Change a letter: An evidence-based literacy strategy

Being able to manipulate the sounds in words is an important literacy skill. This activity encourages students to work on that skill by having them change one letter in a word to make a different word. 

Start with a simple word like bug. In this activity, students could change the beginning consonant (“bug” to “mug”), middle vowel (“bug” to “big”), or ending consonant (“bug” to “bun”).

Watch: See a demonstration of this strategy

Watch this video from Reading Rockets to see literacy expert Louisa Moats show this strategy to a kindergarten teacher.

Read: How to teach students to change a letter

Objective: Students will be able to substitute one letter in a word to make a new word.

Grade levels (with standards):

  • K (Common Core ELA Literacy RF.K.2.E: Add or substitute a sound in one-syllable words to make new words)

  • K (Common Core ELA Literacy RF.K.3.D: Distinguish between similar words by identifying the sounds of the letters that differ)

  • 1 (Common Core ELA Literacy RF.1.2: Demonstrate understanding of spoken words, syllables, and sounds)

Best used for instruction with:

  • Small groups

  • Individuals

How to teach:

There’s a great explanation of how to use this teaching strategy on this handout from the National Center on Intensive Intervention (NCII). We especially like NCII’s sample script for what to say to your students when using this strategy.

Here’s a summary of the four main steps:

  1. Write a word on a dry-erase board: mop

  2. Read the word: “mop”

  3. Change one letter as directed: hop

  4. Say the new word: “hop”

Be sure to use explicit instruction to tell students what to do. Then model one or two words for them. For the next words, give students brief reminders until they get the right response almost all of the time without any help. Over time, students will no longer need reminders as they improve their phonemic awareness (the ability to hear and manipulate sounds in words) and phonics skills.

For English language learners: These students may have strong phonemic awareness skills in their home language. But they may struggle simply because they’re not familiar with English sounds. (Some English sounds may not exist or may be different in a student’s home language.) In other cases, it’s possible these students may have a learning difference like dyslexia and may have trouble processing the sounds in words in their home language, too.

Understand: Why this strategy works

Phonemic awareness is an important foundational reading skill. Students who have phonemic awareness skills understand that words are made up of individual sounds. They can isolate the sounds in different parts of a word and play with sounds to make new words.

Students who have learning differences like dyslexia have difficulty reading words, in part because they have trouble processing sounds. Research shows that people with dyslexia often have differences in the area of the brain that’s responsible for processing language. These students — and all students — benefit from being explicitly taught phonemic awareness skills through strategies like this one, and/or Elkonin sound boxes.

It’s important for students to build phonemic awareness skills while they’re also learning phonics. Phonics instruction teaches students to make the connection between sounds and written letters. Students say those sounds and put them together to read words. 

This “change a letter” strategy is effective because it helps students with phonemic awareness and phonics at the same time. When students compare the old word to the new word, they use phonemic awareness skills to compare the sounds. Then, when they connect the sounds with the letter patterns in the word, they use both their phonemic awareness and phonics skills to make the new word.

Share an article about phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and phonics with families to help them understand the importance of activities like changing a letter.

Research behind this strategy

“Everything you wanted to know about phonics (but were afraid to ask),” from Reading Research Quarterly

“Systematic phonics instruction helps students learn to read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel’s meta-analysis,” from Review of Educational Research


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