and we started to modify what we were doing.  What I learned most from Other People’s Children was not to make assumptions.

What we think of as a “normal” curriculum for kindergarten or first grade, based on what teachers have been doing for years, works based on the assumption that parents do their part:  read to their children daily, talk to them, listen to them, take them places, give them educational toys.  Children in poverty generally don’t get these things, and they arrive at kindergarten almost completely unready for a traditional curriculum.  We can’t assume that they have been exposed to the alphabet, or that those little squiggles have any meaning to them at all; we have to give them what they are missing, and what they need.

For that reason, I spend a week on each letter.  I teach what the capital letter looks like, what the lower case letter looks like, and what sound it makes.  We practice the names and sounds of the letters daily, and my pack of letter and picture cards gets bigger each week, so we keep revisiting the old ones.  We look at a bunch of ABC books, just for the page of the letter of the week, and we compare the pictures for that letter in each book.  I sing their names in our good morning song, pretending that they all start with that letter.  We write it in shaving cream or we write it on whiteboards.  We look at our nametags, and figure out who starts with that letter, and who has that letter in our name.  I’m always looking for new ways to highlight the letter of the week, and revisit the letters we’ve already learned.

On the other hand, there are definitely some thoughtful reasons not to do a letter each week, like this page from Pre-K Pages, and this book at Amazon.  What do you all think?

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15 thoughts on “letter of the week?

  1. One of the reasons I’ve never done it is because it would take 26 weeks of school to introduce the entire alphabet. I don’t have that kind of time. 😦 I usually introduce the entire alphabet right from the get go. We may “spotlight” one or two letters each week, but we still work on all of them every day.

    I start my babies with “The ABC Book,” which is something I made. Each page has a letter, both capital and lowercase, a picture, and the name of the picture. We then say the letter name, the sound and the name of the picture for each page. (For example: “A, /a/, apple.”) We do this every morning, starting on Day 1 of the year. After a while, we do it backwards, and then eventually I mix it up and do it in random order. A few weeks into school I also add the ASL sign for each letter (the babies LOVE this!). It never ceases to amaze me that they still ask to do this silly book in June, when I’m so over it! 😛

    Another HUGE part of my “program” is “Chica Chica Boom Boom.” It would take me way too long to tell you all the things we do in my based on that awesome book. I LOVE IT!

    But, back to your question, I think you should do whatever works for you and your babies. If you and your coworkers have found a system that works, why change it? I guess I was no help, whatsoever, was I? 😦

  2. I think that both of those methods are very helpful in teaching the students the alphabet. But I would agree with Chitown girl because one letter per week seems very lengthy and time consuming. I would rather be able to get it over with in just a few weeks so I can work on other lesson plans.

    While I’m talking about lesson plans, I think that one of the best books that any teacher should use for their lesson plan is a book by Elaina Redmond called “The Power of the Penny”. You guys should look into it because it has been one of the best lesson plans I do all year and it teaches the kids American values using a brief history of Abraham Lincoln and the importance of the penny.

    It is just a thought and some advice if you are looking to get a new lesson plan.

    Take care!

  3. This is how we do our program. I think it is very effective. Also, as you said, you are letting them experience the letter in other aspects to so there is the opportunity for play and learning with the other aspects too.

  4. Thanks for the link to pre-kpages. I spend a lot of time trying to convince my students, who teach preschool, that the letter of the week is not appropriate. The site had the best article I’ve ever seen on the subject.They often work for programs that insist they do it so we talk about how to make it as appropriate as possible. I also talk about the necessity for constantly reinforcing what they alreasy know and that just because you taught L last week it doesn’t mean you can ignore it this week.
    I’m a believer in a more balanced approach that meets the needs of all kinds of learners, and an even greater believer in letting preschoolers be preschoolers.

  5. I teach kindergarten. I believe in using everything to help my students learn to read. I teacher the letters and the sounds in and out of order. I use literature and environmental print, Chica Chica Boom Boom and my large collection of ABC books. I have taught for many years and what I notice is that some students need direct instruction. Some students can learn with theme based units. I do everything in appropriate quanities. Students are interested and engaged because there is something for everyone to learn. I integrate subjects so that students can use their new reading skills in a variety of applications.
    So to apply this to your question, I think you should assess the needs of your students and give them what they need in a format that works. Each year you will probably add to your program something else that you found works until you too have a wide variety of teaching strategies that you can use depending on your group of students that year. Don’t be afraid to try new ideas along with the things that work for your students.

