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How to teach letter sounds to struggling students? 3 little-known “hacks”

If you are in the process of teaching the letter sounds to your child, and you’ve tried all the “typical things” like songs, games, flashcards, but those letters just don’t seem to stick in your child’s memory, then keep reading, because this article is for you!

Today, I’ll be sharing with you three “hacks” I don’t really see many people talking about…

By the way, I’ve learned these “hacks” because I’ve faced this very same issue myself.  That means I know how frustrating it is for your child… And for you!


Rest assured, though… It can and it will be done! Your child will learn the letter sounds! It will just take longer and will demand some out-of-the-box thinking and determination.

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The problem: letter sounds don’t stick for long enough

So, for today’s article, I’m assuming that you’ve been trying to teach your child the sounds through songs, games, books, etc., for a good while now, and the situation is that those letter sounds seem to vanish from your child’s memory after a little while... Maybe it’s a few minutes, maybe it’s the morning, and in the afternoon, your child has forgotten all about the sounds…

In other words, it’s like starting all over again the next day!

That’s the experience I had with my youngest daughter.

Teaching letter sounds was very tricky! Achieving that first milestone of getting those sounds linked to the letters in her head for good, not just for a little while, was not easy.

So, what are those hacks that have been so helpful?

Hack #1: Including relevant stories about the letters.

What does this mean?

I think you’ll understand way better if I give you an example.

For instance, our review lesson about the letter “m” included:

Completing this alphabet worksheet (by the way, available from our library of free resources),

but, most importantly,

  • This little drawing on the back of the worksheet.

As you can see, I actually drew the letter “M,” which as you can see, resembles a mountain… Or well, two mountains!

There’s a man that climbing up the mountain, and he is about to fall, so he says: “Ahh!,” and that’s so funny… At least, it was for my daughter!

After that, I gave my daughter the drawing and let her imagination run wild. She actually drew things that do not start with the letter “m,” but it doesn’t really matter at this point. What matters is that she was engaged with the letter “M” and the shape of this letter in a fun way.

But, first and foremost, thanks to this activity, the fact that the letter “M” has this shape makes a lot sense for her now, because “Oh my God, it’s a mountain… Or two mountains!”

So, in addition to the program or the system you may be following, you may want to include these little stories.

And this goes in line with the next hack…

Hack #2: Having discussions about letter forms.

We’ve already covered the letter “m.” I believe its resemblance with a mountain is quite well-known.

Another very typical one is the letter “s” (probably this is the one that everyone knows about). The letter “s” is a snake, of course!

Letter s - snake shape.
Letter s – snake shape.

The letter “b” has a belly or is a butterfly’s wing,

Letter b - butterfly wing.
Letter b – butterfly wing.

the letter “d” wears diapers,

the letter“a” looks like an apple with its tail to the side,

Letter a - apple shape
Letter a – apple shape.

the letter “w” is a wave,

Letter w - wave shape.
Letter w – wave shape.

the letter “o” is an octopus’ head.

Use your imagination!

If you don’t want to get stuck for imagination and want a tool to help you have those discussions, you could use mnemotic flashcards.

They can be, in my opinion, a great tool. In our case, they were very supporting in our discussions about letter forms.

If you haven’t seen mnemotic flashcards, below you’ll see an example of the ones I used.

As you can see, each letter has a picture of something that starts with its letter sound, embedded in it.

For instance, the letter “b” has the shape of a “b, b, bug,” the “d” has the shape of a “d, d dog,”

the letter “t” has the shape of a “t, t, tiger,” the letter “p” has the shape of a  “p, p, penguin,” the letter “c” has the shape of a “c, c, cat,” “qu” has the shape of a “qu, qu, quilt,” etc.

My daughter loved them, she thought they were really funny, and in her mind now all these random letter shapes make way more sense.

Why does the letter “c” have that shape?  Because there’s a hidden cat’s face in it! That seems to truly help her link the letter form and sound!

I used these cards a lot to support us have these discussions about letter forms.

By the way, in case you are wondering, I bought these flashcards from a speech pathologist’s website here in Australia, and I had to print them out myself. You can check it here.

I have also researched Amazon to see if you could get some physical mnemotic flashcards (that you don’t have to print out yourself)

Rather than mnemotic flashcards, I found:

Magnetic alphabet letters (cute animal forms)Large Size Magnetic Letters, Cute Animal Alphabet ABC Magnets for Fridge Colorful Uppercase Animals Toys Set Educational Spelling Learning Games for Kids, Toddlers 3 4 5 Years Old

See it on Amazon!

Cutouts Letter Learning Cards (again, cute animal shapes). You can stick them around (walls, boards or other places), where kids can easily see them.

BeYumi 52Pcs Animal Alphabet Cutouts ABC Letters Learning Cards Educational Materials Home Preschool Classroom Decoration Bulletin Board Displays Wall Decals Stickers for Toddler Kids

See it on Amazon!

By the way, I’d like to clarify that I used these mnemotic flashcards, but also regular plain flashcards.

