A few years ago I was working with a group of kindergartners. Their teachers had identified them as the children who were just not catching on to the reading concepts they were working on in class. Some of the problems the children were having included missing letters, substitutions, and reversals. I patiently tried to sound out the words while they wrote them, but nothing seemed to make a difference. CAT still came out like CT or TAC. The children who struggled the most were ones who were using letters that did not appear in the word at all.
(A few months later I began to work with multiple grades, all children who struggled with reading and spelling. This approach was what worked with all the kiddos no matter how old they were).
I started using Alphabet Tales to introduce and link letter symbol to sound. This helped a lot. Using hand motions for the letters did as well, but reversals and omissions persisted. I used Alphabet Teaching Cards with children older than kindergarten who needed a visual to link the letter symbol with the correct sound. (See the explanation of using this "visual glue" with visual learners in this blog post.)
Finally, in desperation, I started holding up fingers to represent each letter in the word. This time, I had the children look at my fingers as I sounded out the word, pointing to a finger each time I said a sound. This visual map made all the difference to the children. They SAW three sounds anchored on my fingers, so when they made three sounds with their mouths, they also expected to see three sounds represented on their paper. If they omitted the middle letter, I would draw their attention back to my fingermap and they would locate the sound that was missing from their word.
For years after, I used fingermapping with all ages of children with very happy results. I struggled to verbalize, however, why this simple practice was so vital to the learning of many of my children. I have recently come to understand that for those highly visual learners, hearing the sounds was an auditory process, writing was kinesthetic or tactile, but seeing the word mapped out on my fingers was a visual clue as to the structure of the word. (Refer to Figure 2 - an example of a word with three letters and three distinct sounds. Contrast this map with Figure 3 which represents words with four letters but only three sounds. This is a visual way to show how words are structured.)
I’ve learned nearly everything I know from my students. There is nothing at all in the world like doing something and seeing the lights go on for children. In the case of fingermapping, the lights go on dramatically and results have been extraordinary.
Figure 2 is an illustration of the simplest of fingermaps seen from my own viewpoint (the letter sequence will look correct to the children facing me). As I sound /C/, I will touch the finger on the far right, as I sound /A/, I'll point to the middle finger, and so on. To me it looks right to left, but to my children it looks left to right.
Figure 3 shows a fingermap for four letter words ending in AY. I often take two lists of words and contrast them. For example, I use a short list of words with the AY ending, and another short list with AI in the middle: play, bay, say, may, spray, day – and – maid, laid, nail, pail, hail, sail. As we play Quick Draw, I use fingermapping to cue the children as to which spelling of the long A sound we are using. I will teach them first that most of the time AY will be heard at the end of words, while AI will appear in the middle of words. But sharing that rule is not sufficient for visual learners. They will benefit from SEEING something. So I use my fingers. I show AY by having two fingers stuck together to signify a sound made up of two letters. When my visual learners see that map, they instantly know what to write.
If I call out a word with the AI spelling in the middle of the word, I will use the fingermap shown in Figure 4. The children will take a quick look at my hand and they will then correctly write their word.
It doesn't take long before the child can learn to rely more heavily on their ability to hear the sounds in the correct sequence – or maybe they make a mental visual of the map of the word. In any case, children do move away from having to have a fingermap displayed for them. What is so important about fingermapping for visual children is that this one practice could mean the difference between success and failure in reading. Using a visual tool such as fingermapping is very powerful for visual learners.
(The Illustrated Book of Sounds & Their Spelling Patterns explains more thoroughly the process of using fingermapping as you teach the structure of words. I recommend this process highly for children who are struggling readers and poor spellers.)