  6. Thankyou! It’s refreshing to hear someone be willing to teach what works for the students and not whats the current trend. I’ve worked with children since 1976 in some form…church nurserys, university child care teaching programs, infant programs, my own home daycare and currently at a public school fullday childcare program for families below the poverty level (I also have my own children between the age of 2 and 25).
    I have seen a lot of teaching styles come and go…my belief is that you take the best from each of them and do what’s best for the students you are working with. I completely agree that you have to teach the children of parents with six-figure incomes who have had all the advantages since birth in a different way than the students who live in poverty situations and have never set foot in a library. And even within a classroom…and sometimes from year to year…you will find that your students are different and you will need to teach in a way that works for them.
    I have always been a fan of the LOTW. I don’t usually teach the letters in order…I teach them based on what theme we are working on. However, I also provide lots of time for free play, we do journals (and have a wonderful writing center), we have environmental print around the room, a word wall. I even incorporate some Montessori techniques every now and then. It has worked well in my room for years. I collaborate with the kindergarten teachers in our district and we have always gotten lots of praise for what we do with our children. Now go back 2 years at my center. A new teacher was hired…we share a classroom…he also was taught in a very naturalist, child centered approach. The first year he had his own classroom and ran things the way he wanted…he did some cool things with the kids…but, these kids were in our one paid fee program…all of the kids came from very well to do families…the things he did were great because these kids had a lot experiences. Our director was in love with him because of all the well-deserved kudos he got from the parents.Then that classroom was shut down because of budgetary issues last year and we shared a classroom this past year. Because we don’t have the money for a set curriculum the teachers have always created their own lesson plans based on our district standards. At the beginning of the year this new teacher felt we should all be on the same page…so did our director…and the rest of us teachers thought so too (that is until the same page became following his style…no teacher directed activities at all, no small groups, no craft activities at all, (one of the aides got yelled at because she created a little person out of clay…he hates examples). We were supposed to watch the children and then create a lesson based on what they were interested in that week. He didn’t want a computer in the classroom…didn’t like the weekly homework I sent home because I had a basic worksheet attached (all homework activities are things the parents are to do with their children). To make a long story short..the other teachers and I got fed up..went to our director…who hadn’t even realized he was going the extremes he was…we had a meeting and he threw his arm up talking about the rest of us not wanting to be on the same team…he is looking for another job and I’m relieved.
    I feel terrible because the group of kids I am sending off to kindergarten this year are not half as prepared as our past classes.But, I am going back to the style that works for the children…
    Sorry this became a book, but I hate it when teachers believe their way is the only way.

  7. Thanks for including a link to my site in your post. I think there have been a lot of valid points already made here so I won’t repeat those. However, I wanted to point out that students who are at-risk can also learn successfully when taught using a balanced, integrated approach to letters. I teach in an urban district and our pre-k students are all low-income or English Language Learners and have very difficult home lives. That has never stopped any of them from learning all upper and lowercase letters, letter sounds, or from learning how to read. It is important when working with at-risk students to use the most accelerative literacy practices instead of ones that could potentially slow them down.

    My students (4 yr olds) typically came in at the 0/0 level in literacy, meaning they did not recognize or name any letters, upper or lower. By teaching the letters in context, but also being very balanced and intentional in my teaching, they could recognize all uppers and almost all lowers AND letter sounds by December so that we could start formal reading instruction in January. Just food for thought.

    I really enjoy reading your posts, keep up the good work and good luck on the first day!

  8. I had a similar experience – but it was the other way around! When I first started teaching I used letter of the week – and I always felt like my children were being sent off to Kindergarten unprepared because none of it ever sank in fully. They couldn’t seem to relate to the letters or figure out how they fit into the real world – thus they didn’t retain the information. But this could’ve have been because I was a new teacher and very unsure of the best way to really teach letter of the week.

    After this I moved on to theme based approach where I introduced the letters in a natural play-based way. Everything was just kinda integrated together and flowed well. I didn’t bother to single out any specific letters and “teach” just that letter. I modeled writing and reading and sounding out words. I created a word wall for thematic words, colors, shapes, and student names. They constantly would go over and “read” the words and letters. I started morning message and journals at this time and they helped to teach letters and sounds. Then suddenly, without me realizing it – my children knew their letters and sounds! It was amazing – and I knew and felt that they were prepared to move on!

    In then end, you have to teach in a way that works well for you and your class. While many teachers out there might not do letter of the week, if it works for you – great! I respect that – even though it didn’t work for me. If we all did everything the same way – we couldn’t learn from each other! 🙂

    • Deepblue — thanks for commenting. I love it that your experience was the opposite of mine. It’s so interesting to see how different teachers do things, and to develop your own style based on what you borrow from others, and what works for you. But actually, we probably do a lot of things similarly. We do themes, and we model writing and reading and sounding out words, and we have a word wall, too. Anyway, I love hearing about what others do, so thanks again for commenting.

  9. I don’t do an assigned “letter of the week.” Our preschool is a theme based/creative curriculum preschool. I do work heavily with the alphabet. Letters are a natural part of my lessons each school day. I keep track of the letters we’ve worked with and try to hit every letter in the alphabet throughout the school year. I’ve had the literacy training. I’m on the fence about the letter of the week, since I think it interferes with our preschool’s philosophy, so I’ve found my way of teaching letters and numbers that fits our teaching philosophy.

