Letter names or sounds first?… you might be surprised by the answer

  • 06 February, 2021
  • 32 Comments

Teacher question:

I teach kindergarten. We are trying to follow the science of reading. We believe that is the best way to go. However, my colleague and I are disagreeing over one aspect of our program. Should we teach the letters first, the sounds first, or should we teach them together?

Shanahan response:

This is such a practical question and often research fails to answer such questions. That shouldn’t be too surprising since researchers approach reading a bit differently than the classroom teacher. A good deal of psychological study of letters and words over the past century hasn’t been so much about how best to teach reading as much as an effort to understand how the human mind works.

In this case, there is a research record that at least provides some important clues as to what the best approach may be.

There has been some disagreement over whether it is a good idea to teach letter names at all. Back in the 1970s, S.J. Samuels conducted some small studies with an artificial orthography and found that the “letter” names were neither necessary nor useful for college students learning to read this new spelling system. Later, Diane McGuiness (2004) in her popular book argued against teaching letter names because they can be a hindrance in some situations. An example of this were my first graders who figured that “what” must begin with the /d/ sound (using the name of the letter “w” as a clue to its sound, an approach that works often but not always).

Nevertheless, newer and more relevant research has shown that letter names may play an important role in early literacy learning. Those confusions do occur, but more often the letter names facilitate the learning of letter sounds – because the names and sounds are usually in better agreement than in the confusing instances (Treiman, et al., 2008; Venezky, 1975) and letter names seem to be more effective than sounds in supporting learning early in the progression (Share, 2004; Treiman, 2001). One instructional study with preschoolers found that teaching letter names together with letter sounds led to improved letter sound learning when compared to just teaching the sounds alone (Piasta, Purpura, & Wagner, 2010) – and this benefit was clearly due to the combination and not to any differences in print exposure, instructional time or intensity. Another study (Kim, Petscher, Foorman, & Zhou, 2010) found that letter name knowledge had a larger impact on letter-sound acquisition than the reverse, and that phonological awareness had a larger impact on letter sound learning when letter names were already known.

That learning advantage may be something specifically American, however. In the U.S., children tend to learn letter names quite early – look at the number of toys that emphasize this knowledge (type “letter name toys for infants” into Google and you get more than 8 million hits) or the Head Start curriculum. Old fashioned toys like wooden blocks emphasize letter naming, as do the latest technological gadgets. That means that many kids start school knowing at least some of the letter names and that knowledge may be the reason why letters do more to help sound learning, rather than the opposite.

One cool natural experiment compared children in the U.S. with those in England, where letter names are introduced later than letter sounds. There, the kids use their knowledge of sounds to help in the mastery of the letter names (Ellefson, Treiman, & Kessler, 2009). Essentially, the researchers figured that learning that first list of letters or sounds is just arbitrary memorization. Then, when the kids try to learn the second list, they use what they already know to make the task go easier. If I know my letter names, and they give me a clue that will help me learn the sounds, then I do that. On the other hand, if I already have mastered the sounds, then they may be used to facilitate my learning of the letter names.

If English was more like Finnish, with everyone pronouncing the language pretty consistently, and a written symbol for every phoneme in the language, I would conclude from all of this that we only need to teach letter sounds. English is more complicated than that both in terms of the range of dialects and the conditionality of the spellings – particular sounds are often represented by multiple letters (think of the letter “s” in sick, sure, ship, and use). Having a name for the letter separate from the mélange of sounds that it will represent is helpful – it provides some stability to work with. Even in England, by the time kids are taking on English spelling in its full complexity, letter names will usually have been learned. (It should also be pointed out that consistent letter names also provide a useful consistent anchor for the visual forms of the letters as well:

 

In the U.S., given that many children come to school knowing at least some letter names, it makes the greatest sense to start right there. The studies show that letters are a better base for sound learning in American schools, but they don’t reveal whether this sequence is superior to a combined approach, teaching letters and sounds simultaneously. None of the studies compared this.

