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How Can I Teach Literacy Skills in PreK? (Part 2: Small Group)

This is Part 2 in the “How Can I Teach Literacy Skills in PreK?” series. This one focuses on small group instruction for PreK literacy that complements the whole group instruction described in Part 1. These activities are designed to promote students’ understanding of the alphabetic principle (understanding that speech can be represented by print) so they can learn to decode words.

I used small groups as a tool to better direct student attention and provide more opportunities to respond and receive targeted, specific corrective feedback–a component of instruction that research suggests is a high-value practice. I typically pulled 3-5 students at a time for about 5-10 minutes each at the beginning of the year. With this short, targeted instruction, I could see every student every day. While I worked with students in a small group, the rest of the students were in literacy centers (to be discussed in a later blog post).

To organize groups, I typically used a brief assessment at the beginning of the year to see if students were coming in with any knowledge of the single letter names or sounds associated with each. Most of my students knew 0-2 letter names and/or sounds at the beginning of the year, but I had a couple who came in knowing many letter-sounds, so this helped me group students for differentiated instruction a bit better. At the beginning of the year, since most students were starting around the same place, the actual groupings were made more on student behavioral/attentional needs. As the year went on, specific academic needs became more apparent and groups flexibly shifted to better match instructional need.

Small Group Instruction

In the first post, I wrote that you can introduce a letter-sound correspondence every 2-3 days, as current research suggests a faster pace than “letter of the week” is beneficial to all, and especially beneficial to at-risk students. I will break up the following activities into Days 1, 2, and 3, but if you take more/less time for a specific letter, they can be adjusted to meet your timeframe as well.

Day 1

Securing Phonemic Awareness and Phonics Knowledge

After the letter-sound correspondence was introduced in whole group, I brought students over to a small group table to reinforce this sound-spelling with them. The first activity I typically did was a sound sort. This sound discrimination activity draws their attention to the initial phoneme in the word, which is the first step in building a student’s grapho-phonemic awareness, or understanding that words are made up of individual sounds and that those sounds can be represented by print.

The school I was at had tubs similar to these alphabet sound tubs, also available a bit cheaper here, or you can make your own using free printable photos, such as these. I would pull out an object one at a time, say the object name, have the students repeat, have them figure out the initial sound, and connect it back with the letter. For example, “See the [moon] mmmmmmoon? Say mmmmmmmoon. [Students say, mmmmmmoon]. Look in the mirror–What sound does your mouth make first when you say mmmmmmoon? Yes, /mmmmmm/! Let’s write an “m” on our dry erase boards.” [Model writing “m” then students write].

I would let them each hold the object and say the word/sound, and if you have small mirrors, such as these, you can have them say the word as they look into the mirror to see what their mouth does first. Research suggest connecting articulatory gestures (the movement the mouth makes for each sound) to sounds and print can help students better understand the alphabetic principle.

Bridging Activity: Circle Map

I would give the students a “bridging activity” to start at the table and finish independently at their table before going back to centers. I had a teacher’s aide during this time that would support students if needed and collect the activity while I started my next small group. The bridging activity for Day 1 was a circle map.

I would create a blank circle map and place it in front of students, such as below. As the year went on, they could draw their own.

Blank circle map for “m”

I would model how to figure out a word that started with the /mmmmm/ sound and draw and label it on my circle map by stretching the sounds out and writing them down. I would then ask them to tell me a word they would draw and label. They did the first one at the table with me (so I could assess) and finish two more independently before they went back to centers. Below are some examples.

“m” circle map representing initial sound in “moon,” “mop,” and “mat”

At the beginning of the year, I expected them to write the letter “m”, and as the days went on, many could start to distinguish more and more sounds.

“m” circle map representing more sounds in words

Yes, one little girl sounded and wrote motorcycle!–although this is a recreation of her spelling, not her original work. Research suggests encouraging students to represent speech with print using inventive spelling helps students apply and develop phonemic awareness and phonics skills.

Day 2

Sound Sort

On Day 2, I would set up a sound sort with two categories, the printed letter [“m,” for example] and a mini-trash can, like this one. You can also just draw one on a sheet of paper 🙂 Once kids master multiple letter-sounds, you can use two or three actual letters to sort (“m”, “t”, “a”) instead of a trash can.

