Question #1: “Why do you spend so much time teaching children the alphabet? Isn’t this a reading program?”
Both of my reading programs, Camp Sharigan and the Reading Orienteering Club after-school program, emphasize both phonemic and phonological awareness. This means that they emphasize learning that letters represent sounds, often several sounds. We teach children to break words down (decode) into individual phonemes or sounds and then put those individual sounds back together (encode) and say or pronounce the word. Children are also taught to spell the word, learn definitions for each word, and to be able to use the word in a sentence.
We also play games by adding a letter or taking a letter away to make a new word: at becomes bat, bat becomes back. Unfortunately, many children who come to my reading program do not know the lowercase alphabet. They cannot identify or name the lower case letters. Why? Mostly because we teach capital and lowercase letters side-by-side in preschool and kindergarten. That is why children never learn to identify lowercase letters when they are used by themselves. Yet, we read using lowercase alphabet letters. So, we must start teaching children who struggle or have been labeled as at-risk or failing in reading by teaching the lowercase alphabet.
We also know from neuroimaging research that the brain needs not only to “look and see” the letter, but to learn as children write and shape the letter. I use manuscript paper and manuscript style writing tools because, if the child’s brain cannot recognize the letter that the child has written, it will not be able to read the alphabet letter. I use traditional “tracing with direction arrows” for practice. I give the students colored pencils (especially the erasable kind) and have them trace over and over a letter with different colors to see what color they can make. Adding a little fun makes a task more enjoyable. Then, I also have the children use manuscript writing paper for writing their captured words (new words or words that they do not know). As I tell the children, “we’re training our brains to recognize these letters so that the brain can identify the letters when we see them in a story.”
The first step to teaching a child to read is to teach the lowercase alphabet: (1) to recognize the lowercase letter (independent of the capital letters) and know the letter name, (2) to know the letter sound(s) for each lowercase letter, and (3) to be able to write the lowercase letters correctly using manuscript style paper and letter formation.