My sense of this as a teacher? If kids come to school knowing a bunch of letter names – at whatever age, I would turn my focus to the letter sounds – that available letter name knowledge will be a boon. On the other hand, if they know few letters when we start, I might vary my approach a bit… with the preschoolers I’d focus more on the letter names for a while, and not sweat the sounds. While in kindergarten and grade 1, I’d try to teach names and sounds together. I think there’d be less chance that I’d confuse those kids with a combined approach – their attention spans are a bit longer. I expect that I’ll hear from preschool teachers telling of their success in teaching letters and sounds in combination, and K-1 teachers of their one skill at a time triumphs… but that just means it probably won’t matter much, one way or the other, if you can make your approach work efficiently.

I definitely wouldn’t start with the sounds first, though that doesn’t seem to be a problem in the U.K. I think of the unifying value of letter names as being foundational knowledge, so I feel more comfortable starting there. That approach, however, is an opinion rather than a data-based, science of reading claim.  That opinion is drawn from my experiences in teaching children and in my estimation of my own pedagogical skills (those with greater skills may be able to succeed with less likely bets).

Finally, I’d add something you didn’t ask about. When teaching the letter names or sounds I’d teach students to print the letters. There is no reason to leave printing out of this equation – this added demand requires students to look at the letters more thoroughly, gaining purchase on their distinguishing features and it may increase the chances of the letters and sounds ending up in long term memory. Kids are hands on… they like to stack blocks, fingerpaint, decorate Christmas cookies, sit in water (don’t ask), and put their hands in stuff I don’t even want to think about… they like to mark on paper too, and getting them physically involved in literacy is not a bad thing. Letters then sounds, or letters and sounds together, but writing included with either approach. To me, that’s the winning hand.

References

Ellefson, M. R., Treiman, R., & Kessler, B. (2009). Learning to label letters by sounds or names: A comparison of england and the united states. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 102(3), 323-341. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.cc.uic.edu/10.1016/j.jecp.2008.05.008

Piasta, S. B., Purpura, D. J., & Wagner, R. K. (2010). Fostering alphabet knowledge development: A comparison of two instructional approaches. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 23(6), 607-626. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.cc.uic.edu/10.1007/s11145-009-9174-x

Share, D. L. (2004). Knowing letter names and learning letter sounds: A causal connection. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 88(3), 213-233. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.cc.uic.edu/10.1016/j.jecp.2004.03.005

Treiman, R., Pennington, B. F., Shriberg, L. D., & Boada, R. (2008). Which children benefit from letter names in learning letter sounds? Cognition, 106(3), 1322-1338. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.cc.uic.edu/10.1016/j.cognition.2007.06.006

Treiman, R., Sotak, L., & Bowman, M. (2001). The roles of letter names and letter sounds in connecting print and speech. Memory & Cognition, 29(6), 860-873. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.cc.uic.edu/10.3758/BF03196415

Venezky, R.L. (1975). The curious role of letter names in reading instruction. Visible Language, 9, 7-23.

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Katie Garner
Feb 06, 2021 06:21 PM

How about both?????
https://youtu.be/QXMAuoZqZN0

Harriett
Feb 06, 2021 07:40 PM

This is a wonderfully comprehensive look at the issue. Thank you! I have been heavily influenced by Diane McGuinness, so I always prioritize sounds for reading and writing and leave names for 'labeling' (like a student's Raz Kid level). I find this particularly useful when working with struggling first graders in my intervention groups who attempt to blend using letter names and thereby obstruct orthographic mapping by not connecting the phonological processor with the orthographic processor as explained in Seidenberg's 4-part processing model. And frankly, I find it's just plain simpler for all of us. Stanislas Dehaene says in Reading in the Brain:

"The names of letters . . . far from being helpful, may even delay the acquisition of reading . . . Letters names cannot be assembled during reading--the hookup only concerns phonemes. But phonemes are rather abstract and covert speech units. A true mental revolution will have to take place before the child finds out that speech can be broken into phonemes."

Brittney Bills
Feb 06, 2021 07:49 PM

Harriet, I appreciate your comment. We emphasize sounds for reading early on in Kindergarten while ensuring that students form the sound through writing as a part of that learning. Once all sounds are introduced, we begin associating the letter names with the sounds through spelling activities.m and letter names are reinforced again through formation as well. Although this is contrary to the recommendation that Shanahan makes our data would support that this approach had been highly effective so far in helping our students become good readers and spellers, similar to the study he referenced. Through this approach, I predict many of kindergarteners will be spelling at a first grade level by the end of kindergarten and many are already reading well. Additionally, we are seeing that this approach is decreasing disproportionality in achievement between our racially diverse students and Caucasian students.

