A year long study of the alphabet

by Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. on June 18, 2012

in Language Arts, Letter of the Week

For as long as I have been teaching, I have routinely included the letters of the alphabet into my planning each week – commonly referred to as “The Letter of the Week.” I took photos of this process all throughout the year and decided to share the photos and our experience with this process with you…

You can find different variations of “The Letter of the Week” process all over the web. The basic idea behind “The Letter of the Week” is to systematically focus on the shape and sound of at least one letter of the alphabet each week all through out the school year…

In our classroom, this process is very routine.  Each week, the children come to school and find a paper cut-out of the letter on the table along with bottles of glue and items that start with the sound of the letter. Then the children glue the materials to their letter as we talk about the sound and the name of the letter…

When choosing which items to glue on the letter, I like to select items that truly start with the letter of the week like beans for the letter “B” or cotton for the letter “C” but there are some letters that I always have trouble with like the letters “E” and “X”…

By the time my class got to about the third letter in our alphabet process, the children were pretty much self-sufficient in the process.  The children would head over to the table and gather up their own materials and get to work…

However, my students would often forget to glue their letters to the construction paper or whenever they did glue the letter to the paper, it was often glued upside down or backwards…

Because this process was very routine, I could easily see progress in the children’s ability to manage the glue bottles and to complete the entire process with little or no instruction from me beforehand…

The children also began to anticipate which letter would be next and if I didn’t set out a letter on any given week as expected, the children would often ask me when we were going to start on our new letter…

Although this process done alone does not help children recognize the shape or sound of a letter, I have always chosen to include this process because I have always believed it helps to facilitate conversations about the letters of the alphabet and that it gives the children opportunities to explore art tools and other materials along the way. In addition, I have always believed that the routine and consistency of this process helps young children to build confidence as long as the process can be open for each child to interpret the process in their own way rather than being told they “have to do it a certain way”…

This process ran smoothly for quite awhile throughout our school year and then about a little over half way through our letters, my younger students started getting bored with this process. I still set it out and made it part of their routine because – well because it is what I have always done….

My oldest students still seemed to enjoy the process and they continued to ask for it but my threes (now turning four) were done with it. By the time we reached the letter “S”, some of my younger students would pretty much refuse to give it a try…

And by the time we got to the letter T, all of my students had pretty much lost interest in this process. So we skipped the letter T…

But still, I really wanted to finish our set of letters so we wrapped up letters U through Z in one big letter project about 6 weeks before the end of our school year….

After we wrapped up our letters we moved on to do all the other things my students had enjoyed throughout the year like making slime, playing in our sand table, exploring nature, cooking up play dough, playing games outside, exploring waterbeads, examining bugs, and all those other wonderful experiences that my students enjoy…

“The Letter of the Week” is a process that looks very “preschool.”  It looks cute in photos, it looks age appropriate, and it looks academic.  In fact, there is nothing wrong with gluing cotton on the letter “C” or beans on the letter “B.”  However, I have discovered that deep and meaningful learning goes beyond just putting into place processes like “The Letter of the Week.”  Instead, meaningful and long lasting learning comes when young children are given creative, interesting and engaging opportunities to explore their environment  through play, discovery, investigation, questions, trial and error.

I share my experience with you today so that you will take the time to consider, reflect, and evaluate the processes you choose to use in your classroom or with your preschooler at home. Consider whether or not it is a process that deserves to be at the very top of your list of priorities. I say, if it is working and the children are finding the process interesting and inviting – then stick with it. If the children are starting to get bored, then change it up. If the children are clearly not enjoying the process anymore, then do something else!

 

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1 Barbaral June 18, 2012 at 10:54 pm

and so, will you or will you NOT use letter of the week for next year’s class? We have done basically the same, and have kept all of these pages and my teaching partner makes them into a keepsake book for each child. We add various other projects and some photos, nametags too. Like your class, though, our students seem to tire of the projects at some point during the year…but,the end project is so appreciated and enjoyed by all.
What to do???

2 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 18, 2012 at 11:06 pm

I will not do this again next year Barbara. I realized that it was taking away time from so many other things my class could get so much more out of and truly enjoys doing.

