April 17, 2012

It's All Greek to Me!

I was lucky enough to travel to Greece not once, but TWICE before I started a family.  I was pregnant with my oldest child when I went the second time, and my husband and I naively promised each other we would continue our globe trotting ways after we became parents.  Fast forward nearly 13 years, and suffice it to say, we haven't (yet!) made it back to Europe with the kids.  We've traveled, mind you, but our passports will reveal that Canada has been our primary international destination over the past decade. (Update: WE returned to Greece with the kids a few months after this post was originally written, and we've been lucky enough to travel to many wonderful places with them since!)

So what does this have to do with the National Research Council's six key skills recommended for preparing children to become readers when they enter school?  Quite a bit, actually.  Today's topic is Letter Knowledge, which is knowing what different letters look and sound like, and knowing each letter's name.

Back to Greece:  It's HARD to read (menus, road signs, ferry boat schedules . . .) when you can barely distinguish the different letters in the alphabet.  If you haven't noticed, the Greek alphabet is quite a bit different than the English alphabet.  During our time in Greece, we would navigate from place to place by identifying key letters in road signs ("Turn left when you see a road that starts with the letter with the curly-que on top and ends with the letter that looks like a fish...").   Not surprisingly, we got lost plenty.  However, our "reading" and navigation skills did get better over time as we became more and more familiar with the distinct symbols in the Greek alphabet.  

Just like my situation in Greece, children who have not yet developed Letter Knowledge do not yet "see" distinct letters and words; they see lines and shapes.  Our objective when helping a child develop Letter Knowledge is to give them plenty of opportunities to see and interact with the letters of the alphabet so they gain familiarity with the distinct symbols in the English alphabet.

Some common literacy activities aimed at this skill include reading alphabet books and pointing out "alphabet connections" when they present themselves (i.e.  "Ben's name starts with a B just like your name, Beck").  The alphabet travel game is another popular activity.  This is where you search for each letter of the alphabet, in sequence, as you travel or drive.  Kids love this game.  It can be enriched further by adding an element of sign language (for example, making a rule that you have to say and sign the letter when you see it before going on to the next letter).  It's also really fun for kids to learn how to finger spell their name.  To help with this activity, my publisher has created a printable PDF download of the alphabet handshapes from my books, illustrated by Stephanie Bauer.  (I just LOVE her multicultural handshape illustrations, don't you?)

When children learn to write letters in a school environment, it's not unusual for teachers to ask them to practice making the shape of the letter in the air before they practice writing it on paper.  I like to add sign language to this activity by pointing to the letter on the easel or white board, saying the letter name and letter sound(s) out loud while making the ASL handshape for that letter, then drawing the shape of the letter in the air.   Fun!

Here are some additional ideas you can incorporate to help your child develop Letter Awareness  when you're reading books from the Story Time with Signs & Rhymes series:

See the Colors:  Sign when you read the book.  Point out that many of the color signs involve the ASL handshape for the letter the color word begins with.  For example, yellow is signed by wiggling the "Y- Hand."  Green is signed by wiggling the "G-Hand." Pink and purple both involve the "P-Hand."  After you've read the book, you can make a set of cards with shapes in different colors (i.e. red circles, yellow triangles, blue squares).  Play Concentration and find the color/shape matches.  Make a rule that each player must make the sign for the color to keep the matching pair (or the letter in their first name, or the first letter that the color word starts with...you get the idea!).

Silly Sue.  This book offers plenty of opportunities to sign the word Silly.   Silly is signed by making a "Y-Hand" and wiggling it in front of your face.  This creates a great opportunity to point out that the word Silly ends with the letter "Y."  As an added bonus, the handshape for the letter Y kind of looks like a Y.

Shape Detective.  This is a great story to spend time with to develop Letter Knowledge.  Why?  Because developing shape knowledge requires the same skill set as Letter Knowledge.  When you exercise the brain to learn the distinctions between different shapes, you exercise the same parts of the brain that are needed to distinguish the unique shapes of our letter symbols.  What's really handy is that the signs for most of the shapes simply involve using your index finger to "draw" the shape in the air (similar to the practice of drawing the letters of the alphabet in the air that we talked about earlier).

A to Z Sign with Me:  This is THE most logical book in the Story Time series to spend some time with if your aim is to build Letter Knowledge (it is an alphabet book, after all).  As I've mentioned before, however, this is a unique alphabet book in that it doesn't just have different words and pictures for each letter of the alphabet.  Instead, it is a story told in rhyme about going to the carnival.  The story is told so that the words beginning with the letters A to Z are featured in sequential order (i.e. "Eat frankfurters while they're good and hot").  After I read this story directly from the book, I like to write the story "vertically" on the easel or white board, so children can "see" how the alphabet is structured in the story.
For example:


frankfurters while they're

good and


After this I read the story again, only this time a bit slower and invite children to sign each letter of the alphabet in order as they story progresses.  Kids get a huge kick out of this!

If you like this sort of thing, another great resource is a book called ABC Phonics, by my friend and colleague, Nellie Edge.  She has a great website filled with resources for building literacy skills.

I'd love to hear some of your alphabet games and activities so I can add them to my own tool box. Please add them in the comment section below.

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