Should we teach letter names or letter sounds to beginning readers?
Twice recently teachers have asked this question. In both instances they said they’d been told teaching letter names confused children and that “best practice” was to focus on the sounds rather than the letter names.
As a former first-grade teacher, I vividly remember the kids who when confronted with a word like what would start sounding /d/ (duh). At first I was puzzled, but it quickly caught on that these young’uns were trying to find the sound in the letter name, double-you, and were settling for the first sound in that name.
Obviously, the pronunciation of W was getting in the way (no wonder some teachers tell young children that it is really a “Wubble-you”). W is different than b, d, j, k, p, t, v, and z, in this regard. In each of those cases, the pronunciation of the letter provides a valuable cue as to the most common phoneme represented by that letter. There are also several other letters whose names at least get you close to the right sound (f, l, m, n, s), and still others whose names cue a useful (if not most frequent) phoneme… a, e, i, o, u, c, g.
Beginning reading instruction has included letter name instruction for time immemorial. The very first schoolbooks brought to America from England (The Protestant Tutor) started with the alphabet, as did the first reading books produced here (New England Primer).
Correlational evidence has long supported the practice: beginning readers’ knowledge of the ABCs is a strong predictor of later reading success. The National Early Literacy Panel (NELP) meta-analyzed 52 such studies that had connected ABC knowledge with the later decoding ability of 7,570 kids and found a strong relationship. The more letter names the kids knew, the greater their later success in decoding.
There has been a lot of discussion of all of this over the years (Gibson & Levin, 1975), but with little experimental evidence to go on. The earliest such studies focused on the effects of teaching artificial alphabets, with the conclusion that kids could read words made up of pretend letters even if they didn’t learn their names (e.g., Samuels, 1972). Interesting, but not especially persuasive when it comes to real reading.
Since then there have been several studies that have tried similar things with real letters, typically teaching or not teaching a few to see what happens. The outcomes here have been more mixed, but as with the artificial alphabet studies, the results haven’t been especially convincing because the kids already knew lots of letters which confounds things a bit. No wonder Marilyn Adams (1990) concluded there was little evidence supporting the benefits of teaching the alphabet.
More recent studies have tended to examine the value of the alphabet within the context of phonemic sensitivity training than on its own. The conclusion from these studies? Training in PA and the alphabet together generally has a much higher impact on later reading achievement than PA teaching alone (NELP, 2008). In other words, for some reason, the inclusion of letters in a PA curriculum has a multiplier impact on its outcome.
Jean Foulin (2005) produced one of the most complete considerations of the problem. He reviewed studies that examined the alphabet’s facilitative effects in learning to read (e.g., Roberts, 2003) both to determine whether such instruction made sense and why letter name knowledge might help. His conclusions: (1) beginning reading instruction should include a serious effort to teach letter names and letter recognition and the sounds associated with letters; and (2) we need a lot more research because it isn’t entirely clear why alphabet knowledge exerts the positive effects that have been found for it.
Given that such an erudite and comprehensive analysis failed to determine why alphabet knowledge matters, let me add my opinion to the mix. Here we go:
Letters are concepts. Concepts are abstract ideas that we use to categorize experience. The letter B is not a single thing… it’s a collection of objects that we learn to treat as equivalent. Look at these various renditions of the letter B. They are all b’s. Some of them are upper case and some lower. They are written in different fonts and some are different sizes. Some are printed and some are script… but they are all b’s, and good readers come to treat them all as equivalent.
What we call phonemes (the smallest meaning-varying units of sound in a language) are concepts, too. Each phoneme is a collection of phones that exist along the spectrographic continuum. What you think of as the /p/ sound or the p-sound is actually quite variant depending upon the pronunciation context within which it is produced and heard. Thus the /p/ that you hear at the beginning of the word pin is actually quite distinct from the /p/ sound in the word spin. And, there are obviously pronunciation differences due to pitch and tone (such as the differences between men’s and women’s voices) and there is dialect variation as well. Nevertheless, learning the phonemes means learning to group speech sounds into the categories that we use in English to distinguish meaning.
Letter names are just labels for these visual and auditory categories, and we’ve long known that providing labels for concepts facilitates learning (e.g., Lupyan, Rakison, & McClelland, 2007; Nelson, O’Neil, & Asher, 2008).
Concepts are abstract and providing them with names appears to help children to think of them as real concrete entities. When provided with the names of concepts children were more likely to seek out information about the objects and their functions.
The best evidence seems to support the teaching letter names early on (Ehri, 1983; Foulin, 2005). I think there is good reason to do so.
But if my explanation holds water, then it would be wise to teach letters more conceptually than we often do—getting kids to think more about the variation in the letters than is common. It also suggests why it would make sense to teach the sounds for these letters simultaneously (Piasta, Purpura, and Wagner, 2010), and why teaching kids to write the letters matters, too (Gentry, 2006).
Building letter concepts means teaching kids to group collections of visual and auditory objects together into sets—overlapping sets given the complexity of our spelling system. Instruction should help kids to develop these letter concepts rather than having them memorize simple lists.
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