I understand the keepsake book – they are beautiful. But if a process isn’t truly teaching or engaging or child-focused but is instead more sentimental or teacher led, then it really needs to be reconsidered. I have a feeling, parents would love having a journal of their child’s drawings or stories far more than a set of letters that look so cute but are really not that original in the first place :)

3 christina June 18, 2012 at 11:49 pm

I wish more ‘play oriented’ preschool posts were written like this one – with support and deference given to some of the classic teaching styles. I get so so tired of hearing ‘play only’ bloggers trash for example a patterned craft activity. Presented appropriately and with the right mix of other stuff the occasional valentine card holder, cotton ball c, etc. is really appropriate, valuable and even fun activity. We had a guest teacher come in and she had all the kids make fire trucks with pre-cut supplies that she provided and they were so over the moon excited to match hers and it was really hard for them too. The activity was so untypical from what we present but yet it reminded me of the value of traditional activities. I hate to see flashcards in prek as much as i hate to see a classroom full of nothing but brown and white with old baskets full of sticks and pinecones and nothing else.

4 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 19, 2012 at 12:00 am

Hi Christina,
I do think that young children can enjoy and benefit from a “traditional experience” in preschool just as you described. The key for me is finding that right balance. I am an avid believer that young children learn through their play and am working hard to be more intentional in my planning so that our play experiences are helping young children meet their fullest potential. At the same time, the traditional teacher in me is still interwoven in all that we do. So I doubt I will ever be described as a true play-based teacher. I think I fit somewhere in the middle:)

5 Vanessa @Pre-K Pages June 19, 2012 at 8:39 am

Thank you for sharing your experiences with Letter of the Week Deborah. I was reminded of our book study last summer and how the authors, Fountas and Pinnell addressed the issue of LOTW so well. My summary of that particular chapter can be found here: Chapter 19, Literacy Beginnings. Another favorite quote is “Removing letters from their meaningful context removes the meaning and purpose from the letter.” I have compiled some information about how to move away from LOTW here that perhaps some of your readers might find useful Moving Away from Letter of the Week

6 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 19, 2012 at 9:53 pm

These are terrific resources Vanessa. I should have consulted you before writing this post so I could have given a bit more information for folks to look into. Thanks for adding these links! I will have to go back and read up:)

7 Charna June 19, 2012 at 10:47 pm

Thank you for the post! I followed the book club last summer and I reread that book several times. Our Pre-K has traditionally done a letter of the week curriculum and we will not be doing that next year either! It is exciting and we have been planning many authentic experiences for children. Thank you for the respectful way you wrote this post.

8 crystal@growingajeweledrose June 19, 2012 at 9:55 am

I love all the materials you chose for the letters. What a fun early literacy activities for little ones !

9 Elizabeth Ashton June 19, 2012 at 10:35 am

I love following your days along with a pop into my email inbox. Although I hesitated to read this one because of the title, I carried on through to the end and I was so pleased to learn of the trials and the challenges and joys from the children and yourself. For my private playschool, it is home based and I don’t offer the academics so to say of the alphabet. Instead, we explore and discover together what the alphabet shows us all in shapes and sizes and all the wonderful learning extensions that present itself along the way. I bring a few different philosophies into my programming, but keep it really simple and meaningful, and as we all agree it needs to be age and developmentally appropriate. I love the way a previous follower of yours wrote this “I hate to see flashcards in prek as much as i hate to see a classroom full of nothing but brown and white with old baskets full of sticks and pinecones and nothing else.” LOL It is so true! My program is nature based and we can bring all the elements of science, socialization, literacy, physical play, fine motor, art, drama, music, and so on, all into the class. I have two classes and the 3 yr olds are called the Chickadees and the 4 yr olds are the Robins. They are here for 4 hours twice a week and most time is spent outdoors (when it isn’t a deep freeze of snow and ice or a downpour with lightening). There is a world to discover both in and out and bringing the classroom outdoors and the outdoors inside. I really enjoy reading all the personal aspects of teachers of young children and what they feel to be traditional, or to be play based or didactic, as long as the child’s needs are being met in an appropriate manner – we’ve done our job my friends! Stick true to what really matters at this young age, they have several years to be housed in the walls of institutional style education and learning…GET THEM OUTSIDE! Have a wonderful day and summer!!

10 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 19, 2012 at 9:58 pm

I love your response Elizabeth. Your comment is so inspiring and encouraging to read. I agree with all you say but particularly love this little line: “as long as the child’s needs are being met in an appropriate manner – we’ve done our job my friends!”

Thank you so much!

