EAL Classroom Basics- Letters and Sounds

I often get asked for a list of basics, teachers can have in their classrooms for newcomer students with limited language skills. Teachers want to help their students achieve but can be limited in time and sometimes knowledge on how to best support English as an Additional Language (EAL) learners. The term ESL is often redundant for these students as English is not merely a second language, it is a third, fourth or even fifth language! EAL support teachers are often stretched in terms of time and can only offer limited time in each classroom therefore a “go to” box of activities is an essential.

This post discusses some ideas for Letters and Sounds and posts on word and sentence structure will follow.

Beginning with letter formation and sounds helps students understand the more complex reading and writing they will be seeing in class. New students don’t have the luxury of time and want to learn English as soon as possible so combining reading, writing, speaking and listening in each lesson is more beneficial.

Learning to form our letters is a skill, especially if the alphabet is new. Arabic speakers may be familiar with their letter formation from the bottom right and teaching to start a letter from the top left can be a struggle, initially. Learning the correct letter formation is important as self teaching may result in kinaesthetic memory of alternative letter formation and slower writing as a result. Learning the letters in a larger format can be easier.

Letter Formation Sand Tray

The Letter Formation Sand Tray allows students to practice their letters in a forgiving way and on larger scale. Thinking about where the letter starts and finishes as well as directional helps.

Letters Touch and Trace Cards

It can be combined with Letters Touch and Trace Cards so students can clearly see the start (green dot), direction, (arrows) and finish (red) on each letters.

While I am an advocate for learning lower case letters first in kindergarten, new EAL students are often in older grades and learning both at the same time to better access word learning is more useful. Matching lower and upper case letters is a necessary step.

Hands-On Alphabet

The Hands-On Alphabet is a wonderful investment for learning letters sounds as well as matching lower and upper case letters. It includes 78 objects (3 for each letter), 36 sorting containers, alphabet stickers, and plastic organizing basket. Hands-On Alphabet teaching manual shows you how to get the most out of your alphabet materials. Initially it needs teacher support but as students become more familiar with the letter sounds they can work independently to sort the objects into the correct containers and name objects thus identifying initial letter sounds. Additional objects could be added later.

To give more help with the ‘sticks and circles’ we call writing, explaining how letters are mainly in the grass but some reach up to the sky and others reach down into the dirt can help.

Letter formation, sky, grass and dirt!

This post discusses how colour coding paper with sky blue, grass green and brown dirt can help identify tall letters and those with tails.

Sentence strips can be bought in many forms, even reusable wipe off versions are available now.

Alphabets & Number Stamps

To boost confidence  Alphabet Stamps are a great way to give new English learners letters writing practice. Students can do their own stamping to practice letters recognition and then follow with the writing. The act of choosing the correct letter and when ready choosing either lower or upper case letters and punctuation is great practice. My daughter Rose enjoyed using these stamps here.

These are some of the resources I have used and recommend teachers have in their classrooms for new EAL students learning letters and sounds. While nothing replaces a good teacher, there are times when we need students to be able to work independently and having the resources to help, allows this to happen. Do you have a great idea for teaching new EAL students letter formation and letter sounds?


Early Reading Language Resources we Love!

Rose is in kindergarten half time and her reading and writing is developing in leaps and bounds. She is reading sight words and simple readers but her confidence is low. When she is not in kindergarten she wants activities to complete with Granny. These are a mixture of independent tasks and those which will need Granny help!

Matching Upper and Lower Case Letters

This is a great activity Daisy enjoyed at the same age. Correct letter formation is important to know at an early age to ensure a student’s kinaesthetic (movement) memory commits to well formed letters. It is more difficult to unlearn an incorrect method.

Identifying Initial Sounds with Alphabet Objects

Alphabet Objects

With 3 objects for each letter sound, sorting these objects requires phonics skills.


Making words with Word Building Pebbles


Letter pebbles are great for the visual and tactile reminder of letter formation and their sounds. As Rose lifts the pebbles she makes the letter sound and places in order to make a word.

Playing with Word Families

This post involves Daisy making cvc words from a game and dice.

Using Letter Tracing Stamps

Tracing letter stamps

We all know writing goes hand in hand with reading. Read about how Rose uses letter stamps here.

