How to Teach Letter Sounds to Struggling Students

Published:  September 1, 2020 Updated: September 1, 2020

By  Cheryl Jerabek

As a parent/teacher, it’s always necessary to have some backup ideas if students can’t quite catch a concept. If you’re fresh out of ideas and wondering how to teach letter sounds to struggling students, here are some fun games you can try.

Ideas to teach letter sounds

How to teach letter sounds to struggling students: 

  • Daily Alphabet Chant. 
  • Use Books. 
  • Kindergarten Letter Songs. 
  • Rhyming Intervention. 
  • Make a Game Out of It. 

Letter Recognition Assessment 

It can become easy to get distracted in a classroom full of children and not quite notice which kids are falling behind. When teaching letter sounds, it’s a good idea to do regular letter recognition assessments to make sure all your students are coping. 

Inevitably, you’ll find there are one or two who struggle with the sounds. Performing an assessment can give you a heads-up as to who needs extra help, and which letters they really have a hard time with. 

Here’s how to assess how well your kids are learning the letters and sounds: 

Letter Sound Intervention 

You’ll need a set of flashcards for this assessment, the kind with a letter on one side and a picture on the other. 

Show your student the picture. Before they even get to the letter, make sure they can tell you what the picture is. Let’s assume you’re holding up a picture of an apple. 

Have the child repeat the word “apple” a few times. Then, break it down—”a,” “pl.” 

Children are great at mimicking, so get the student to say the correct sound a few times. Once the child is able to isolate that first part of the word, see if they can identify the letter they’ve just said. 

Take Notes, Don’t Correct 

This exercise is not where you should be correcting the child. This is just an assessment, so don’t spend time actively working on making sure the child gets it right. 

Just take note of which letter sounds the student is having trouble with, either letter names or letters and sounds. That’s it! 

Once you know which sounds the student is struggling with, it’s far easier to work on those specific things or that one letter to help them come up to speed. 

How Do You Teach Letter Sounds? 

There are two essential elements to teaching this: 

These two may sound like they have nothing to do with each other, but they’re both important parts you need to concentrate on to teach letters and sounds effectively. 

Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness differs from phonics. Basically, this is having some awareness that words are made up of various letters’ sounds. It’s all about speaking and listening—nothing to do with reading or writing (which is what phonics is about—linking letter sounds to the letter shape). 

We’ll discuss how to develop phonological awareness further down! 


Once your kids start learning the sounds of letters, repetition is the key to getting them ingrained. Not boring, grinding repetition—but fun games and activities that allow the students to practice letters and sound without realizing that they’re being taught. 

Here are some great activities that kids would enjoy and benefit from when it comes to learning letters and how they sound. 

Daily Alphabet Chant 

An alphabet chant works well if it’s done consistently. For this one, I suggest having a large alphabet chart in your classroom that your students can refer to as they’re chanting. 

This is great as a morning routine. Your kids won’t even realize it’s part of your teaching! Base the chant on the alphabet chart. 

First up, you’re going to say the alphabet letter. Second, the object that’s in the picture. Thirdly, the sound. 

So, you’ll be saying: 

A (letter), apple (picture), /a/ (letter sound), B, boy, /b/, C, cat, /c/, and so on. 

There are plenty of ways to practice this. You can do it as a class, while you’re pointing at the big alphabet chart. Or your students can do it in a small group. You’ll need to give each student a copy of the alphabet chart if you want to do it this way. 

Boredom is a learning killer, so keep this interesting by: 

  • Getting a volunteer student to point at the big chart. 
  • Chant it backward. 
  • Play games with it! 

Some games would include having signals for whisper/shout, and showing the signal before each letter so the students can whisper or shout that particular letter. Do the letters in a random order, or pick up objects around the room and have the kids shout out the correct letters that the objects begin with. 


Reading is a great way to reinforce the sounds letters make. It’s a good idea to start with alphabet books that have pictures—just like the chart and the chant; it can be helpful for children to see the letter and possibly a picture and speak the sound at the same time. 

A game you can play here is to read a children’s book and have a secret signal that you give on specific words. The children should then chant the word like they would on the chart—A, apple, /a/. 

You should only do this with words on the chart at first. Once children are better at identifying the letter sounds, you can start using words that are not on the chart. 

toddler reading a book

Photo by Stephen Andrews on Unsplash 

Kindergarten Letter Songs 

Kids respond very well to singing, and it’s one of the most effective ways of teaching letter sounds because it’s so memorable. How often do you have a song on your mind that you can’t get rid of, or hear a song on the radio that you haven’t heard in years, but you still remember all the words? 

Also, kids tend to see singing as fun rather than learning. If you can add in some actions too, even better! 

Rhyming Intervention 

Learning rhyming is another important thing, but did you know that rhyming can also help with learning letters and sounds? 

Rhyming words is fun for students, and the repetition of a letter sounds helps them retain it quicker. 

Things like “hat, cat, mat” reinforce the /a/ sound, or “bat, ball, boy” help them with the /b/ sound. 

It’s a good idea to include poems and rhymes in your class if you can, because your students will be learning without even realizing it when they repeat the poems. 