Timothy E Shanahan
Feb 06, 2021 07:52 PM

It's interesting that people who are saying that we should follow brain science ignore data when it comes to practical issues. I'd rather follow the empirical data any day than untested theories and indirect inferences .

tim

Sandy Backlund
Feb 06, 2021 08:58 PM

There is no one way to teach children. It would be like doling out the same prescription to everyone with a pain of some kind. The article seems to agree, in suggesting building upon "most" and I will add EACH kids' strongest knowledge base. Teachers must individualize; some children need more letter instruction, some need to learn to listen to sounds first, and some need a mix. Others need to make letters before they can learn to identify them or associate them with sounds. A good teacher is informed about many approaches and learns what is next for each student. Period.

Timothy E Shanahan
Feb 06, 2021 09:31 PM

Sandy--

How does a teacher know what works best and how do you ever know if the teacher made the best choice? I hope your doctor pays attention to research when treating you and doesn't just depend on his/her intuition (since doctors are always right).

tim

Jeannette
Feb 06, 2021 10:29 PM

It makes more sense to teach letters and sounds together for kindergarten ...a apple /a/, b bat /b/, etc. I have seen kindergarten teachers teach a letter a week when students already know the letter(s) and instruct sounds separately. So boring and slow moving. Kids could be decoding words much earlier.

Thomas E. Zurinskas
Feb 06, 2021 10:39 PM

Teaching letter names in k-1 is important for truespel. Truespel phonetics uses only letters of the alphabet to spell the sounds of US English. This links phonics with phonetics. In fact teaching phonetics obviates the need to teach phonics because a phonetically spelled word \can be associated with a traditionally spelled word. No need to remember the 10 or so of ways of spelling a sound. See a listing of truespel studies at https://bit.ly/2D7V3CH Many phoneme frequency facts are here because truespel is spreadsheet amenable.. Truespel is free with tutorials and converter at truespel.com .

Erin Daley
Feb 07, 2021 12:33 AM

Tim- I agree with you on this- teach letter names and sounds at the same time. I was surprised that you included many exemplars of the letter B to prove your point. You demonstrated the need for letter invariance so that children can begin to construct semantic categories of letter exemplars. I still stand firm in my proclamation that many children need to be explicitly taught the concept of letter invariance. In 2009 book Reading in the Brain, Deheane concluded: " I therefore think it very likely that dyslexia arises from a joint deficit of vision and language. The weakness itself probably rests somewhere at the crossroads between invariant visual recognition and phonemic processing." Letter naming fluency and letter-sound fluency are reviewed daily in the Heggerty Kindergarten PA book. Instead of using the Heggerty letter sound cards that display one capital and one lower case letter, I made cards that show five different upper and lowercase variants. This concept should be taught to all emergent readers as part of comprehensive Tier One instruction, but the children that need it most include children with autism, dyslexia and ESL.

Kara D
Feb 07, 2021 01:09 AM

"It's interesting that people who are saying that we should follow brain science ignore data when it comes to practical issues. I'd rather follow the empirical data any day than untested theories and indirect inferences." This statement is exactly what I've been thinking about this letter name versus sound argument for some time. Thank you for posting this information. One doesn't get to pick the science they agree with and disregard what doesn't fit with their own misguided notions, even if those notions are well-intended.

Harriett
Feb 07, 2021 06:19 AM

The following makes me think that the "empirical data" for names vs. sounds isn't as definitive as we'd like it to be, especially the reference to an "opinion rather than a data-based, science of reading claim".

"I definitely wouldn’t start with the sounds first, though that doesn’t seem to be a problem in the U.K. I think of the unifying value of letter names as being foundational knowledge, so I feel more comfortable starting there. That approach, however, is an opinion rather than a data-based, science of reading claim. That opinion is drawn from my experiences in teaching children and in my estimation of my own pedagogical skills (those with greater skills may be able to succeed with less likely bets)."