The mnemotic flashcards were a teaching tool to support us in our discussions about letter forms, etc. However, when I want to check if she really knows a letter ( I show her a letter and she has to tell me the sound without hesitation), then I use plain flashcards (with no visual cues).  That also means flashcards without a picture right below the letters, like the ones below.

Alphabet Flash Cards for Toddlers: Teach Toddler ABC Letters & Words, 52 Double-Sided Uppercase and Lowercase Letters Cards - Preschool Learning

See it on Amazon! 

Hack #3: Stress out the way we use our mouth to say the sounds.

This is something I didn’t so much originally, but I’ve learned also helps with letter sounds.

Say, we are focusing again on the  /m/ sound, I really want my child paying attention to the way lips close for this one.

And if I am teaching “n”, to the way we put our tongue behind our teeth.

How does this help?

Not only does she find it funny, but it definitely also helps build her sound awareness/ Phonemic Awareness skills, which are-as you may already know- extremely important for learning to read.

If you want to learn more about how sounds are formed, please refer to the table and explanations below. This table is, of course, way too technical for your child to learn, but you can use it as as your reference, so you understand how sounds are formed in English.

You may also want to take a look at our the 44 English sounds (phonemes) chart.

On top of this, note that sound walls are becoming a popular tool for sound awareness. I will not extend on sound walls in this article (it goes beyond the scope of today’s post), but it might be something you want to look into as well. However, note that you will need a lot of space, and they only make sense if you actually know how to use them!

MannerVoicingPlace: BilabialPlace: LabiodentalPlace: DentalPlace: AlveolarPlace: PostalveolarPlace: PalatalPlace: VelarPlace: Glottal
StopVoicelessptk (cat, kite, quilt)
FricativeVoicelessfth (thunder)ssh (shell)h
FricativeVoicedvth (the)zsi (Asia)
AffricateVoicelessch (chatter)
GlideVoicedwy (yellow)w

Consonant sounds are classified by their place of articulation, manner and voice.

Voice: All sounds can be voiced or unvoiced. In voiced sounds, there’s a vibration in our vocal cords.  On the other hand, unvoiced sounds do not make a vibration in our vocal chords.

Place of articulation: Consonants are created by obstructing or constricting airflow at specific points in the vocal tract, known as the place of articulation.

  • Labial (bilabial and labiodental): One or both lips are the active articulator.
  • Dental: The tongue against the upper teeth.
  • Alveolar: The tongue is in proximity to or in contact with the ridge behind the teeth on the roof of the mouth.
  • Postalveolar: Sounds produced by the tongue being close to or touching the back of the alveolar ridge.
  • Palatal: Sounds formed by raising the middle or back part of the tongue against the hard palate.
  • Velar: When the back part of the tongue (the dorsum) makes contact with the soft palate (velum), which is the back part of the roof of the mouth.
  • Glottal: The glottis is the main point of articulation.

Manner of articulation: The type of obstruction that occurs in the production of a particular consonant.

  • Stop sounds: sounds that are formed by completely stopping airflow.
  • Fricative: A sound produced by friction between two oral structures. The mouth blocks the passage of the airstream, but not entirely.
  • Affricate: A consonant sound that begins with a stop sound and concludes with a fricative.
  • Nasal: Sound in which the airstream passes through the nose by the lowering of the soft palate (velum).
  • Liquid: Consonant sounds produced by the tongue in the mouth without obstructing the airflow. Their unique sounds depend on the tongue’s position and the direction of exhaled air.
  • Glide: A glide, similar to a liquid, is a consonant formed as the tongue approaches a point of articulation in the mouth without obstructing the airflow to create turbulence.

In contrast to consonant sounds, in vowel sounds there’s no obstruction of the air flow. They are called “open sounds” as  the air passes freely from the lungs, through the larynx and out of the mouth. Other than a specific positioning of the tongue, jaws and lips, there’s nothing obstructing the air.


If you feel a little bit discouraged by how long it’s taking your child to learn the sounds, please don’t! Unless you are using harmful techniques, such as word shapes or trying to teach way too many letters at the same time, all that you’ve been doing really counts!

In fact, maybe that’s the last hack that no one really seems to talk about. Time, perseverance, consistency!

In fact, I actually see so much marketing around us that gives us an incredible timeframe… Like get your child reading in 4 weeks, in 2 weeks, get your child reading in 1 minute a day/ in a second a day, when he/she is in womb… Well, that is obviously a joke! I haven’t seen any program claiming such thing, but what I mean to say is that sometimes we feel so much pressure.

Those timeframes can get to you and make you feel bad.

I’d like to encourage you to be consistent and to educate yourself on the topic.

Also, remember for different skills/for different stages in your child’s learn-to-read journey, you may need different tools and strategies.

If you’d like access to a realistic blueprint to teach your child to read, download the Guide “How To Teach a Child to Read Step-by-Step?/The Simple Roadmap to Reading Success” 




How To Teach a Child to Read from Scratch Step-by-Step?: The Simple Roadmap to Reading Success Kindle Edition

See it on Amazon! 

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