If you want to make a game from this too, throughout the day choose random students and give them a rhyming word, and they have to give you one back. For example, pick a student and say “cat,” and they have to say a rhyming word in return. 

Make a Game Out of It 

Whatever you are teaching, students seem to learn better if the lesson comes across as playing a game instead of doing schoolwork. Here are some more ideas for incorporating letters and sounds into your daily classwork: 

  • I Spy: Have a child pick a letter out of a hat and say as many things they can see in the room starting with that same sound. 
  • Letter Hunt: This works best in a small group. Give each group a bag and have them place items with each sound (or assign them specific letter sounds) in the bag. Then come together and see what everyone has. 
  • Scrabble: Pull a Scrabble letter tile out of a hat. Say the sound and try and think of words that start with it. 
  • Letter Names: For each child, ask them what sound their name starts with. Then have them find something else in the classroom that starts with that sound. 
  • Apps: Many children have access to digital devices. If you can, find a great letter-sound app so they can practice at home. 

Tips for Teaching Letter Sounds Effectively 

It can be difficult figuring out how to teach letter sounds to struggling students, but thankfully there are some foundational skills that will improve their letter sounds if you work on them. 

The more you read to the kids (so they can listen to letter sounds), and the more they repeat and practice the letter sounds in poems, songs, or by playing fun games, the easier it will be for them to learn subconsciously. 

Even if you are teaching mathematics or a different subject, letter sounds are still involved! You can sneak letter sound games into any day at any time. 

Give Phonological Awareness Skills a Little Extra Attention 

As we’ve already mentioned, phonological awareness is understanding the sounds that make up words. It can be difficult teaching children to put sounds together to form words, but if they understand that each letter sound is part of a word, then it’s easier to teach. 

Phonological awareness only focuses on the sound. There’s no need to do extra work teaching them to recognize letter symbols. 

To improve phonological awareness, incorporate lots of rhyming and syllable segmenting. You can break up words into syllables, like deconstructing the word “bat” into /b/, /a/, /t/, or the other way around, creating words from syllables. 

A game to improve this skill could be to split your students into small groups and work on syllables. You say a short word while holding up either, one, two or three fingers. The students will have to tell you the first, second or third letter sound. 

For example, if you say “fun” and hold up one finger, the students will need to say /f/. If you hold up two fingers, they will need to say /u/. 

Use Multi-sensory Techniques 

Kids learn very well when you pair more than one of their senses together. This is why the YMCA song is so popular! 

Different children prefer different things, so you can try teaching various multi-sensory techniques to get them to learn:

  • Use letter blocks where the student can feel the letter on the wood. 
  • Have the students draw the letter in the air or on the table while they say the letter sound. 
  • Use textured letters. 
  • Have the students try to arrange themselves in the shape of the letter (like the YMCA). 

Incorporate More Opportunities for Developmental Spelling 

Although teaching letters and sounds is more about speaking, listening and occasionally reading, sometimes writing activities can help struggling students. 

It’s a form of multisensory learning, because writing the letter and saying it at the same time creates different neural pathways in the brain, helping them to remember it more easily. 

If you’re teaching a struggling student one-on-one, you can sit with them as they write and point out the letters. If they are writing the word “cake,” you can start with C. 

Ask them what letter it is and what sound it makes. See if they can find something else nearby that starts with the same. If they can, write that word down too. Then move on to the next letter of “cake,” A. 

You can also incorporate drawing. You can draw something, like a dog, and have them identify it and write it down. You can allow them to draw too so they don’t feel left out! But either way, make sure they incorporate their writing and spelling activities. 

letters of the alphabet

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels


At What Age Should My Child Begin to Recognize Letters? 

Kids usually start to recognize letters in shape and sound between the ages of 2 and 4. By the age of 5 or 6, children should begin to be able to put letters together into basic words and start to realize how sounds and letters go together. 

It is important to note that every child is different and learns differently. While one child may learn their letters at age 2.5, another might only learn them at 4.5, and both are okay. 

Sometimes, kids simply learn in different ways and incorporating some of the games and action-based activities like we’ve mentioned may be a huge help.

How Do You Make Learning Letters Fun for Kids?

If you can turn any lesson into a game, kids will love it and learn even without realizing that you are teaching them. If you use some of the techniques and activities we’ve spoken about, your kids should find some fun learning their letters and letter sounds. 

If they get bored or don’t like it from the start, you can always create a sticker chart or some kind of reward system to help them practice (make sure it’s healthy, candy is not a good reward although it’s motivating). 

ABC on chalkboard

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels 

Final Thoughts 

There’s no need to worry about how to teach letter sounds to struggling students. In most cases, they’ll catch on fairly quickly if you’re playing a game that they enjoy and that’s memorable. 

Remember, every kid is different and learns at their own pace. Keep teaching them, and you will see progress.

Cheryl Jerabek

Cheryl Jerabek lives in a tiny remote town in Southwestern Colorado. She writes full-time from her cabin nestled in the mountains. She often expresses how lucky she feels to be able to do what she loves from a setting that looks like a postcard. When she’s not writing, Cheryl loves hanging out with her husband and two grown children, her dog, Joe, and adores spending time with her three grandchildren.

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