Important Information About Teaching Letter Sounds

Important Information About Teaching Letter Sounds

Every study in a meta-analysis investigation by leading expert David A. Kilpatrick (2015, p.272) revealed the same conclusion: When an initial sound picture is inserted INSIDE a letter (as seen in the photograph below), student skills in learning alphabet sounds increase significantly!  This technique is referred to as an embedded picture mnemonics. Kilpatrick (2017) also emphasized that children learn phonemes “much more quickly” with this approach. Despite the research, most educators continue to rely on the side by side displays of an illustration and its corresponding letter when teaching letter sounds.

I have taught hundreds of students over the years, and I can tell you from experience that the use of embedded picture mnemonics is transformative. Think of it this way: It is easy to find Italy on the map because you know it’s in the shape of a boot. With respect to the example in the photograph below, children know that the sound of the letter i is /i/ because it is in the shape of an insect. When the picture is removed, the form of the letter itself helps individuals to recall what was there. That’s the beauty of mnemonics, or memory aids. Further, the Visual Teaching Alliance reveals that 90% of all learning is visual, so it seems logical that when mnemonics are visual, they are particularly powerful. Indeed, embedded picture mnemonics have empowered my students for many years. It is also important to note, however, that this approach must be used in conjunction with phonemic awareness training. Individuals must be taught how to recognize initial sounds in words and associate them to letters.

Well over 20 years ago, I was unsatisfied with the embedded picture mnemonics that were available on the market. This led me to develop my own program that is now known as SnapBack Phonics. It was the basis of my master’s degree studies and is grounded in extensive research. The embedded picture mnemonics used in SnapBack Phonics were developed with 3 critical ideas in mind. First, pictures had to be NATURALLY in the shape of a letter to a maximum possible extent. Second, they had to be simple and easy for children to see and recreate or process. Third, they could not begin with a consonant blend. For example, although a snake would have been an easier illustration to embed into the letter S, it was not selected because of the potential for confusion between the initial sound /s/ and the blend of /sn/.

Pilot studies of SnapBack Phonics reveal substantial gains among kindergarten and English Language Development (ELD) students. ELD letter sound recall scores rose from a median of 56% to 96% in less than eight months. Similarly, kindergarten medians increased from 44% to 92% within the same time period. The combined average increase for letter sound recall among both populations was greater than 331%. For complete pilot study results, requests can be made through the Contact Us tab of

(Letter G illustration copyright 2017 SnapBack Phonics, Inc. based on preexisting work copyright 1997 Nancy Burns Berodyn, used by assignment. All Rights Reserved. Photograph by RDR PR LLC.) 

Kilpatrick, D. A. (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley.

Kilpatrick, D. A. (2017, October). Assessment and highly effective intervention in light of advances in understanding word-level reading problems. Reading in the Rockies. Conference conducted by the Rocky Mountain Branch of the IDA. Vail, Colorado.

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