11 William June 19, 2012 at 11:04 am

If you have access to an iPad, there are a great number of apps that help renforce ABCs. One app I would recommend is A Jazzy ABC, because it teaches kids their ABCs while at the same time educating them on jazz music. Its very fun, featuring interactive games, and a cool camera function. You might also consider recommending it to parents. Here is their website:
http://www.themelodybook.com/jazzyabc

12 Margaret@growingplay June 19, 2012 at 12:08 pm

Wonderful, reflective blog post. I think somewhere in the middle is a great place to be – everything in life needs to be in moderation. I do think there is a time for play based learning and problem solving (and have to admit many preschools are too academically based). That being said, there is a benefit to these projects like you showed. Children not only benefit from discussing the letters as you stated but they follow directions, sit to complete a project and can be proud of the end results that they did by themselves. I agree 100% though to change it up if they are not interested. Reality is though tabletop work and the ability to stay focused on an activity is crucial in the world beyond preschool.

On a different note, I appreciate your honesty with the project. I always like to read some blog posts where the teacher or individual states they would have done something differently. We are not perfect. They we can learn from your advice.

13 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 19, 2012 at 9:59 pm

Thank you Margaret. I can’t tell you how long it took me to write this post because I did want it to accurately reflect our experience and not be necessarily a some kind of statement – just a “this is how it is” kind of post:)

14 Crystal June 21, 2012 at 7:43 pm

I am interested in the comment “Reality is though tabletop work and the ability to stay focused on an activity is crucial in the world beyond preschool”. I am a teacher at a nature/playbased preschool on a farm and I really try hard not to do worksheets and cookie cutter projects. I strive for open ended, process based, discovery type projects. As this is my first year teaching, I am having an internal struggle over the importance to “learn to do worksheets, sit at a table, follow directions,etc” and focusing on “exploring, developing, learning freely in a way theat encourages a love of learning that is led by the child”. Wondering what other peoples thoughts are on this.

Ps. I also quit the letter of the week craft because it was taking too much time and wasn’t really serving a purpose in our program.

Great post.

15 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 21, 2012 at 8:04 pm

Hi Crystal,
I understand this internal struggle. On one hand, you feel like that you need to provide worksheets or other more structured activities to make sure kids are learning and on the other hand, you believe they are learning through intentionally planned play activities. I think you have to consider what keeps your students engaged and excited about the learning process. I have seen both ends of the spectrum in full swing. I have found that using worksheets doesn’t necessarily teach young children anything that a well planned play dough experience will teach just as well. I didn’t use one worksheet last year in my classroom and yet my students left the year so well developed and so ready for kindergarten that I just can’t explain. My recommendation to you is to embrace your natural environment – learn to identify the learning taking place and to define it. Don’t start to get the idea that just because something looks more “academic” that it is truly more academic. What could be more academic than exploring a farm and all the wonderful experiences you can offer? Have available writing tools, invite your students to document their experiences on the farm and they will be achieving the readiness you desire. Keep the environment fun, engaging, interesting, and your students will succeed!

16 Janet June 19, 2012 at 12:32 pm

I gotta tell you, I absolutely love your website because you hit the middle of the line. I think I will have a letter of the week, still, just to cover a lot of different things that a letter represents. Now if I have C I can make cookies, make a car, show how to crochet, milk a cow, etc. etc. I believe in making learning fun!! You show lots of that and it has helped me to be a better, more relaxed prek teacher. Learning is supposed to be fun!! Right?

17 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 19, 2012 at 10:01 pm

Janet – you are a teacher after my own heart! One that thinks about what she feels is right and makes a choice. I believe in making learning fun too! Love it!

18 Jesica June 19, 2012 at 1:46 pm

Eeek! I think this is the only thing I’ve ever seen on your site that i haven’t liked. I teach in a state funded High/Scope Pre-K and we recently had to get together our children’s folders for Kindergarten – including 2 writing samples. My students (4-5 yrs) absolutely love to write, i have picture/word cards all around the room for them. Sadly, when we went to hand in our files to the BOE we were shown one too many examples of what NOT to do… teachers were having their students gluing cotton balls on the letter J, for example, was the number one offender. I then read your whole post and realized I actually like HOW you did it. I LOVE that you use things that start with the same letter sound to glue onto that letter (great idea!) You made it more about the sound than about the formation of the letter. Very cute, i can see how they would get bored after a certain number of letters though. Unfortunately, this would not be allowed in our program either because we can not use pre-cut anything. Thanks for always sharing your ideas!

19 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 19, 2012 at 10:03 pm

Jessica – I am amazed at all the things teacher’s are not “allowed to do” and also that someone would put cotton balls on the letter “J”! LOL! Not sure what that would exactly accomplish:) ….