I’d then reveal an object or photo that begins with the target letter-sound (mmmmmat) and have them decide if it is spelled with an “m” or not. They would help me decide and we would put it next to the “m”. Then I’d show them a non-example (Here is a sssssock”, what does your mouth do at the beginning when you say, “ssssock”? Yes, /ssss/. What does “m” spell? Yes, /mmmmm/. Same or different?). They would help me then “throw it away”. I would do this with 5-8 photos/objects as a group.

As a bridging activity, I would giving them one to do individually before they left the table. This would help me assess for future teaching. If you have a cut/sort worksheet to match the letter-sound correspondence you were working on, they can do some more (3-5) independently. I would hand draw these on a sheet of paper and copy them off for each student–sorry I don’t have examples of this to share at the moment! I would give them the pieces pre-cut at the beginning of the year, and as their cutting skills became stronger through other class activities, they would cut their own.

Day 3

Word Building

Once students have a few letter-sounds mastered, you can start having them build words. This can initially be with movable letters. I used some like these to match our handwriting program, but any movable letters or tiles would work fine. I’ve also used bananagram tiles in the past! Lowercase letters are preferred as students will be most exposed to those while reading, but using uppercase letters won’t do any damage 😉

To do this, I would have words planned that only used the letter-sound correspondences students have learned. So if students have learned s, a, t, p, i, n, then I could use the following words: at, sat, sit, sip, sap, nap, nip, etc…

Each student would have the letters needed in front of them and we’d play touch and say first (touch /mmm/!, touch “s”, etc). Then, I provide instructions on how to “build a word” and ask the students to try.

For example, “We’re going to learn how to spell words today! First, I say the word slowly and listen to all the sounds. Then I pick a letter that matches each sound. Watch me: the word is “sat.” Let’s say “sat” slowly… /ssssssaaaaaat/. Now, let’s say it again and look in the mirror. What is you mouth doing first? Yes, /sssss/. What letter spells /sssss/? Yes, “s”! Find the “s”! Let’s pull the “s” down. Let’s look in the mirror again. /ssssssaaaaaa…/ what is your mouth doing next? Yes, /aaaaaa/! Which letter spells /aaaaaa/? Yes, “a”! Pull it down. Hmmmm…… what does our mouth do next, let’s look in our mirrors and see. /sat*/ (emphasizing /t/). Yes, /t/! Pull down the letter that spells /t/. Great, “t” does spell /t/. Let’s read the word we spelled! /ssssaaaat/… /sat/! Wow, you just spelled a word!”

We would do 3-5 words and then I would give them one to do on their own before they left the table so I could assess their individual progress.

As the year progresses: Adding in Decodable Text

As the year went on, we had more and more time each day as they learned the routine. I would eventually add in decodable text and read one-on-one with one student at the end of each small group. This meant I read with each student at least once a week and they reread it to the teacher’s aide after working with me. I always read these in small groups in Kinder, but in PreK it seemed more appropriate to start this one-to-one. As the weeks went on and they understood the task better, I moved to doing this in small group at the end of Day 2 or 3 and then, as a bridging activity, they would reread it to a partner.

Note on decodable text: Decodable text are only decodable if they match the phonics skills you have taught students. I used the Bob Books, Set 1 (then 2 and 3) and followed the scope and sequence of these to match. Any decodable books that match your score/sequence would be fine. Avoiding repetitive texts that do not require students to attend to the letters (but instead attend to the pictures) is advised, as students will remember/retain what they attend to. We want these to reinforce their phonics skills that they have learned.

Moving Forward

In the next post(s), I’ll discuss some playful literacy centers that can help reinforce skills in a playful way, as well as ways to embed meaningful and fun practice throughout the day. I’ll end with a short but sweet video of my first-born, when he was three-and-a-half, starting to read using Bob Books. Enjoy!


2 thoughts on “How Can I Teach Literacy Skills in PreK? (Part 2: Small Group)

  1. Tiffany! Great stuff!

    Dr. Kathleen J. Brown, Director
    University of Utah Reading Clinic in the College of Education
    5242 South College Drive
    Murray, UT 84123
    801-265-3951 (clinic)
    801-541-4594 (cell)
    801-265-3620 (fax)



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