Teaching the Alphabet: Effective Techniques for Late Bloomers

Teaching the Alphabet: Effective Techniques for Late Bloomers

Do you know how to teach the alphabet to “late bloomers,” or any child who is learning a bit more slowly than others?  The 52 letters necessary for children to learn and the minimum 26 basic sounds of each letter can seem like a giant mountain to climb at the beginning of kindergarten!  In this post, I will share the best techniques in my “bag of tricks” I have developed over the past 25 years of teaching kindergarten in a low-income, Title One school in Southern California.

California has state standards for preschool that say children should learn the alphabet in preschool and pre-K. California children are supposed to start Kindergarten only needing a short review of the alphabet and letter sounds, and then it’s on to the big adventure of learning to read!  Since all children do not have access to free public preschool, this seems like an unreasonable expectation to me.

Behind in Kindergarten on Day ONE?

Because of these state standards, most of my students were technically behind on day one of kindergarten.  I needed to teach the alphabet quickly and efficiently to get them caught up. Otherwise, the research tells us that they will likely spend the rest of their school career getting farther and farther behind because the achievement gap just continues to grow.

With this in mind, here are a few things that I have been working on to help solve this problem.  I have been using many of these methods for many years now!  Hopefully, they will be helpful to ideas that are relevant to you!

In any case, we are doing well so far!  At the very start of the school year, the class average for knowing letter sounds was just 9 per child.  After only five weeks, our class average is 24 out of 26 letter sounds per child!  And I think that is pretty great!  The child who knows the fewest letter sounds now has 17 of them.  Our class average on entry for letter names was 32 out of 52, and now it is 42.  The child who knows the fewest letter names already has 15 of them.  I am so proud of their progress!

Here is How I Did It!

Teaching the alphabet

Here is a free download for the award ribbon above!

1.  Letter Sounds Club  (AKA:  A Little Motivation, Please!)

Last year, one of my colleagues came up with the idea of making a chart that the children could add their names to when they all learned their letter sounds.  It is very similar to the Number Club, in which the children get to add their names once they know all of their numbers 0-30.

My priority is this: first, I concentrate on the letter sounds, then the lowercase letter names, and finally, the capitals. Why? Because once they know the letter sounds, they can begin to learn to read.  Also, they will see the lower case letters much more often than the capitals, so these will be more important for them to learn first.  Once they know the lowercase letters, the capitals will follow, especially since many of them are look-alike letters anyway.  🙂

2.  Extra Progress Reports  (Communication, please!)

I sent home a progress report at the end of last week to let parents know how their children were doing.  (Yes, I do realize that it was only the end of the fourth week of school!)  But I figure that if I am going to get them to help their children master the alphabet by the end of the first trimester, I want to start lighting that fire ASAP!  I am attaching this progress report for you as a free download, in case you would like to do the same! Even if only half of them take the information and try a little to help their children, it’s worth the effort. If it helps a little bit, it’s worth a try. I will also send home a fresh set of alphabet flash cards with some of them to practice with.

3.  Extra Parent Conferences for Those That Are REALLY Struggling (AKA:  Empower Those at Home to HELP!)

I held an extra parent conference last week with one child’s parents who were really concerned about her slow progress in learning the letter names.  At this conference, I sat and modeled how to teach their child the letters.  I sat with them and showed them three or four different ways to practice the alphabet with their child, and also showed them my Letters and Sounds Video Collection.

Last week, the little girl knew just four or five lowercase letters, but today, during after-school tutoring, she identified SEVENTEEN lowercase letters!!!!  So I think this must have really paid off!  Even I was amazed at the change in her ability to identify the letters!  Wow!  Remember, any time you spend training parents to help children is time well spent because they have MUCH more time to spend individually with their children than you do!


Teaching the alphabet with a fluency chart
This is a Fluency Chart for teaching the alphabet. It’s like a stack of


4.  Individualized Fluency Charts for Late Bloomers (Break Down the Task Into Manageable Chunks)

For my after-school tutoring group, I made individualized Fluency Charts for each child to help teach the alphabet.  If you are unfamiliar, these are charts that can be used to practice any items that need to be memorized, such as letters, shapes, numbers, or words.  They are sometimes also referred to as Rapid Automatic Naming Boards (RAN Boards.)  The basic idea is that you need to limit the number of items on the board to just a few and repeat them over and over.  Then the child practices reading the entire chart as fast as he or she possibly can. 