In Dehaene's statement about letter names, how "far from being helpful" they "may even delay the acquisition of reading", the use of the word 'may' sounds like an opinion to me. If Tim can have an opinion that isn't a "data-based, science of reading claim", why can't Dehaene?

John Walker
Feb 07, 2021 12:11 PM

Hi Tim,
Firstly, I'd like to say that I'm a big fan of your work and that I really like the honesty of your blog in that you obviously try hard to be as even-handed as you can in your presentation of the evidence.
You are correct is stating that, in the UK, many practitioners see no need to teach letter names, at least in the first year of teaching reading and writing. Why, we ask, would teachers teach that the spelling < m > is both 'em' and /m/? If children are reading the word 'mat', why would we teach 'em' 'ay' 'tee', rather than /m/ /a/ /t/, especially when children can actually hear the word 'mat' if they say the sounds precisely.
For many children, especially those who come from low SES backgrounds, teaching both letter names and sounds imposes too great a cognitive load in the beginning stages of learning to read and write. As the code become more complex, letter names are a useful short cut. For example, "How do we spell the sound in /ee/ in 'stream', Miss?" "It's the 'ee' 'ay' spelling." Even so, writing the required spelling on a whiteboard/in the student's book is equally helpful.
Many of us in the UK think that the orientation of much teaching in the US is far too derivative of O-G programs, rather than the approach you mention in the blog advocated by Professor Diane McGuinness.
Neither does it matter what an English speaker's accent is. If teachers teach their students from sound to print, then the approach is able to accommodate any and all accents of English. Thus, whether, you say the spelling < a > in 'bath' as /a/ or as /ar/, doesn't matter: one should teach to the accents of the students. A McGuinnessian sound-to-print approach works for all accents of English.
One point on which we would most decidedly agree with you: the advice you give on the power of writing. When children build a word, they say the sounds and they write it, saying each individual sound. This, as you say, assists the process of getting the information into long-term memory.
I subscribe to the blog and learn much from it. Thank you.
John

Dr. Gwen Lavert
Feb 08, 2021 07:25 AM

I believe in E. Deshant’s model of phonological awareness which has a larger impact on sound letter learning. I start students off with strung out consonants. I use pictures to help discriminate: likes and difference. We look for letters in words. Once they can hear likes and differences, I quickly introduce print awareness. It is important to teach students Sounds and letters through Phonological Awareness.

Teresa
Feb 08, 2021 03:16 PM

So what is to be said about kindergarten students who have learned the sounds of most letters but cannot recognize the letter by name. Our curriculum teaches both at the same time but we have some students who cannot retain the name of the letter. While I understand that the sound is what will eventually lead to reading it baffles me as to why they can't learn the names.

Lori Josephson
Feb 08, 2021 07:10 PM

Once again, an informative and timely post. I want to add some thoughts. Although I am a big proponent of teaching the letter names and sound together for K and 1, I have often experienced students attempting to decode a word such as 'cat' this way:

'C' (letter name), 'cat' (key word to anchor sound), /k/ (letter sound)--->'A' (letter name), 'apple' (key word to anchor sound), /a/ (letter sound)---> 'T' (letter name) 'top' (key word to anchor sound), /t/ (letter sound)

And never come up with the word 'cat'....and therefore never come close to associating this word to anything meaningful...

So a word of caution is needed here. It is imperative that teachers emphasize the need to convey to their students that these visual letter forms (and yes, writing sure does help) represent the sounds of our language...another way to say it would be: the sounds of our language are represented using letter forms. Simply reciting letter names, key anchor words, sounds does not necessarily convey this totally necessary piece of information. That is why teaching phonological awareness in conjunction with the use of letters is so important. I would take it a step further to say that it is best to use lower case letters while doing these exercises to improve decoding and spelling.

Stanislaus Dehaene believes the letter/sound conundrum to be a "chicken and egg" issue since "the two types of learning are so tightly linked that it is impossible to tell which come first, the grapheme (letter name) or the phoneme (sound)--both arise together and enhance each other."

Timothy Shanahan
Feb 09, 2021 02:50 AM

Teresa
The studies show that it works both ways. If your kids come to school knowing the sounds then teaching the letters will go faster since they’ll use that knowledge to help them remember the names.