Using Build-A-Sentence Cubes 


With six colour coded sentence structures and  a related high frequency word on all six sides, there are lots of sentence options with these cubes.

Writing Sentences with Sentence Strips

Writing Sentences

This paper is fabulous for disccussing letter formation as we did here.

The invitation

The colour recognition of “dirt, grass and sky” adds an extra step, helping a student remember the letter structure.

Playing Spot It! Basic English.

As well as reinforcing sight word recognition, this game is just pure fun!

Of course one of the main activities Rose does is READING!



Supporting Early Writing

Rose has started kindergarten and is loving it. She is eager to learn and loves to read and write. Her reading is mostly of the illustrations at the moment and she loves her quiet reading time. Writing she is also eager to partake in but her confidence is low. She is hesitant to write many letters without support even though she knows her upper case and lower case letters and their corresponding sounds.

To encourage her to write, with less frustration over letter formation, we are using Tracing Letter Stamps as a guide for writing.

Tracing letter stamps

When sounding out a word Rose selects the letters, checks her choice with me and then stamps. Yes this child is a perfectionist. Daisy would have been happy to choose her own letters and would then argue her choice was right if I corrected her. Rose hates to make a mistake and the stamps seem to be helping to build her confidence as an emerging writer.

Tracing letter stamps

When she has completed a word or sometimes a sentence she writes on top. For this I do try to watch and correct, to ensure she does not develop incorrect letter formation habits. Bad habits can be difficult to break as we all know. At this age, once the movement is committed to kinaesthetic memory it is much more difficult to alter.

Rose seems much more content with writing when using stamps as a reinforcement with letter formation. A happy writer is much more likely to write!

Tracing stamps are available in lower case and upper case sets as well as numbers and signs for math.

Tracing Stamps

Check them out here.

If you are interested in upper and lower case letter activities check out this post: matching-lower-and-uppercase-letters


Matching Lower and Uppercase Letters

Daisy started Kindergarten on Friday and we have been doing activities over the summer in preparation. These activities have prepared her well. Nothing could prepare me!
We were given a laminated sheet of upper and lowercase letters by Daisy’s Literacy Links teacher and a wealth of other goodies you can see here. Last week we did a revision of upper and lowercase letters using Alphabet Pebbles and a String Along Lacing Kit.

We started with the letters of her name and formed the uppercase letter on the String Along board followed by the lowercase letter.

Forming the letters on the foam board forced us to consider how the letter starts and finishes. It was a great revision for me too as I am more familiar with the pre-cursive alphabet rather than the print alphabet. We named words starting with the letter sound as we made the letter.

As we made the letter we used an alphabet pebble to mark the chart.

Letters ‘Dd’ and ‘Aa’ were relatively easy to make. Letter ‘Ii’ was more complicated and forced us to join the dot and line.

You can pull the string through the back of the board so it is possible to make a clean ‘Ii’. We didn’t worry too much. The aim was to practice forming letters rather than having a perfect letter made. Process versus product!

To make a curved letter like the ‘Dd’ Daisy had to count how many holes across the letter was match the holes down. Making a curved letter is challenge but it was a great problem to solve.

It was a good activity for letter revision but I have to say she enjoys free play on the board more. The pattern cards are a good bridge when she needs inspiration to get started. Here is more information on the String Along Lacing Kit.

Learning Opportunities

  • uppercase and lowercase letter formation
  • recognizing the sound a letter makes
  • problem solving (how to form the letter)
  • counting
  • fine motor skills (threading the punch pen and using the crocodile grip on the pen.

Smart Snack Alpha Pops Fun #Giveaway

These Smart Snack Alpha Pops look good enough to eat!

Daisy got to play with them first and immediately began matching and sorting. She used a large salad bowl to keep them organized.

“Look I can make a word.”

“Look a big letter and a small letter”. My response, “yes a lower case u and a capital U.”

“I made another word, lica”

“What does this word say?”

“Clif” I responded “Yes, that does say cliff. Cliff the name and a cliff you might fall off has two f’s. Can you find another?”

We talked about the need for using a mixture of upper and lower case letters.

Cat (back to front).

Both girls busy playing and matching lower and upper case letters.

This product allowed both girls to play simultaneously but in different ways.