How to Use a Fluency Chart

Fluency charts are really the equivalent of giving the child a stack of flashcards but with the same words or letters written several times on lots of different flashcards.  During my tutoring group, I had the children try to find all of the A’s, for example, and color them all the same red.   Then find all of the lower case c’s and color them yellow, etc.  I am including one of these charts for you here as a free download in Word format, so that you should be able to edit it yourself. Or we have prettier, pre-made ones available on our website for $3! 🙂

Using Fluency Charts in a Small Group to Teach the Alphabet

Once I got all of the children in the group started, I stopped ONE of them and asked that child to practice saying the letters on his or her Fluency Chart with me.  When that child finished, I went on to the next child and did the same thing, and so on.  It’s a method that has worked for me quite well, year after year.  I also send a copy of these charts home with each child so that they can work on them at home, and I update them regularly as well.  When I send them home, I often hand the chart directly to the parent at the door!


5.  Tricks for Teaching the Alphabet Names (Try Some Mnemonics On For Size!)

Once I have the children in small groups, I try to show the children the relationship that many of the letter sounds have to the letter names.  For example, the sound of the M and its letter name have a definite connection, so these letters will be easier for them to learn.  The “Sounds to Letters” song in our Letters and Sounds video collection, available on our HeidiSongs.tv Video Streaming Site (shown above and below) is also useful for establishing this connection.

Over the years, I have developed a few tricks to help the children remember some of the letter names that have no connection to the letter sound, such as the letter Y.  Below I have listed the ones that I know of.  If you know of any others that work well for you, I would LOVE to hear about them!  Please leave a comment on this blog and tell us!  I am confident that if we all put our heads together, we can come up with a MUCH better curriculum than anything our district can hand us, so let’s go for it!

  • Y:  For this letter, I tell them to throw their hands up in the air and make a letter Y with their bodies.  Then they should say, “WHY can’t I remember????”  This always makes them laugh, and they usually remember it from that point on.
  • G:   For the lower case G, I have them trace it in the air, but when they get to the “tail” of the G, they turn it into a “pirate-like” motion, and say, “GEE, I wish I could remember!”
  • H: I have them make the H sound and start running, just like they do at the beginning of my H song. Once they start singing the song, the lyrics will lead them to the letter name.
  • Q:  The beginning of the Q song has the children making cuckoo clock motions, which the kids seem to remember, but I tell them to say “Q, Q!”  instead of “cuckoo!” (with my head popping forward and back, of COURSE!)  They think that is hilarious, too, and anything that tickles a kid’s funny bones is more likely to help them remember something, at least according to research.
  • C:  I have them make a sign language C, which is also in my C song in the video collection.  So the children start singing the C song, which includes sign language for the letter C, and then a second or two later they have already said the letter name, just like magic!  “To make a letter C, C, C, it’s half a circle, C, C, C….”
  • I:  We start singing the beginning of the I song, and that’s it!  “/i/, /i/, I!  /i/, /i/, I!”
  • J:  The children usually really like the J song, so when I show it to them, I have them shout out the end of the song, which ends just like “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,” but it goes “J, J, J, J, J, J, J, J!”  They raise their hands up in the air and bring them down to the ground as they do it, so it makes it fun.
  • U:  I draw a couple of eyes on top of it and say, “It’s YOU!” Then we sing a snippet from the U song:  “It’s a smiley, smiley, letter U!”
  • W:  I have them draw a W in the air and start to sing the W song, which goes with the motion of drawing the W.  “It’s a W, a W!  Everybody make a W!”


6.  Zoo Phonics Cards to Actively Teach the Alphabet

Teaching the alphabet
These are the fronts of the Zoo Phonics Cards.
Teaching the alphabet
I added these plain letters to the backs of my cards.