Tim

Tim Shanahan
Feb 09, 2021 02:53 AM

Gwen

Better to follow the actual data on kids’ learning than distant hypotheses.

Tim

Theresa Eveans
Feb 09, 2021 10:10 AM

I agree Letter sound, Letter name and Letter formation - multi-sensory learning is a strong combination. But I also recall Moats saying that you should start with sound as in her book Speech to Print.

Karina Flores
Feb 09, 2021 04:49 PM

Does the same go for Spanish?

Harriett Janetos
Feb 10, 2021 05:53 AM

Here's some real life relevance. In one of my first grade intervention sessions today, a student did a great job mastering the 'i_e' spelling in 'wipe' but not such a good job with the /w/ sound, writing 'yipe'. Oh, those pesky letter names can be confusing for some!

T. Cal
Feb 10, 2021 04:12 PM

Research-based guidance is in view! Hang on! Evidence explains Teresa's insightful comments about kids learning letter knowledge so unevenly. Why this is so isn't readily observable which is where reading science can help.

Letters are not created equally. Key intra-letter differences for LN, LS, visual form (recognition), and formation (writing) all impact learning. Also the phonological structure of LNs and LSs. A practical research outcome could be guidance for grouping and sequencing letter learning.

To clarify, here's one example. Letters with rhyming names ( B, D, P, etc.) are harder for LN learning but easier for LS learning. Another finding: letters with inconsistent or ambiguous LN-LS help develop deeper levels of phonemic awareness (deletion, substitution).

Studies are converging. One day the evidence could create a high-impact "jigsaw approach" to teaching letter knowledge. This research further explains why the answer is complex as Tim's answer indicates. Translating research takes time and further implementation studies of course. But i'm hopeful this work will bring focus to letter learning.

Hang on!

Timothy Shanahan
Feb 10, 2021 09:10 PM

Harriet--

As my blog indicates, kids can be confused by one letter or another. But, the research suggests that those confusions are short lived and don't outweigh the supports that the letter names provide. It is knowledge that most American kids bring to schools and they will use it for good or bad (but the bad is pretty minor).

tim

Timothy Shanahan
Feb 10, 2021 09:14 PM

Theresa--

You can proceed on the basis of what someone tells you or you can follow the research... I'd rather go with the empirical data when it comes to my kids and grandkids.

tim

Timothy Shanahan
Feb 10, 2021 09:19 PM

Katrina--

I know of no research on that in Spanish. My understanding is that children tend to learn letter names early on in Spain, but I don't know about other Spanish-speaking countries. The Spanish names and sounds are consistent enough that leading with what the children are most likely to know would the direction I would go since the benefit of letter name knowledge would be consistent across alphabetic languages and sounds help students to learn letters and letters help to learn sounds.

tim

Hailey Johnston
Feb 13, 2021 08:18 PM

I really enjoyed your post and this perspective! I teach 1st grade students, and during intervention sessions with some of my students I teach letter name/sound at the same time to best help them learn. I found with my students this is the most efficient way to help them remember. Thank you for the post!

Alicia
Feb 14, 2021 09:11 PM

This perspective was very interesting! I teach kindergarten and have always taught names and then letters. I enjoy knowing the reasoning behind the progression.

Liz Ditz
Feb 14, 2021 09:35 PM

Thank you for this. My granddaughter, just turned three, has been playing with letters and their sounds since last April. A neighbor who is a kindergarten teacher painted an "obstacle course" on the street for the neighborhood children to enjoy. It included the alphabet in a meandering line for the children to hop on.

Lately she has been absorbed with sorting -- I have a big bowl of buttons, shaped like letters. I'd say she knows more than half of the letter names, and quite a few consonant sounds. It's all play, not teaching. She's still in the scribbling phase of writing development, but I'll keep your advice about writing the letters when her fine motor control develops enough to be able to enjoy writing.