I love that you went on to read the entire post. Perhaps I could have formatted the post a little differently so my message would be more clear but after I thought about it, I realized that I am not really trying to send a message but to just share the cycle of thinking I am going through myself:)

20 Kim June 19, 2012 at 1:47 pm

I commend you for watching and listening to your students. Sometimes we get caught up in what we do that we lose sight of the meaning and purpose. There are so many meaningful ways to teach letters throughout the day. Consider using names, the most meaningful words surrounding them in the classroom!

21 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 19, 2012 at 10:05 pm

I agree – a focus on names is so personal and meaningful to young children.

22 Teresa rebelo June 19, 2012 at 2:44 pm

So nice…I like it!

23 Shannon Campbell June 19, 2012 at 9:02 pm

As a kindergarten teacher of many years, I feel the pull of too teacher directed, too much assessment, etc. and child directed/ play based learning learninThe reality is, that children who come in ready to learn and having the basics such as letter identification and letter sound match and able to write their name are so much more successful and happy in school! I think a balance of play based, teacher directed, open ended and non is ok for pre kindergarten learners. Stay away from worksheets, but following a pattern once in a while is not going to create permanent damage to a child. As long as it is purposeful, thought out and fun!

24 Michele @ ECE Units June 19, 2012 at 10:18 pm

I agree with Shannon. Play-based learning is often the way to go, in my opinion. Following cookie-cutter (no pun intended) workflow and lesson plans leave for fewer interaction and thoughts from the children. Let them decide instead!

25 Janet June 19, 2012 at 10:35 pm

I look at this and think, “these are 3, 4, and 5 year olds we are talking about. Why do they have to grow up so fast” ?? Learning is fun, but we can’t lose sight of a common goal and that is to prepare them for kindergarten, which is a huge thing any more. There is so much in the world to teach them!
Thanks for the comments, it sure got me to thinking.

26 Michelle June 20, 2012 at 1:36 am

Great comments, Deborah and everyone else. Like you, I too struggle to find the right balance between play based learning and some structured, more academic style lessons, particularly being a school-based Prep. I really enjoy our literacy program and find it successful at achieveing the best of both worlds. On its own, it would not be sufficient. There of course needs to be ample opportunity for the children to be immersed in literacy rich play throughout the day. But I feel it is valuable and worthwhile spending time exposing the children to structured activities that introduce phonemic awareness. This year my school has introduced a new literacy structure called Daily 5, created by Gail Boushay and Joan Moser http://www.the2sisters.com/the_daily_5.html Because I run a school based Prep I like to integrate, as much as possible, what is happening in the rest of the school with Prep, so I have adapted this program to suit Prep. We do ‘Daily 3′. I love it!! It involves three strands: preparing the children for reading, preparing the children for writing and preparing the children for spelling. See the following links to see what it looks like in our class.
http://mtannanprep.wordpress.com/2012/04/23/daily-3-3/
http://mtannanprep.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/j-is-for-jelly/
http://mtannanprep.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/getting-ready-for-writing/

27 Trisha Cooper June 20, 2012 at 8:35 pm

Another way to do this is to include process art instead of always gluing things that start with the letter. Apple Prints for the letter A, Balloon painting or prints for the letter B, Painting with spaghetti for S, colorful tissue squares for T–they could just brush the glue/water on for a different experience. I have found I need extra paper for these days though because they want to keep going!

28 Crystal June 21, 2012 at 7:48 pm

Great Ideas!

29 Ashley September 16, 2012 at 3:52 pm

This is my first year in a play based preschool, and we have a ball. I have younger 3s so I was concerned with the idea of worrying about formation, but I will tell you we did apple prints the first week and balloon painting the next, my students come in on Monday wanting to know our letter of the week where they can try to guess what we will be painting with. I believe that this age it is so important to build a foundation of the love of learning.

30 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. September 16, 2012 at 11:28 pm

It sounds like you are having as much fun as your young class! What a joy to read your comment tonight!

31 Holly June 30, 2012 at 7:46 am

I want to cover the letters of the alphabet in my classroom but instead of doing “Letter of the Week”, I will use letters based on what theme or topic we are covering in our room that week. When I covered bugs, my class did a Ladybug L. During our food and nutrition unit we covered the letter P with popcorn and discussed which food group it went into. We have also covered the letter M with mud. Thank you for sharing your experience with the typical “Letter of the Week” program. This post gave me something to think about for the upcoming school year.

32 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 30, 2012 at 11:00 pm

I love your ideas Holly and love how you are bringing additional learning for important topics into the process!

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