Simple Letter and Word Activities for Five through Eight Year Olds
From Cathy Puett Miller

Having recently spent some learning time with a group of lower achieving kindergartners, I was reminded of the importance of making learning fun. Especially for children who find learning difficult or come to the learning situation with disadvantages, creating a pleasurable experience with words and letters should be of prime importance. Whether you are a tutor, a teacher or a parent, try one or more of these games with your child. They are organized from simplest (beginning work with sounds and letters) to more complex for those children beginning to read:

"Pick a Letter YOU Know"

Use letter flash cards or make up your own by printing a single letter (upper and lower case) and pasting or drawing a picture of an item that begins with that sound. Spread the cards randomly and allow each child to choose a letter he or she knows. Emphasize they are to choose a letter they are familiar with and whose name (and perhaps sound) they know. Most children will know at least one letter (most commonly "A", "S" or "B"). Let them hold their card and share it with you or with their peers if this activity takes place in a group. Children love an audience, whether it's a single adult or a group of children and they gain great confidence when you celebrate their knowledge by raising their hands above their heads when they get it right, shouting "Yeah, Mary! You know your letter!"

"Going on a Letter Hunt"

Take a "field trip" through the school or community or even through your own house, looking for certain letters. Point out letters your children are familiar with in signs or posters as well as those that might be new to them.

When they encounter printed material at their level, let them point to letters they know or ask them what certain letters are. Consonants often are learned first so keep that in mind. Never make a big deal about the child not knowing a letter; just ask a peer to help them or give them the name yourself and let them repeat it. You can even sing the song "Going on a bear hunt" and substitute the word "letter" for "bear", stopping when you sight the next letter.

Sing the ABC Song

You'd think this was automatic or unnecessary but when most children start this, they think "LMNO" is one letter. Use different rhythms to get them to listen to the separate letters (I like syncopation jazz) and slow down in those areas we tend to rush so they hear each letter distinctly. Let them dance or jump in rhythm while they sing or lie quietly on the floor as they go from A to Z.

Read a rhyming and repetitive book that focuses on certain sounds

One of my favorites is One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss. The tongue twisters in this delightful, rhythmic text often focus on repeated sounds. Point those out to the child as you go through the story and stop once and a while to ask them if they can think of other words that have that sound.

Also try Poof by John O'Brien (the children begin to anticipate when the next "poof" will occur and will insert it at the appropriate time with a little prompting) or a traditional fairy tale like The Three Little Pigs (what did the pigs always say to the wolf when he came to the door? - "not by the hair on my chinny chin chin")

Label Their Environment

To avoid turning your house into a classroom, I don't recommend you place permanent signs on everything as we often see in kindergarten and first grade classrooms these days. However, labeling items in a child's room, the kitchen or their playroom can be fun on occasion. Even going out into the garden to label "hoe", "tree" or "stone" can be an adventure. Use index cards to create your "labels" and print an object name on about 10-12 items. (i.e., bear, ball, hat, door, mirror, pillow, etc.).

Start by asking your beginning readers if they know any part of a word you show them. I always tell my students that big words are just little words or sounds that you already know put together. If they can read the entire word, great! Ask them to match the word with the object it names in the room. If they can't read the entire word, congratulate them for knowing a part of it or a single letter, then help them with the rest. "You know the "b" - good. The "a" makes an "aaa" sound. And what letter makes the "lllll" sound?" Make it conversational until you reach a conclusion. Put the sounds together but in isolation and see if the child and make the blend/connection. Then let them triumphantly label the item they've named.

After they get familiar with the game, make it a race to see how fast they can label all the items in the room and say the name.

Help the Shy Ones or Those with Little Confidence

Let a child whisper the answer to you instead of exposing the possibility to the world that they might be wrong. Even if you are working one-on-one, this is a good technique. If they are mistaken, just whisper the right one back and let them repeat it in that same, quiet voice. Just changing the volume of words or letters gets children to listen more closely. Just as quickly change your tone to one of loud celebration when they get one right! Children this age love the attention; it will encourage them to try again and work harder to succeed.

Read About Their Passion

Once a child has been introduced to the basics of letters and combining them for simple words, they begin to road to reading. This comes more easily to some than others but a critical starting place is always reading about their passion. What is it that excites them most? What are they most interested in? What "turns them on"? Ask those questions, then find a book on the subject and share a few excerpts. Never read beyond the interest time of a child but try to get in at least 15 minutes per day. If you find it easier for the child to initially practice their listening skills while an adult reads, that's absolutely fine. And they can understand vocabulary up to two grade levels above what they can read.

Connect Reading with Life

One of the most important lessons we can teach children is that these letters and words they are learning have a connection with their lives. Help them learn to read letters or words on signs, cereal boxes, in the toy store, at the bank, in the library, in everyday, everywhere places. Get them involved in making a pretend (or a real) grocery list, helping you sort the mail, reading books about how to care for their new puppy or be a star soccer goalie or learn the latest dance steps. Let them read about a little girl who misses her grandma living far away.

Let them hear stories about brave firefighters and policemen. Make natural introductions of words or letters as you encounter them rather than expecting a child to look at them in isolation and make the connection. You'll find this approach draws children into reading, rather than forcing them into a chore that they have no affinity for.


As an independent literacy consultant, Cathy Puett Miller has designed a model for a volunteer-based tutoring program for at-risk readers (and tutors a child herself in one of the ongoing programs). Schools and PTA's implementing this model have won awards and grants, and she's always looking for new opportunities to introduce the concepts. She works with profit and non-profit groups interested in supporting and promoting literacy with children as well as in parent education (teaching moms and dads how to work a bit of reading experience into everyday life). Visit her free-lance work on www.parenthood.com (enter Cathy's full name in the search command) and on www.familynetwork.com (look for her under "Experts" or CathyPM) and look for her at upcoming children's literature conferences and PTA workshops in the metro-Atlanta, GA area. CATHY PUETT MILLER

2740 Woodridge Chase, Canton, GA 30114
770-345-3001 or 770-365-4733