    There are so many variables when it comes to planning and teaching there is no one right way. If only it were that simple, but I think teaching wouldn’t be as fun if there was only one way to do things, LOL.

  10. I do respect the thoughts of the teachers in this posting. One comment really made me reflect. Everything we do should be about what is best for children. The long held traditional practice of letter of the week doesn’t fit with the needed differentiated approach that is so desperately needed for all types of learners. One question that someone asked a teacher earlier this year was, “What do you do for the students who already know the letter you are working on this week?” I know educational trends come and go, but I have the belief that everything we learn can help us become better at what we do. The recent 2008 powerpoint released from the IRA does explicitly summarize remarkable and significant increases in student performances. The results released in this particular study indicated that teachers who did not use the “Letter of the Week” approach over those that did were far more remarkable in student gains. I think every study has value when many students have been influenced so greatly. Even though some teaching strategies and ideas have always worked for some, a note to ponder on is this, “What if I tried this new approach?” Could it be that the positive results my students have shown in the past could be increased even more exponentially? Anything that could possibly produce even more gains than ever before is worth a second look.

  11. I don’t have the years of teaching under my belt like the rest of you, but I want to tell you all about something that has really influenced the way I teach the ABCs to my son. It’s called the “Amazing Action Alphabet”. The website is http://www.seeheardocompany.com. It’s soo fun, effective and works almost instantly since it’s teaching the letters through a song, action, with a lively animal character in the shape of the letter. So B the Bear blows bright blue bubbles, “B-b-b” is the sound she makes while blowing into her bubble blower. The upper and lower Bb is in the shape of bear, and the action is to pretend you are blowing bubbles with your hand as it is a bubble wand.

    You should all check it out!
    http://www.seeheardocompany.com

  12. Pingback: we are on a roll « Elbows, knees, dreams

  13. Being in the UK, I find the differences between our school systems interesting. Here, K is the equivalent of Year 1 (age 5-6) and virtually all children start in full-time Pre-K (Foundation Stage 2, age 4-5). A majority attend Foundation Stage 1 beforehand (age 3-4) in schools or private nursery schools.

    Children begin learning the alphabet in FS1. By the end of FS2/Pre-K children have to have been taught all of the alphabet plus one digraph or trigraph for each extra phoneme in English (apart from /zh/) e.g. oo, air, igh. They are expected to be able to read and write polysyllabic words with consonant blends and digraphs/trigraphs and write correctly spelt sentences and captions using regular words.

    At the start of Year 1/K they have to be taught all the main spelling alternatives for each phoneme e.g. ee, ea, ey, e-e and be able to use them in reading and writing. They have to know that ow can be /oa/ like in snow or /ou/ like in cow. They have to know that /ai/ is usually spelt as ay at the end of a word and a-e or ai in the middle of a word, and select graphemes appropriately, and they have to understand terminology like “split vowel digraphs”.

    A child who started K not knowing any letters of the alphabet or only a few would be considered behind and should get extra support to catch up.

    It seems a bit crazy to UK teachers that people might say that learning one letter a week is way too much for K children. Ours are expected to know much more than just the alphabet by the end of Pre-K. (Yes, it’s not developmentally appropriate for some children, but the majority are capable of it).

    Also we don’t teach the alphabet in ABC order. We teach it in an order that keeps very similar sounds apart in the teaching sequence and is designed to maximise the number of words that can be read/written with the graphemes known. E.g. first you learn s a t p i n then m g o d c k ck. That way you can start when only a few letters are known to apply them to real, decodable CVC words – tin, pin, in, at, tap, sat, nip, pit, tan, pan… you can’t make many words with a b c d e f. Letter names are not taught until later when the letter sounds are secure.

    I’d be really interested to know what you think about these differences.

    • I think those differences are fascinating. And a bit mind-boggling. I cannot imagine our typical K students learning the different phonemes and understanding what “split vowel digraph” means! Nor can I imagine expecting all preschoolers to be writing correctly spelled sentences……Even our advantaged, gifted kids wouldn’t necessarily be doing that. And our little ones who come from homes in poverty and haven’t been read to or taught the alphabet?! Definitely not.

      Are these expectations nationwide? Do you have students in poverty who come to preK or K not knowing the alphabet, let alone how to write their name or sit and listen to a story? I mean, I know you have students in poverty; is the culture so different than it is here, that even the poorest parents prepare their kids adequately for school? If that’s the case, then I am amazed and jealous.

      As for learning a letter a week — I don’t think most people here would say it’s too much for K kids. But a lot of people don’t like it because it is too artificial or regimented, and they think it isn’t effective. I do it with my preschoolers, and I do expect that they will learn the majority of the letters by the end of the year. Most of them start knowing none. I do what you do as well, in terms of the order. It doesn’t make any sense to do it in ABC order. We learn the letters in order of usefulness for making words, just like you do.

      Thanks so much for weighing in!

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