2 Main Reasons to Teach Letter Sounds Before Letter Names
The ABC song is a merry melody that educators have embraced for over a century. . . but does it really help children learn how to read? Parents are so proud when their toddler can sing from “ay” to “zee,” yet it does them no good when they pick up a book about furry felines and read “see-ay-tee” instead of “k-a-t”. Learning letters by their names has become habit in North America, but this method can be more of a hindrance than a help to the reading development of children. Here are two main reasons why teaching phonetic letter sounds first provides children with a better foundation upon which to build reading skills:
1: Letter Names are Abstract, Causing Undue Confusion
The most compelling argument for the letter-name approach is the observation that letter names offer a consistent labelling system for the alphabet. Many letters have more than one possible sound, and many sounds can be produced by a variety of different letters, so it is important to be able to reference each letter independently of the sound it makes. The letter names certainly serve an important role, but this system provides abstract labels for the letters, not concrete representations of how the letters actually sound within language. Respected childhood educator Maria Montessori believed that concepts should be presented to young minds in a “logical, developmentally appropriate progression that allows the child to come to an abstract understanding of a concept by first encountering it in a concrete form.” The current system reverses this natural progression, expecting preschool-aged children to understand, for example, that “double-you” is only how we refer to the shape “W” and has no connection to how this letter actually sounds when spoken.
The goal of teaching children a consistent system of reference seems worthwhile, but in practice, children mistake these abstract labels for concrete representations of the letters’ sounds, causing undue confusion. This effect is best documented in the study “Learning to Label Letters by Sounds or Names,” which compares the letter-recognition and spelling skills of children, aged five to seven, from America (where letter names are primarily taught first) and England (where letter sounds are primarily taught first.) Part of this study involved verbalising made-up words and asking the children to write what they thought the spelling should be. The results showed that the English children were more likely to construct plausible phonetic spellings for these unfamiliar words. The American children were more likely to make mistakes such as writing a W for the sound “d” or a Y for the sound “w”; this suggests that the children interpreted the names of the letters to be accurate representations of the sound each letter makes. Trying to teach abstract letter names first stands in defiance to children’s need for experience-based applications of new concepts.
2: Letter Sounds Build a Strong Foundation for Discovery-Based Learning
Phonetic letter sounds are exactly the link children need to make the first concrete connection between spoken sounds and letter symbols. When a child is taught that “aych is for hat” they must simply trust that this is the case, because nothing in the word “hat” sounds like “aych”; however when a child is taught that the symbol “H” represents the “h-h-h” in “hat” a moment of discovery occurs—they can think to themselves “so this is what the sound “h” looks like!” The practice of beginning by teaching the most common sound of each letter (known as synthetic phonics) is commonly accepted as the most effective method of reading instruction. Children start by sounding out simple words like “lid” and “jam,” then move on to consonant blends and alternative letter sounds so that eventually they are able to sound out any word. Basic letter sounds are the foundation upon which all reading skills are built; children should be taught the phonetic alphabet first to ensure that this foundation is strong.
The current system for literary education begins with teaching the names of each letter; however, this is a misguided attempt to teach young children an abstract labeling system that they may not be ready to understand in its proper context. The academic needs of preschoolers would be better served by first teaching the phonetic sounds of each letter, thereby firmly establishing the groundwork for their reading development. The tradition of learning letter names first is deeply embedded in educational culture, but if enough parents and teachers fight for a reformation, the status quo can change. Next time you hear a toddler you care for starting to repeat, “Ay, Bee, See,” consider instead guiding them to sing, “A-a-apple, B-b-bear.”
For more information on introducing letter sounds to preschoolers, check out my post Teaching Letters Naturally
If you’re a fan of musical learning, check out my Top 5 Phonics Alphabet Songs