If you are not familiar with Zoo-Phonics, it is a multi-sensory method of teaching letter sounds.  This is a resource I used every year to teach the alphabet names also.  The Zoo Phonics company has never compensated me for my recommendations.  I have just been using their products in my classroom for many years since my district purchased them for me sometime in the early 1990s, and I have been a believer ever since!

This is how it works:

  1. Show children a Zoo Phonics lowercase flashcard.  (I always teach just the lowercase letters first.)
  2. They must respond by looking at it, saying the sound, hearing others say the sound, and doing the motion associated with the card- ALL AT THE SAME TIME.   (The video below shows the motions for the Zoo Phonics cards.)
  3. After about three weeks of school, I take my cards and flip them over to the back, where I have printed plain lowercase letters.  I ask the children to do the Zoo Phonics movements with the plain letters, even though the Zoo Phonics characters are not there.  (This is very important!)
  4. It takes most of the children in my Kindergarten class about three to four weeks to learn ALL of the letter sounds—that’s it! (Of course, there are always a few stragglers, and that’s what this blog post is about.)

If a child is not learning with Zoo Phonics, it is usually because of a couple of reasons:

They have to see it, say it, hear it, and do it- SIMULTANEOUSLY!

  • – If the child’s attention wanders, and he stops looking at the cards, then this affects learning.  This could be due to simple behavior, or actual medical issues such as ADHD.   Working with a child one-on-one daily usually can solve the problem, though.  Also, be sure to check the child’s vision to make sure the child can physically see!  When in doubt, use nice BIG letters.  Print them out so large that they fill up the whole 8.5″ piece of paper, such as with a 400-point font!
  • – If the child is doing the motions, but doesn’t say the sound, then this affects learning.
  • – If the child says the sound but refuses to move his or her body, this will affect learning.
  • – If the child cannot hear the sounds (due to a physical disability), then, of course, this affects learning.
  • – If the child is having trouble discriminating (telling the difference) between the sounds that he hears, then this affects learning.  For example, if the child confuses the beginning sound of the short E (as in “elephant”) with the beginning sound of – I (as in “inchworm”) then this will affect learning.


Teaching the alphabet
This is a very effective way of teaching the alphabet sounds.

Of course, you can buy a Zoo Phonics kit or make your own flashcards using their Zoo-Phonics Font. I do have the kit, and I also make my own flash cards because my old ones were worn out YEARS ago from overuse! Plus, I wanted to make a set to put on the wall.

Transitioning From the Zoo Phonics Cards to Plain Letters to Teach the Alphabet

One thing that their company does not offer (at least not that I know of,) is something that I like to refer to as “Transitional” flash cards.  To make these, I print out the Zoo-Phonics card and glue it on one side of the card, and then I print out an ordinary matching letter and glue it on the back of that card.  Then, I laminate the cards and trim off the excess lamination.  And, voilá!  I now have a set of “Transitional” Zoo-Phonics Flash Cards.

These cards are very important to me in helping the children learn the names of the letters, because once they know the letter sounds, (which are fairly easy to learn with the use of their cards and my Letters and Sounds Videos) I can help them transition over to the letter names with the use of these cards.  I can also train them to tell me the sounds of the letters WITHOUT looking at the Zoo-Phonics card by using these cards.  This is what I do; it’s actually pretty sneaky, I think, because the children don’t even seem to notice the change!

How to Use Transitional Zoo Phonics Letter Cards to Teach the Alphabet

One day, when drilling the children with the Zoo-Phonics cards, I just flip them around to the back and simply start using the other side and ask them to respond the same way.  Usually, I don’t even have to ask!  Somebody will start going “/a/, /a/, /a/!” and making alligator chopping motions, for example when they see the letter A.  If the kids are stumped, I flip the card to back for a quick peek at the Zoo-Phonics card, and then quickly flip it back again to the regular letter.  That way, when they are making the motion, they are looking at the regular flash cards, NOT the Zoo-Phonics card!  This “imprints” the sound on their minds, and most children make the transition away from the Zoo Phonics cards onto plain letter cards very quickly.

