Assessing letter-sound correspondence
Language and literacy skills serve as key measures to a child’s ability to read, communicate, and succeed in almost all areas of learning (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997; Clayton et al., 2020; Purpura, 2011), justifying the heavy emphasis from policymakers, education boards, and families on measuring these skills (Strickland & Ayers, 2006; Teale 2008). For assessments in language and literacy to be useful to educators and to students, it needs to go beyond standardized screenings and outcomes-based assessments. Teachers need tools for ongoing, direct, formative assessment to make instructional adjustments based on what students know (Teale, 2008, Piasta, 2014).
Furthermore, the variability among preschool children in letter-knowledge, phonological awareness, and other preliteracy skills, language and literacy makes assessing in small groups or individually far more effective and informative (Chapman, 2003). Assessing language and literacy skills such as alphabet recognition or letter-sound correspondence allows for small group and individualized instruction, ensuring each young learner gets the support they need (Piasta, 2014).
One of six game-based assessments offered on language and literacy, the Cognitive ToyBox Letter-Sound Correspondence game provides teachers with an easy way to gauge which of the 26 letter sounds students are able to recognize and which sounds they still have difficulty with. Assessments are always placed in the context of the whole child, taken in combination with what the teacher observes and in relation to other language and literacy skills.
The Common Core Reading Foundational Standard for Kindergarteners states that students should be able to “demonstrate basic knowledge of one-to-one letter-sound correspondences by producing the primary sound or many of the most frequent sounds for each consonant” (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2021). Early childhood educators can use the Cognitive ToyBox formative assessment on letter-sound correspondence to move toward this goal. Once teachers know which letters each student is working to master, they can make instructional adjustments. In classrooms teaching phonemes systematically, teachers can focus on directly teaching the letter-sounds with which their students need more practice. In whole language approach classrooms, teachers can make note of letter-sounds to introduce through reading materials or class activities. No matter their approach to early reading and writing, teachers will have the information they need to ensure each child starts school ready to succeed.
How do I use assessment data collected on letter-sound correspondence to inform instruction?
Once a teacher has collected assessment data on their students’ letter-sound correspondence, they can review those data at the class and individual levels to determine next instructional steps. At the class level, the teacher can determine which letter-sounds most students (e.g., about 75-85%) can and cannot recognize. A subset of these sounds (3-5) can then be targeted for practice and instruction during whole group activities such as circle time and transitions. Once one subset has been mastered by most students, the teacher can introduce the next subset of letter-sounds.
Teachers can then use the data to determine differentiated small groups based on skill level. Often, students can be broken into 3 homogeneous groups based on how many letter-sounds they can recognize. For example, students who know 50% or less of the sounds are in group 1, students who know 50-75% of the sounds are in group 2, and students who know more than 75% of the sounds are in group 3. Group 1 requires the most direct instruction support, group 2 is on track and can continue regular instruction, and group 3 is advanced and could benefit from more challenging instruction. The teacher may provide group 1 with more frequent direct instruction in smaller subsets of known and unknown sounds, while the other two groups experience larger instructional subsets and more whole language instruction (i.e. applied practice of literacy skills).
The reason for including known letter-sounds in addition to unknown letter-sounds in an instructional subset is to give students a chance to succeed while learning new content; in other words, they are bound to get at least some letter-sounds correct as they learn unknown ones. Additionally, as a best practice, letter names and letter sounds should be taught in small groups rather than in isolation. For example, the concept of “The letter of this week is B” is less effective than “This week we’re learning the sounds /b/, /l/ and /r/” because by having other sounds in the instructional group, students learn to differentiate between the sounds. When taught a single sound in isolation without referencing other sounds, once the teacher moves on to a new sound the next week, students may forget the initial sound. For this reason, teachers should also always bring back previously learned sounds into the mix to ensure retention.
In terms of direct instruction, teachers can create activities to target the following student behaviors in whole group, small group, and individual instruction.
In terms of targeting the benefits of whole language instruction, the teacher can incorporate letter sounds into various modalities and materials in order to (1) promote a love of reading, and (2) demonstrate the value of letter sounds in the context of reading. For example, during activities when printed text is involved (e.g., calendar, story time), the teacher can call on a student to be the “Sound Inspector.” The teacher points to a specific letter in a word, and the student says the corresponding sound. The teacher may then explain that that specific word begins with or ends with that sound; they may say out loud the other sounds in the word while pointing to the corresponding letters; and they may model decoding the word by saying the sounds slowly in sequence and then faster. As another example, after the teacher writes down students’ responses to the Question of the Day on chart paper, they might have students come up and underline wherever they see the letter that makes the sound /n/. Then, the class reads the poem together again while emphasizing or drawing out the sound whenever they get to the letter “n” (i.e., “nnn”).
Ideally, teachers utilize assessment data to inform instruction and assess students regularly to determine whether their instructional efforts are effective. If students are not making sufficient progress between checkpoints, the teacher may need to change or enhance their instructional strategies. The most effective literacy instruction would include both explicit instruction of phonemes in isolation, as well as indirect instruction of phonemes along with other preliteracy skills in the context of spoken language, printed words, and read-alouds.