By Jeanna Baxter White
As the opening notes of the Letterland theme song began to play, fifty excited preschoolers dressed as their favorite Letterland character began to march in a slow circle around the churchyard. Annie Apple led the parade followed by Bouncy Ben, Clever Cat, and all of their fellow Letterland characters.
The students in Mocksville’s First United Methodist Church’s half-day preschool program were celebrating Letterland Day and the completion of the entire Letterland program, from Annie Apple to ZigZag Zebra.
“We went through a different letter each week and ended last week so today’s parade commemorated their experience,” said Allison Gupton, the preschool’s director. “Letterland has really helped a lot of them. We’ve seen so much growth and development, often from knowing nothing to knowing the characters, the songs, the sounds the letters make, and recognizing the letters. It’s been really neat to watch them evolve from thinking this is a character, like in a TV show, to knowing that it means something.”
Letterland is a phonics-based program that teaches students how to read, write, and spell. It is a well-established program for students from preschool to 2nd grade, with a carefully constructed curriculum for children at each grade level. The program has friendly ‘pictogram’ characters based on different letters that live together in Letterland. Stories featuring the letter characters explain phonics to children in a way that’s more entertaining than your typical lesson and thus sticks in the minds of students.
Davie County Schools (DCS) 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.
The program became an essential piece of DavieLEADS (Literacy Empowers All in Davie to Succeed), the Mebane 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.
From 2016-2018, the Mebane Foundation provided Letterland materials, software, and professional development for NC Pre-K to 2nd-grade classrooms in Davie County. This year, the program was expanded to include half-day faith-based programs, as well. Six preschool programs from the following churches participated: Bethlehem United Methodist Church, Center United Methodist Church, First Presbyterian Church of Mocksville, First United Methodist Church, Hillsdale Baptist Church, and Hillsdale Methodist Church. Each received a Letterland for the Early Years curriculum kit, literacy training for their staff, and onsite coaching to support their literacy curriculum.
“One of the things we realized was that we had to create a continuum of educational interventions that started early and extended through the third grade,” said Larry Colbourne, president of the Foundation. “That’s the big difference with the DavieLEADS grant. We went down into the pre-k world. Normally, we would get the kids in kindergarten and then try to get them reading by the third grade. We decided to go deeper, and that’s a huge part of this project.”
The approach has been successful. At the end of DavieLEADS’ first year, kindergarten readiness in Davie County has improved from 71 percent to 80 percent based on the Dial-4 screening assessment.
“It’s a fabulous idea to introduce Letterland at this level so that when the children get to kindergarten they don’t have to learn an entirely different concept,” said Sarah Watkins, preschool director at Hillsdale Baptist Church. “They were already learning the alphabet here in our program, but it’s even better if the program we are teaching is consistent with what is used in the elementary schools.”
“One of the coolest things has been when I’m talking to a child outside of class and they reference Peter Puppy or another character and some of the things they have learned. That is a highlight, it’s just wonderful!”
“As a private non-profit, Letterland is not something we could afford. Having the Mebane Foundation provide this training and the curriculum packet has been invaluable,” she added. She hopes to find the money to purchase additional materials so that Letterland can be introduced to the younger classes next year.
First United Methodist was able to purchase a second Early Years curriculum kit which is being shared by the younger classes. “The children will be getting the foundation in the twos, we will build on it through the fours and then the possibilities are endless as they enter elementary school,” said Gupton.
“The children have been so excited and we’ve been pleased with their progress and what they’ve learned thanks to this partnership with the Mebane Foundation. It’s been a true blessing to be able to do this. The kids, the grownups, everyone enjoys Letterland, but most importantly, the kids are learning.”
In fact, many of Gupton’s students love the program so much that they asked for it for Christmas. “I was texting parents where we ordered our stuff from and it became a Christmas list item.”
Stephanie Nelson, DCS preschool collaborative teacher, said that coordinating the curriculum between private and public preschools ensures the same high-quality instruction no matter the preschool setting.
Additionally, using Letterland across the board provides all of the preschool students with the same frame of reference and eases their transition into kindergarten because they are already familiar with the Letterland characters.
“When they see Letterland again in kindergarten it makes them feel good by building familiarity when everything else is so new and gives them just a little boost,” said Nelson. “It’s a fabulous program, very multi-sensory, very appropriate for young children. Letters are so abstract, but when you link them to a character and a story, they become easier to understand.”
“When most people think about children identifying letters, they think about identifying the shape and saying the name of it,” Nelson explained. “But really the most important part of this for preschoolers is to identify the sound, whether or not they can attach it to a letter. We teach children to train their ear to hear things in a different way which helps build phonological awareness.”
For Sherri Robinson, who teaches the pre-k class at Hillsdale Baptist Preschool, the transition to Letterland has been easy. She had already been teaching a similar program and all three of her children used Letterland in elementary school so she was already familiar with it.
“I love the program. I think it’s fabulous for the kids,” said Robinson, who has also taught kindergarten. “They love the characters which provides so much more meaning for them. Letterland is very engaging and keeps their interest. The materials are great! I like the big letter cards and the way that they can trace them with their finger. The program has songs to make it more playful. I also love the kinesthetic aspect of having a hand motion with each letter that allows children who can’t sit still to move. Letterland is the total package.”
“I love early literacy, I think it is very, very important for a child’s development. They are like little sponges, the more you can engage them the more they just soak it up.”
Letterland has been a huge help,” said Deitre Junker, who has been teaching preschool at First United Methodist for 19 years. “I’ve been using something similar but this incorporates more of what they need in kindergarten. The kids have taken to it so well and love it. Every time we start playing the song or doing the motions they love it. All of the children know the characters and know the letters and will be able to transition easily into using the same program in kindergarten.”
Lucas Crotts was happy to demonstrate.“I love Clever Cat and ZigZag Zebra, they are my favorite Letterland characters. I learned them from Mrs. Deitre.” He quickly went on to name every character and letter in the alphabet and made its sound and showed each hand motion.
His favorite thing about Letterland? “I like to learn about all of the characters and I love to get my coloring books and draw them.”
Junker believes kindergarten won’t be such a shock to them and they will be ready and ahead of the game. “I also think it could help them academically in the long run.”
“Parents love it! Some of the children have siblings already in school doing Letterland and the parents love that we are starting it here, too. The siblings are having conversations about Letterland. It’s a win-win for everyone!”