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More than ABC’s: How LETRS is changing the game of language and literacy

As a group of preschoolers gather on a rug, their teacher holds up a card with the letter D and says, “I wonder what would happen if we changed the first sound of our name to a D sound. I’m going to go first. Instead of Mrs. Powers, I would be “Mrs…“ She pauses and then sounds out the letter D, “D, d……Dowers!”

The children laugh uproariously before taking turns with each of their names. For Rose Powers, this is more than a fun way to build community in her class—it’s an intentional literacy practice. It’s just one of many playful literacy activities woven throughout the day.

We recently caught up with Powers, a preschool teacher at Gilbert Public Schools, a group of Quality First participating programs in the First Things First Southeast Maricopa Region. First Things First is Arizona’s early childhood agency, and funds Quality First to help early care and education providers improve the quality of their programs. Along with Powers, we spoke with Sarah Van Horn, another preschool teacher in the district, special education preschool coordinator Julie Stockton , and preschool instructional coach Robyn Gift, to learn about their intentional literacy practices. 

Julie explained that the entire team of Advantage preschool teachers in the district recently completed Early Childhood Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS), a professional learning program currently offered at no cost to early childhood educators across Arizona. The program is specially designed for educators and staff who support the development of children from birth to kindergarten entry. Participants will learn best practices for developmentally appropriate, evidence-based routines and instruction impacting the delivery of playful, purposeful instruction essential for developing early literacy skills.

Interested in getting started, or just want to learn more? 

Visit the Arizona Department of Education’s Padlet and reach out to LETRS@azed.gov with any questions.

What made you interested in Early Childhood LETRS?

Julie: I feel like we could always be doing more in this area, especially in this pivotal time of children’s development. When I found there was a program that blended language and literacy, it spoke to the outcomes of what we wanted for the children, later in life. I wanted to bring it in. Then I learned we could do it without worrying about raising the funding for it. 

Was there a barrier you were hoping to overcome?

Julie: I feel like so many of our children have language deficits. Even our typically developing students come in with less total language abilities. Other professional development programs out there were less language-focused. This one is focused and how language relates to literacy across the developmental domains. I want our children to be as successful as possible now and throughout their lives. If helping them build their language abilities will lead to better literacy, I’m all for it.

How has Early Childhood LETRS improved the quality of your program?

Julie:  We learned throughout LETRS how the 2 highest indicators for literacy success are knowing initial sounds and letter recognition. Hearing that in multiple ways has made us focus on it more in the classroom. 

In our program, we have struggled with the quality of feedback we give our students in our Quality First assessments in the past. The “Three t’s”  (tune in, talk more, and take turns) really embody feedback and how we can extend language. 

Sarah: We only have the children 2 ½ hours, four times per week. LETRS has made us that much more conscious of how important this time is before they go to kindergarten. We know that what they learn between ages three to four sets them up for success later on. It gets them ready. 

How did LETRS benefit you as a teacher?

Sarah: It gave us some great instructional practices that were easy to implement in what we were doing. Hitting the sounds correctly, rhyming games, games with alliteration, story times, age-appropriate books. It focuses on vocabulary as well as the writing process. 

Rose: The LETRS training has provided me with additional information, the most recent research and best practices, and how to apply this research in the classroom. It has supported me in being more intentional with instruction and embedding literacy and language practice in various ways throughout the preschool day. I’ve gained a better understanding of the processes involved in children’s development and how to support and foster their literacy and writing skills. A focus on early literacy will help me to build foundational skills in my students which will hopefully aid in a smooth transition into reading and writing in kindergarten. 

What might you tell a colleague if they were to be interested?

Julie: I think it’s a positive thing for any program that is focused on child development. It can only help with the kids’ progression, it can only support any instruction you provide. Since beginning LETRS training, I’ve seen so many teachers focused on  segmenting syllables, singing “Hickety Pickety,” and other word games, questioning during read-alouds, and giving quality feedback.

LETRS is not easy breezy content, but somebody can take something from it no matter where they are on their educational path. It’s not a one-and-done. We will continue to revisit the LETRS information this summer, as Lexia gives you online access for a year. We will include activities throughout our continuing professional development. For example, I made an activity that took some of the keywords in our training and had each table quickly match up the definition with its key literacy component. We will continue to highlight these terms, and what we have learned throughout the years to come. It is on us as leaders to guide and continue growing and learning with our teams. We have to be behind the change too.

Sarah: It’s a great opportunity. Be ready to apply it immediately. If we don’t implement things right away, it goes on the back burner. It’s a lot at once, but once you implement it, it becomes a part of your daily routine.

Tips from Administrators


  • Set aside Time. On Wednesdays, we don’t have students, but we do have a lot of paperwork, meetings and training. We set aside a small part of Wednesdays for teachers to work on LETRS, but the majority was completed on their own time. 
  • Schedule live training sessions. Live training days were pivotal and we scheduled them far in advance. These two 6-hour sessions were very hands-on. They cover what you’re doing in the classroom, how it relates to literacy across the domains, the why, the science of reading and how children learn. 
  • Create a scope and sequence. I talked to the ELA coordinator in our district that had rolled it out before. I realized we needed a strong kickoff, a scope and sequence and pacing guide of when different units needed to be completed in order to be able to finish in time for in-person trainings. 
  • Reflect along the way. I went through the program with the teachers so I could share and we could reflect on what we were learning and how it was beneficial for our classrooms. We opened up a Google document to add all of our reflections simultaneously. Every two weeks, I would say, “Let’s reflect on what we learned the last two weeks.” We would all write “a-ha” moments. We would choose three reflections every two weeks and give an Amazon gift card as an incentive. That was the only expense.
  • Monitor and adjust. Their platform is very user-friendly. You can see where all users are at any moment. You can encourage and ask what the barriers might be for certain individuals. For example, one of our teachers wasn’t able to complete the individual work at home, so an instructor covered her classroom so she could have time to complete the work here at school.


  • Create professional learning communities. I have been meeting with groups of teachers and discussing “the three T’s”, tune in, talk more, and take turns. There has been a fourth one added: turn off, meaning turn off technology. it’s all about tuning in to their interests and expanding their language.

LETRS in Action:

Watch these quick videos to see literacy activities in action:

LETRS in Action: Hickety Pickety Bumblebee
LETRS in Action: Writing Names
LETRS in Action: Writing Names

At Quality First, we love to hear from you! Share your new and innovative practices so others can be inspired. Email us at QualityFirst@FirstThingsFirst.org.