So often I am asked about those children who are seriously struggling to learn and retain sounds. You know, children with whom you have done the classic three period lesson with the sandpaper letters multiple times and the sounds are just not sticking! What to do now? Here are 17 ideas I’ve used over the years to support these learners and keep their confidence and engagement up!

Why Teach Letter Sounds Before Letter Names?

Is It Too Early?

First of all be sure you are not starting too soon! If the child is in the first half of their three year old year, back off and play a lot of sound games. Other spoken language and vocabulary building activities help to set the stage too. Try learning poems and songs by memory, read picture books, tell stories and have conversations! Be sure to watch for signs of readiness in the child to begin learning letter sounds in earnest.

Use Less Letters

Move the classic lesson from three new letters at a time down to two new letters at a time or in some rare cases only one! Once the child has mastered a few letters, you may want to use one or two of the mastered letters as the second or third letter in the 3 period lesson if they are aware the lesson usually has three letters.

Review, Review, Review!

Be sure every lesson begins with a review of the sounds studies so far. This invites celebration and lets you ensure that mastery is indeed happening.

Add More Practice in the First Period

After the child is done tracing the letter, place it in a small tray and ask him to go and tell three people “This is aaaa!” (Often I invite him to tell the other adult in the classroom and 2 children to minimize the interruption factor.)

Make it a Game

Create thin strips that have letters on the top. Show the child the strips and invite the child to only say his letter when he sees it! You can provide more practice by placing more of that letter in the set. 20 strips and 10 of them have the targeted letter. The letters in the sorting strips of the Color Coded Sound Games work well for this purpose. I’ve also tried this with a few letters from the moveable alphabet, hiding 5-7 of each letter under a scarf. The child then reaches for a letter, looks at it and says the name.

Add More Practice in the Second Period

Creating opportunities for more fun second period practice is really key for struggling learners. Realize that you will stay on this step awhile longer than most typically functioning children. That is OK! You are working for mastery! Go as slowly as necessary! Encourage as much tracing of the letter as the child will tolerate. You can vary the location of tracing to keep it interesting (on the sandpaper letter, on a sand tray, on the table, on your hand, on your back, etc).

Add Movement

Ask the child to move the letter in the second period. Put “aaaa” on your head! Now put “aaaa” on the table. Hand me “ssss” Put “ssss” on your knee. Now put “ssss” on your head.”

Use Distance

Put the letters on a rug, far, far away and ask the child to fetch, utilizing his visual memory. This asks the child to hold the letter sound in his memory as he goes to get it. I’ve also hidden moveable alphabet letters around the room, or on a distant table (3-5 of each letter in the current 3-period lesson) and asked “Can you bring “aaa”? Can you bring “sss” Can you bring another “aaa”?

Add More Support to the Third Period

Remember, don’t rush to this step! We are working for mastery, and the second “show me” phase may be necessary much longer than anticipated. If he does not remember the sound, just tell him the sound and assure him, “We just have not had enough practices with that one yet!” Keep the lesson moving swiftly and keep it light and fun!

Give a Small Hint

If the child looks at you blankly, when you ask “What sound is this?”, place your mouth in the correct position to make that sound (press your lips together for the “mmm” sound.) He will probably mimic your mouth and that motor memory may help him recall the sound!

Trace it in Color

Use the Orton Gillingham Rainbow Writing Method and introduce writing just a bit sooner than usual.

Stuck on letter sounds?

Check out my color coded sound games for 8 printable fun activities that practice these building block sounds for reading. Available in print and cursive.

Color Coded Sound Games Cathie Perolman

See it Everywhere

Provide more opportunities for the sound to show up in the child’s visual field. Often when we teach sounds we do not do much between one lesson and the next and the lessons may be a few days apart. Children with challenges learning and retaining sounds need more quantities of exposures and more frequent exposures. Try one of the games or activities in this post as a second exposure after a morning lesson on the same day, or the very next day.

Erase a Letter

Write the letter you practiced with that child on the chalkboard 3 times and invite him to erase it each time following the writing path with a moistened tiny sponge and say the sound as a second exposure one day.

Letter Hide and Seek

Hide the letter in the classroom 3 places using large cardstock cards and ask the child to go on a hunt to find them. As he gets stronger use movable alphabet letters.

Find the Sound

Make a letter “word find” by writing letters on a ½ sheet of paper and the child has to mark only the targeted sound.

Use Games and Partners for Extra Practice

Once a child has mastered a few sounds it is crucial that we review frequently and allow for the possibility that one or more of those “hard won” sounds will disappear from a child’s memory. In this case it is important to work to regain that sound as soon as possible without any upset to the child. Use games and activities to do this using creative means to do so. This is a great time to use other children and partner work to provide this practice and reinforcement. Games such as bingo, letter race game and dice game can be helpful for this.


Celebrate hard work and effort after every lesson! A child who feels confident in his learning and is having fun is more likely is keep working hard!

Cathie Perolman

Cathie Perolman, M.Ed

Cathie Perolman is a reading specialist, elementary educator, author, consultant, and creator of educational materials for primary and elementary students.

You can see all her original materials for sale in our shop, and read more about her and her life’s work here.