Teaching the alphabet and alphabet sounds is something all teachers do, but we need to take a little closer look to consider how we are teaching these concepts to our students with special needs.  This instructional activity includes alphabet knowledge, the ability to recognize letter names, sounds and shapes; and phonological awareness, the ability to understand and manipulate individual sounds and phonemes. Alphabetic knowledge is knowing that words are made of letters which stand for speech sounds. Phonological awareness means the student can match the sounds to the letters in words to "decode" what they are seeing into what they are saying (in other words, READING). These two concepts together represent the Alphabetic Principle.

We are NOT the experts, but we know who they are!  Please use this page as a reference site to help you locate all of the amazing resources that you have available to you!  Please feel free to skip our info and go straight to the experts by STARTING HERE!

No items found.

"There is NO EVIDENCE to support that isolated instruction of alphabet knowledge has any impact on important reading-related outcomes. "

From:  Research Based Practices for Creating Access to the General Curriculum in Reading and Literacy for Students with Significant Intellectual Disabilities


Instruction in alphabet and phonological awareness does NOT mean DRILL AND KILL naming of letters.  We have decades of research that tells us the best way to teach these skills is through functional, meaningful, IN CONTEXT use of letters and sounds during typical daily, purposeful and MOTIVATING activities.  So, how do we do it?  Let's explore....

We need to explicitly instruct students in...

  • the sounds different letters make
  • how manipulating the letters/sounds in words changes the word, the way it sounds and what it means!

...AND the tricky part is that we need to introduce the USE of these skills right at the beginning of our instruction, rather than using rote drill. So rather than that "letter of the day," think organic instruction targeting the letters we encounter (and target) in other meaningful.   So we aren't just playing with random letters and words, but using these skills when we are making books, writing lists, creating our Predictable Charts, learning the names of our friends, our favorite things, places and other people.

What letters do we start with, and how long do we teach a letter before moving to the next one? What's wrong with the "letter of the week?"

Research by Jones, Clarke and Reutzel suggests a different approach based on empirical evidence that targets "multiple distributed instructional cycles," meaning the letters are introduced more quickly, and then revisited more frequently.  Here's the not-too-scary research article you can download. This downloadable article also gives you an easy to follow Lesson Template for explicit instruction of alphabet letters too!

***You can also read a lot more about this in Comprehensive Literacy for All, Chapter 3, pgs 33-48.

Here are some ideas for targeting Alphabet and Phonological Awareness in more typical activities:

  • Alphabet books: Yes! Even for older students! These are simply books with one page per letter with a representative photo.  To make these apply to all of our students, you'll choose a theme/topic for your ABC book.  These themes can be animals, foods and vehicles OR more specifically related to the high interest topics of your students.  Think Star Wars, Disney, Legos or the NFL!  These aren't books you will find on the shelves of the library, so you will be making them yourself OR finding ones other people have made.  Tarheel Reader is the BEST place to find, and make your own Alphabet Books.  There are THOUSANDS of books to choose from! Click here to see a curated list of specific alphabet books!
  • Specifically talk about the letters and sounds as you encounter them during reading and writing activities, and during typical activities during your day.  This is EASY! Just point letters out, talk about the sounds they make, what other words have the same sounds?
  • Reference letters in familiar logos, signs, and around your environment.  "S" for Starbucks beats "s" for snake ANYDAY!
  • Build an alphabet word wall. You know those ABC posters we line up around the top of our walls?  Start making word cards  to place under each letter poster, each time you organically (or sneakily plan to) find around your room, in your activities, within your stories or subjects.  Be on the lookout for specific words around your environment that are interesting enough to add to the Word Wall list.  "B" - Bayon, barbeque, BattleBots, bread

Are my students too OLD to work on the alphabet?  Hasn't that "ship sailed" once we hit middle and high school? ABSOLUTELY NOT.

"Emergent literacy begins at birth. It is not restricted by age or disability and develops as a result of opportunity and experience." American Speech and Hearing Association, Literacy in Individuals with Severe Disabilities

But aren't there a lot of more important "functional" goals we need to target for older students??? ACTUALLY, NO.

"The opportunity to learn to read and write should be afforded to all, regardless of spoken communication ability. The benefits of being able to read and write for individuals with severe disabilities are numerous. Perhaps most importantly, the ability to spell, even at very beginning levels, gives individuals with severe communication impairments the ability to communicate anything they want. In addition, the ability to read and write opens a critical path to the acquisition of, and access to, many forms of knowledge and experience within our contemporary society. From early school experiences through adult employment, literacy skills are needed to maximize participation. Education, self-determination, employment, quality of life, and enjoyment all may hinge on an individual's ability to read and/or to write."  American Speech and Hearing Association, Literacy in Individuals with Severe Disabilities

Development Resources

Learning Resources:


No items found.