How to Teach Special Needs Students the Alphabet

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Knowing the alphabet is a prerequisite skill for all future literacy instruction. Typically, developing children learn it through music, television and games aimed at preschoolers, as well as repetition and practice at home. Children with special needs may require a lot of additional time and direct instruction using multiple methods to acquire letter recognition. Although children with special needs may take longer to learn their letters, they will have much greater access to the general curriculum and the world of printed material once they do.

  • Letter tiles
  • Sandpaper
  • Shaving cream
  • Pencils
  • Paper
  • Alphabet flashcards
  • Alphabet puzzles
  • Early reading software
  • Alphabet books

1 Assess the student's

Assess the student's knowledge of letters. If the student communicates verbally, show letter flashcards one by one and ask "What letter is this?" If the student does not communicate verbally, show an array of several letters and ask the student to point to each letter as you name it.

2 Choose the first group

Choose the first group of letters to teach the student. Many students are more motivated if the letters are those of their first names, or even a favorite television character. You may also choose to teach letters based on their frequency in written English, or in alphabetical order.

3 Teach the targeted letters receptively first

Teach the targeted letters receptively first, using a letter of the day. Tell the student, "This is letter B. Can you find another letter B?" Have the child match letters in a memory game or incorporate whole body movements by putting large letters on the floor and having students step on or hop to the letter when it is named. Use multiple modes of instruction, including visual, auditory, tactile and kinesthetic, to fully engage students with varying learning styles.

4 Ask the student

Ask the student to name the letters once they can consistently identify or point to them. Use flashcards or letter tiles initially. Teach the student to generalize letter identification to various contexts by using alphabet books and puzzles.

5 Provide frequent practice with letter identification

Provide frequent practice with letter identification by presenting the letters throughout the day and in multiple contexts once they have been taught. Incorporate targeted letters into many different classroom activities. Bury letter tiles in a sandbox or box of dried beans and ask students to find the tiles in the sand and name them. Students can also practice drawing letters or tracing them with their fingers in some shaving cream on the table or on sandpaper. Many students love practicing letters by typing them or using literacy games on the computers.

6 Begin teaching simple words

Begin teaching simple words as soon as the student has learned enough letters. Using this new skill in a functional context, spelling, will help maintain student interest. Students can practice tracing or writing words, or building them with cards or letter tiles.

  • Keep learning materials simple and focused on letter identification. Remove distracting stimuli such as pictures from letter flashcards.
  • Teach uppercase and lowercase letters separately. Both are necessary for reading, but teaching them at the same time can be overwhelming.
  • Early reading software is a way to engage student interest and provide additional practice with letter identification.
  • Students who learn at a slower rate may need a "letter of the week" rather than a "letter of the day."

Elizabeth Sullivan has been teaching special education since 2001, specializing in classroom management and behavior. She holds a Bachelor of Science in psychology and a Master of Education in special education from Lesley University.