Erin Daley
Feb 18, 2021 09:04 PM

Tim- Have you changed your position that teachers do not need to explicitly teach the concept of letter invariance and that there is no need to display variant letterforms? In the past, you stated that the letters' look did not matter based on Tinker's legibility of print research. His research was not limited to dyslexic readers, and the mean age of the subjects was 18 years old. Therefore these readers had years of statistical learning needed to become immune to letter variants. In the Book "Reading and the Brain," Dehaene stated that dyslexics do not show strong left occipito- temporal activation that indicates access to "the brain's letterbox" and signals the invariant visual recognition of letter strings. Their brain activity moreover is much greater than normal in the right temporo- parietal region. In the chapter entitled "The Brain's Letterbox," he writes, "For the letterbox area, therefore, the letters G and g are as similar as O and o a clear proof that this region has adapted to the conventions of our alphabet. That neurons respond in the same way to the shape g and G cannot be attributed to an innate organization of vision. It necessarily results from a learning process that has incorporated cultural practices into the appropriate brain networks. In this respect, it is interesting to contrast the left hemisphere area with the symmetrical visual region in the right hemisphere. This region recognizes words that look alike, such as ZOO and zoo, but fails miserably on conventional associations like GET and get. It would appear that the right hemisphere, in most right-handers, only applies generic visual mechanisms of size and position invariance to the written word. Only the left letterbox area has internalized the cultural practices unique to reading." My takeaway is that if dyslexic readers show higher activation in the right hemisphere when reading ( which is shown on fMRI studies), then they must be taught the concept of letter invariance and shown many examples of acceptable exemplars so that they can begin to read with increased fluency and automaticity. What are your thoughts on this scientific evidence?

Mat Brigham
Feb 21, 2021 05:21 AM

Hi Tim,
This is a very interesting blog post.
John Walker's response to your post mentioned that in the UK, the view is that the teaching of both letter names and sounds imposes too great a cognitive load in the beginning stages of learning to read and write, which particularly affects those from low SES backgrounds. If this is true, would this not affect students from the US too?
Many thanks,
Mat

Dana
Feb 26, 2021 09:21 PM

Curious about your thoughts on teaching letter names first given a population of students with varying cognitive disabilities who have limited knowledge of letter names and are more likely to experience confusion if names/sounds are presented together? The few evidence-based reading programs for these students seem to favor teaching letter sounds initially, since this approach allows students to engage in blending and decoding activities sooner. Curious if you see the logic here given the student profile and a typically longer trajectory in learning to read. Thank you!

Janine Stoll
Mar 09, 2021 03:47 AM

Teach letter names and sounds along with writing. Lower case sequence: c, o, a, d, g, q, f, s, e, i, j, l, t, h, b, k, r, n, m, p, u, v, w, x, y, z Have them say the sound and name as they are forming the letter "k, k, k, k, k, c (see)", then "k, k, k, k, k, oooooo (short o sound)", then "k, k, k, k, oooo, aaa (short a), and so on. c through e begin with k,k,k. i and j begin with i,i,i. l through k begin with l,l,l,. r through p begin with r,r,r. u stands alone. v through y begin with |v|. z stands alone.
Also with in the day chant the alphabet by making the sound-sound-name. |a| |a| a, and also by saying the name-name-sound a a |a|. Let them know that they will hear the sound and then write the letter when writing, and see the letter and need to know the sound when reading.
No matter what, in a lesson begin and end by talking about the tasks of reading and writing. They need to connect what they are doing to the ultimate goal of being able to read and write fluently. No skills are taught in true isolation. It might be isolation slightly removed from authentic print but it needs to be connected. From the child's point of view- "I am reading and I don't know this word. Now I am learning something I needed to know in order to be able to read. Now I am using what I learned to read smoothly. Now I am applying what I learned to new similar situations in my reading." In other words present young children with the task of reading early and build up knowledge. The more you do something, the better you get at it. The more you read, the better you get at it. The more you write, the better you get at it.

Janine Stoll
Mar 09, 2021 04:20 AM

I forgot to say that they would say the letter name as they complete each letter.
Have them say the sound and name as they are forming the letter "k, k, k, k, k, c (see)", then "k, k, k, k, k, oooooo (short o sound) o", then "k, k, k, k, oooo, aaa (short a) a, k,k,k,k,oooo d,d,d,d,d,d,d,d (dee) and so on.

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Letter names or sounds first?… you might be surprised by the answer

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