The Next Step

Once most of the children know the letter sounds, I add a third element to the drill to teach the alphabet. Each time I show a card, I say, “Sound?”  Then they make the sound.  Then I say “Letter name?”  Then they say the letter name.  Given that this is a whole group activity, the more advanced children tend to pull the struggling learners along, and that really helps!  They hear their peers responding and do the same.  I watch the entire group, and NOBODY is allowed to just stand there and so or say nothing.  They MUST all try, even if they are only repeating what they hear after somebody else says it first, AND I must see their bodies (and mouths) moving with the motions.

A Full Body Response is Vital

This full-body response is vitally important to the learning process for young children.  Insisting that everyone participate may seem a bit “over the top” to some, but I am convinced that this is the key to learning, so I continue to insist upon it each year.  Once the children understand that I don’t take “no” for an answer, I do get full cooperation, and learning usually follows.  If a child does not cooperate, I tell them that we will practice together at playtime!  Then later, I work with the child individually on the very same activity to teach the alphabet.  This usually only has to happen once or twice!  The children really prefer to play than work, so they eventually figure it out.

Having trouble teaching number recognition?  This is the exact same process I use for teaching the names of the numerals, but I use the Jumpin’ Numbers and Shakin’ Shapes flash cards and the Number Jumble videos and it works like a charm!  If you would like to read my blog post on how to teach numbers and shapes in a similar way, click here.

7.   Try Over-Sized Letters to Teach the Alphabet

Some children just do better when you drill them with very large letters. I print out single letters large enough for one letter to fill an entire 8.5 x 11″ piece of paper. (I have a laminated set that I use every year to drill my class whole group.) One year, I had a child who was struggling terribly. He was literally making no progress at all on anything except for the Zoo Phonics letters.

A Child Making Zero Progress?

This boy could not identify any of the five letters in his name, although he had no problem writing it!   I worked with him in a small group after school, three days a week. We used the fluency charts and the Zoo Phonics cards.  He simply couldn’t remember ANYTHING when I switched from the large Zoo Phonics cards to the smaller charts.  But the kicker was that he had had his eyes checked, and apparently, he had 20/20 vision!  Both the school nurse, his pediatrician, and his optometrist said that he did not need glasses.  But I was determined to figure out what the problem was.  (See the last paragraph!)

If You Find Something that WORKS…

After a month of trying, I gave up on the fluency charts, because they were obviously not helping at ALL.  But, I noticed that he often knew the letters on the backs of the Zoo Phonics cards. So we switched to only using alphabet cards that were just as large as the Zoo Phonics cards.  The font was 300-point Comic Sans, so that’s BIG!  I sent home copies of the oversized flashcards, and THEN we started seeing some progress—although it was slow. At that point, I was so happy to see some progress!  I had found the key!

He did eventually learn most of the alphabet by Christmas.  The interesting thing about this child was that he had many skills and strengths.  His only deficit was in remembering items presented visually and labeling them, such as letters, numbers, sight words, etc.  He was great at phonemic awareness and had a nice-sized vocabulary.   This little boy had great fine motor skills, was very cooperative, and had many friends.  Clearly an intelligent child, and his parents were helping him every single night with everything that I suggested.  They spoke only English at home, so there were no other languages at play.  Essentially, absolutely everything was in place that should have been in place, or so it seemed.  He simply couldn’t remember visual symbols and attach a label to them as quickly and efficiently as his peers.

What finally happened?

This sweet child went on to first grade the following year, and I saw him in the hall around December. I was completely shocked to see him wearing some very THICK glasses! Later that week, I saw his mother, and I asked her what had happened. She said that he had been diagnosed with astigmatism in both eyes. I honestly don’t understand how we missed this in Kindergarten!  I suspect someone was not being completely honest with me about check-ups, perhaps.  Who knows?

I hope that these tips are helpful to you!  If you have any questions, just send them to info@heidisongs.com, or leave a comment below.

– Heidi

Don’t forget to SUBSCRIBE to HeidiSongs.tv to Stream Our Videos, and follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest!  Check out our main website at HeidiSongs.com, and find us on Teachers Pay Teachers right here.