Rose was matching colour and I was able to chat about the colours she was joining up. She did point to the letters occasionally, so I shared the letter ” yes that is an ‘a’ on the popsicle.”

Daisy tended to move onto c.v.c. world building and exploring word families.

Anything you can do I can do too!

This was the start of Daisy’s ABC project. She lined them all up and sang the ABC song while pointing to the letters. It was easy until it came time to flip the posicles to the other side. It forced her to slow down and think about each letter. A great learning experience.

And of course the pretend popsicle licking!

This learning toy is versatile and was appropriate for both children. The printed letters on both sides meant less toys (a bonus for most classrooms and families).

A friend was over playing with the girls at the weekend and he did not like the restrictions of letters on both sides. He also wanted to click whole words together. While I sympathized, I understand the aim of the Alpha Pops is to match upper and lower case letters.

Here is the low down on Smart Snack Alpha Pops

“Pop together these frozen treats to match uppercase and lowercase letters. Double sided to include all 26 letters. Self checking by colour. Single alpha pop measures 4″L x 1-1/4″W. Ages 2+.”

If you would like to play with this lovely set of Smart Snack Alpha Pops tell us how you teach upper and lower case letter matching.

All you need to do is one of the following:

Before Friday July 27th, 2012, 4pm Central Time.

This contest is open to Canadian residents only.

Looking forward to hearing from you and good luck!

Alphabet Soup

We have some lovely letters for letter and word exploration. As the girls were playing in their kitchen a while ago, I gathered them up. I also had a big black pot, perfect for soup.

Daisy began to put the letters into the pot. The magnetic teaching tiles stuck to the inside and outside of the enamel pot. Daisy immediately began making words. I supported her word making when asked.

She added her wooden letters and letters stones, enjoying the ‘plonk’ and ‘thud’ they made in the pot.

Next, it was off on an ingredient hunt… no she did not add ice-cream. She did add carrots and cucumber however!

Finally, to mix it all up, Daisy borrowed a big wooden spoon.

Yes, you can see some odd Halloween decorations in the background. We did this a while ago and I forgot to post it. A witches hat was handy and the alphabet soup was suddenly a potion which needed chanting and singing to accompany it. The only thing that came to my mind was Shakespeare; “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble.” Daisy came up with alternatives which included a mishmash of what she was hearing from books at home and daycare.

Alphabet soup served up for Rose, Daisy and I. Yum!

And Miss Mischief enjoyed helping with the cooking.

Playing with word families

Daisy has been telling me how she can spell ‘bat’ and ‘cat’ for a few weeks now so I thought it was time for some focused word family play. We started with Hands on Learning Word Family Mats and I limited the exploration to two word families ‘at’ and ‘in’. I also limited the number of initial letters to give her success in word building

‘Cat’ was the first word and was proudly written down.

The word ‘sat’ proved more difficult. As I explained in light table colour bags a few weeks ago, Daisy was inverting her ‘s’s. She is more aware and thinks before writing an ‘s’ now but was still struggling so I quickly drew a big reminder for her finger to run along. I believe it is important to correct her kin-aesthetic memory now, rather than bad habits becoming embedded. The big ‘s’ helped and eased her frustration.

After writing ‘sat’ Daisy remembered ‘Bat’ and wrote it eagerly. It gave me the opportunity to talk about the two finger space needed between words.

She made a few more words and started to lose interest… time to get active!

These write-on wipe-off dice have been in the back of my mind for a while. I occasionally look at them and think….. what a great idea but would they work?

I labelled the red dice with ‘at’ and ‘in’ and labelled the blue dice with the letters t, p, s and b so the initial letters would work with either word family (at or in).

Underlining the letters made it easier to read and orientate. As you can see the ‘at’ in the picture rubbed off slightly. This is because at this point we were throwing with some force on the carpets and hitting obstacles. I explained to Daisy the need for holding only the coloured edges and this system worked well. Using a box or a three sided box, would work well in the classroom to keep the die contained.

Throwing the dice made word making instantly fun again. I love the dice!

We took turns throwing and then reading the words we made.

To add interest Daisy suggested we aim between legs. The great idea had us jumping to block the dice. Fine motor, gross motor and word building all combined to make an activity that did not seem to get tiring for a 4 year old!