One of the greatest concerns that parents have with very young students is their ability to read and to spell. Decoding and encoding go hand-in-hand and (for some students) pose significant challenges. As students learn the phonograms and their sounds, it is vitally important that they practice correct formation of the letters in order to avoid the most common concern I hear from parents of older students—their handwriting is terrible!
Why does handwriting cause parents to fret and children to cry? Usually this can be attributed to poor habits that have become ingrained because children were not held accountable for correct letter formation at the beginning of their instruction. It’s much more difficult to change a bad habit than to develop a good one on a clean slate, so to speak. Additionally, if you expect your child to master cursive writing at some point, forming manuscript letters correctly leads much more effectively into neat cursive writing than does poor letter formation.
I work with many students who need remediation in these two areas: phonogram acquisition and correct letter formation. When we practice phonograms (or letter-sound correspondence) we can utilize repeated drills, use of visual and auditory anchors in the preferred representational systems, word and picture cues, and electronic resources. I use a variety of strategies and materials to support students’ manuscript handwriting, such as pencil grips, slant boards, verbal instructions to write letters with top-down form, and specialty papers.
While all of these are great ways to practice reading and writing, I’ve developed one activity that my students enjoy which provides great repeated practice with very few materials. I call it Multi-Modal Phonogram Relay and the method can easily be implemented at home for additional practice.
- erasable markers
- surface to write on (like a refrigerator door, window, or mirror)
- a shallow pan (like a cake or casserole pan, or plastic container with a lid)
Pour enough salt in the shallow container to cover the bottom, but not very deep. About a quarter of an inch is perfect for allowing a finger to make a groove in the salt.
Write the first phonogram you wish to practice, as large as you can, on your writing surface, above the eye level of your child. If formation is a primary concern, include a large dot at the starting position. Write the phonogram about four inches tall (for short letters such as ‘a’) right at shoulder level. If your child needs guidelines, provide them.
1. Have your child stand at least four or five feet away from the writing surface, with his dominant arm extended with two fingers pointing out. It is important in this step that the elbow and wrist remain straight, to encourage large muscle movement. Your child looks down his arm, to align his two extended fingertips with the starting point of the large letter/phonogram written on the surface, and then traces the figure in the air. This can be done repeatedly, and sometimes it takes practice to remember to keep the whole arm straight. The child says the sound of the phonogram while tracing.
2. The child turns to the salt tray and writes the phonogram in the salt, still repeating the sounds that correspond.
3. The child walks around the table, or around the room, saying the sounds of the phonogram. Have your child march, to establish a rhythm, and touch each shoulder with the opposite hand, alternately. While marching and swinging his arms, the child is rhythmically repeating all sounds that correspond with the given phonogram.
4. When he gets back to the starting point in front of the writing surface, he uses one or two fingers to erase the phonogram that you have written, then picks up the marker to write the phonogram himself, still repeating the related sounds.
It’s easy to see why my students look forward to this activity in the middle of their
school day, and why we’ve experienced great success in increasing their phonogram acquisition. Step one helps students develop muscle memory of the sound and formation of the phonogram by incorporating large muscle groups while saying/hearing the sounds of the phonogram. Step two provides sensory feedback, and appeals to students who prefer tactile and kinesthetic modes of instruction and practice. In step three, students are again working large muscles, and for students with difficulty attending to tasks or focusing, this is a great opportunity to work out some energy and enjoy moving while learning. It appeals to their desire for kinesthetic activities. By swinging their arms, children are crossing the mid-point of their bodies and waking up their brains. Marching and saying the sounds for the phonograms allows children to engage in rhythm that helps to embed the information in their memories, like a song or a poem. In the final step, the student gets to see the phonogram again, and practice writing it while saying the sounds. The next time he is sounding out a word, he can hear his brain telling his hand what to write.
Provide as much scaffolding as your child needs to complete each part of the exercise. You may need to provide some guidelines for writing, or you may need to say the sounds with your child the first few times through a phonogram. Allow some play time with the salt tray and the marker—these are high interest items! Of course, there are also an infinite number of other ways to employ movement, visual cues, and auditory stimuli into your child’s learning. Watch for them, and make practice fun.
This method can also be used for phonics programs that associate words with each letter or phonogram, and students can use each syllable to develop the rhythm as they trace, write, and march. Additionally, the system could be used to practice basic math facts. Any skill that can be improved through repeated practice, and that has a short answer, can be reinforced with a multi-modal relay.