This seems to be a big one for everyone so I thought I would start here. Most traditional learning centered around letters and reading heavily involves paper and pencil tasks. Clearly, as they get older, reading involves paper. But teaching reading and teaching writing and teaching letters can be multi-sensory...I SWEAR! And if you try some of these activities, I bet your struggling reader will stop shutting down, be interested in reading again, and be willing to try (which is half the battle). The greatest thing about multi-sensory learning is that it is so different from what they are doing in school, they do not see it as work.
Preschoolers & Kindergarteners:
This is the easy part, although I do not advocate for teaching letters to preschoolers or kindergarteners. I truly believe, and have witnessed as a preschool teacher and as a mom, that children offered a literature-rich environment will learn their letters (and how to read for that matter). So first and foremost READ to your kids! Trace your finger under the words as you read them to show the left to right progression.
Secondly, do a picture walk with them. A picture walk is when you (or actually they) 'read' the book by discussing the pictures. Studies have shown that this method actually increases vocabulary and language in preschoolers with language delays BETTER than read alouds!! (Yup did my masters thesis on this very thing).
Use environmental print! Your kids already KNOW how to read. I bet they can read the stop sign, an exit sign, a Dunkin Donuts sign, a cheerios box....the list goes on & on. So set them up for success and show them that they are already readers!! Maybe make an environmental print book. When I was a classroom teacher I had an environmental print word wall.
And if you MUST teach letters - do so without a pencil - use magnet letters, fingerpaint, shaving cream in the tub, stamps, stickers, do a letter scavenger hunt, write them with a stick in the dirt/sand, do sand paper letter rubs (in teaching tips on my website). Developmentally, children up to age 5 are not ready to use a pencil for writing. By offering them dotted letters to trace on paper, you are adding stress that is not needed to this process.
1st & 2nd Graders:
This age group should know a bunch of sight words and be able to sound out words, blends, digraphs, and write these in full sentences and paragraphs. Yes this can be done in a fun way, although admittedly it will involve more paper/pencil tasks...
Our FAVORITE game: SNATCH! You can play this with just about anything - letters, numbers, words, math facts....all that you need is a marker and some card stock. (directions on my website under teaching tips) Kids just LOVE snatching someone else's cards. Not only is it allowed, this game ENCOURAGES it!
Use the same card stock to make memory match games. You can also make word races. At one end of the room put 4-5 large pieces of paper with word families or blends on them (-ill, -ick, -ing). Then make a bunch of 'flash cards' with corresponding words (sill, mill, stick, flick, fling, bring). Get a timer & have a race to see who can run across the room with each word and match it to it's corresponding word family. Even if you are working with 1 child, they will love to try to beat their own times!
For sight words, do a sight word scavenger hunt. Put sight words on index cards & hide them. Then give the children a list. The first person to find their list wins! (They also have to read them)
Silly sentences - have a pile of nouns and a pile of verbs. Each child has to pick 1 noun and 1 verb and write a sentence. They get such a kick out of this because it's SILLY. So YES a sentence that reads "The chair ate my salami sandwich' is not only okay, it's GREAT!
3rd & 4th Graders:
This age is really focusing on writing a complete story - characters, setting, conflict, solution, main idea.......They are also focusing on reading comprehension, going back to the text to find answers. Being able to answer questions about the text, to make inferences.
Try story starters. To encourage creative writing, on sentence strips write a bunch of silly story starters. (examples on my website under teacher tips) They pick a story starter out of a pile or jar and have to write a complete story that includes a main character, supporting characters, setting, plot, conflict, solution etc.
A big problem that kids this age have is to skip over words when reading, or substitute words that are not there. This is a habit you want to BREAK as soon as you see it. When they are younger, it doesn't really affect story meaning. But as they get older it will, especially on those standardized tests! A great way to do this is to have them CATCH YOU making mistakes! Take turns reading a passage or story aloud with each other. Tell them that the idea is to try to catch the other person making mistakes. They will feel less self-conscious if you make mistakes too. Afterwards, discuss how omitting words or substituting words could change the meaning and result in wrong answers on a test or homework.
Making inferences. The What If game: Take a favorite story & change the ending, change a character, extend the ending. This could be a writing project as well. Children will have fun creating their own version of the story!
This is really just a drop in the bucket. And I did not invent these ideas. These are ideas I've seen others use over the years, ideas that I've used, ideas I've found on the internet. So even if your child goes to traditional school, you can supplement with these activities. They are fun for everyone but will especially help that struggling reader in your life!