By Jeanna B. White
There were Kicking Kings and Quarrelsome Queens, Zig Zag Zebras and Red Robots when Pinebrook Elementary School’s kindergarteners dressed up as their favorite Letterland characters.
The costumed cuties sang each letter character’s song and made its sound and hand motion, demonstrating their growing literacy development for the dozens of family members and friends who turned out for Letterland Day.
Developed more than 45 years ago at a mother’s dining room table, Letterland is a unique, phonics-based approach to teaching reading, writing and spelling to 3-8-year-olds. The Letterland characters transform plain black letter shapes into child-friendly pictograms and they all live in an imaginary place called Letterland.
Simple stories about the Letterland characters explain the full range of dry phonics facts so that children are motivated to listen, to think and to learn. These stories explain letter sounds and shapes, allowing children to progress quickly to word building, reading, and writing.
“I love Letterland!,” said Marianne Stein, a kindergarten teacher at Cooleemee Elementary School. “It is the most comprehensive, most effective, most kid-friendly way to teach phonics. When you hear the word phonics, you think “ugh”. But this program is so multi-level, so multisensory, how better to teach five-year-olds than with music and dancing and pictures and games? They just love it! They get so excited about it!”
“Letterland helps with gross motor skills, fine motor skills, and appropriate tracking of letters that turn into words. No matter where a child is in a skill level or skill set, they get something out of it. It could be word blending or the letter A, it could be Annie said “a”, but if you are consistent, and if you buy into it and believe in it, they will too,” she explained.
Davie County Schools began using this innovative literacy program for kindergarten through 2nd grade in 2004 and in preschool around 2007, but over time, materials wore out or were lost and newer teachers were not trained in the methodology.
When Larry Colbourne, president of the Mebane Foundation, and representatives from Davie County Schools began holding roundtable discussions to determine ways to move the needle in early childhood literacy, they quickly recognized the value of Letterland and decided to revitalize its usage.
“During those roundtable discussions we decided that there were a lot of things we were already doing really well, we just needed to get better at what we do, and Letterland was a piece of that,” said Jennifer Lynde, director of curriculum and instruction. “ We already knew Letterland was working well in the pockets in which it was being used so we wanted to make sure that everyone had the updated materials, everyone had all of the training, and we expanded it to 2nd grade.”
In 2016-2017, the Mebane Foundation gave a $44,000 grant to provide Letterland materials, software, and professional development for all Pre-K-1st-grade classrooms.
This year, second-grade classrooms have received materials, software, and training as part of DavieLEADS (Literacy Empowers All in Davie to Succeed), the Foundation’s five-year, $2.5 million grant to improve kindergarten readiness and to increase the percentage of students reading proficiently by the end of third grade. The grant will also provide Letterland materials, professional development and coaching to private daycares in Davie County. In addition, all incoming teachers will receive training to maintain the effectiveness of the program.
“Through the stories and songs, students connect with Letterland. It makes our language make sense to them,” said literacy coach, Amy Spade. “It’s super engaging instead of abstract. When Tracy Miller and I went through Reading Foundations, we saw the huge benefit of being able to tie in syllable types with the characters, helping 2nd graders really understand how syllables work. We wanted to continue giving them that solid foundation.”
“The whole program makes it possible to teach to every different learning style when you teach it the way it is laid out for you,” said Tracy Miller, who teaches 2nd grade at Pinebrook. “Each child in your classroom will attach to it in some way.”
“It is developmentally appropriate for all students no matter where they are in reading,” added Pinebrook kindergarten teacher, Emily Moore.“Letterland allows them to connect the sound to a letter before they even know it is a letter, so a lot of them know their sounds and are ready to read before they even realize that.”
“Letterland is comprehensive,” said Jill O’Toole, who teaches Pre-K at Pinebrook. “We can use it for the whole group, we can break up into small groups, we can put things in centers. Especially in Pre-K, a child can pick up a duck and say, “d,d, Dippy Duck” and then connect those things with real life.”
“I’ve seen an increase in the number of kids I have leaving my classroom that are ready to take that step in kindergarten into reading,” O’Toole added. “They are more aware of sounds, how sounds link together to make words … and they are more confident in what they are doing. I’ve had kids who walk into my class knowing no letters and leave, maybe not knowing the letter’s name, but knowing the character it is attached to and the sound it makes. That makes kindergarten so much easier, especially starting out with us and having Letterland flow through every grade.”
“Letterland touches boys and girls,” said Peggy Nuckolls, director of preschools. “A lot of boys are not interested in reading and letters yet due to developmental stages, but they become interested when you add Noisy Nick, Firefighter Fred and Fix-it Max, characters that mean something to them, it makes it come to life.”
“In second grade, the program really allows us to differentiate because we are able to break students into groups and meet them where they are,” Spade said. “If a student needs to repeat a lesson we can do that while another group moves ahead to work on syllable types.”
The DavieLEADS grant also funds two literacy coaches who will offer teachers on-site professional development and support, including assistance with Letterland. Later this year, consultants from Letterland will be further enhancing professional development by doing observations in classrooms and offering lesson modeling, feedback, and coaching sessions.
The additional support demonstrates the significance of the program and will help teachers maximize the program’s potential for their students.
“When you have that much support, it makes it more obvious to the teachers that are teaching the program that it is important and that they need to use it and use it the way we’ve been trained,” said Miller.
“If there is a problem, we have people to go to,” said Bridgett Bailey, who teaches 1st grade at William R. Davie. “When you feel better about something you are going to do better, you are going to teach it to the best of your ability.”
“I really appreciate that we can now use Letterland across the district and it is not limited to where we were able to get funding or not get funding,” Spade said. “Thanks to the Mebane Foundation, all students from preschool through 2nd grade will be getting this solid foundation.”