Letter Teaching in Kindergarten

  • Beginning Reading Kindergarten
  • 02 November, 2015

Teacher question:

     Our Kindergarten is using a reading program that has some wonderful lessons. However, we also feel that the pacing doesn't match current expectations for kindergarten students. For example, the program doesn't introduce high frequency words until December and it only teaches 25 words for the entire year. The first lesson for teaching letter names doesn't come until December. What does current research say about when letters, sounds, and sight words should be introduced in kindergarten?

 Shanahan response:

     The National Early Literacy Panel examined a lot of research on the role of letter knowledge in learning to read by kindergartners and preschoolers. Those studies clearly showed the value of knowing letter names. There were 52 studies including 7,570 children in pre-K or K that explored the relationship of their knowledge of letters with later decoding, 17 such studies connecting letters to later reading comprehension (2028 kids), and 18 such studies connecting letters to spelling (2619 kids). The result showed a strong significant correlation among all of these skills. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that the more letters (and sounds) that you know early on, the better your chances of developing strong literacy skills.

     Of course, letter knowledge is one of those “necessary but insufficient” skills. What I mean by that is that if all we did was taught kids about letters, few would become readers; there is more to it than that, so such teaching would be insufficient. However, that doesn’t take away the “necessary” part of the formulation. It would be awfully hard to learn to read without knowing the letters.

     The panel also examined about 75 instructional studies—all done with children in kindergarten and earlier—that focused on letter names, letter sounds, decoding, phonological awareness, and print awareness. These studies were resounding in their results, too. Such teaching not only improved performance on the skills in question (yes, teaching letter names leads to the learning of letter names), but to consequent improvements in decoding and reading comprehension.

     Given that the more letters young kids know, the better they do in literacy, I can think of no reason for delaying the teaching of letters. Some kids pick them up quickly and so waiting until mid-Kindergarten probably would not be harmful. They’ll still be likely to master the letters by the end of the year.

     But what about the strugglers; the kids who don’t pick that kind of information up so easily? (Think about kids who don’t get much academic support at home or who suffer from disabilities.) They would benefit from a longer regime of teaching. That increased opportunity could make a huge difference in their success with letters. The sooner they master that part of early reading, of course, the sooner they can focus their learning efforts on other literacy concepts and processes.

     With regard to teaching words in kindergarten, I think 25 is plenty. We don’t have research studies on this so I’m drawing mostly on personal experience (as a teacher and parent) and on the professional judgment of various educators (such as Catherine Snow at Harvard).

     There definitely are benefits to learning sight words, but sight word learning gets easier as students develop phonics skills. A heavy early emphasis on words puts a lot of strain on memory, unnecessarily. I have long argued for kids to learn 100 high frequency words by the end of grade 1, and 300 by the end of grade 2, and 25 by the end of K makes lots of sense. These would not be the only words that kids could read, but it would cover a lot of those not-so-regular, super-high frequency words like “of” and “the” which are so useful early on.

     I know some programs are going wild with having kindergartners memorize large numbers of words, but I don’t know of any empirical evidence supporting that practice.

     It sounds like your program should be more ambitious when it comes to teaching kids about letters, sounds, and decoding, but its word coverage sounds reasonable to me.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Apr 10, 2017 09:11 PM

When I was in Kindergarten, I focused more on letter sounds before letter names with the goal of knowing all (sounds and names) by the end of the year. I spent more time on phonological and phonemic awareness to start the year. The teacher who posed the question seemed to specifically referring to learning letter names later one, not sounds/decoding. Can you just clarify your thoughts a bit more on the teaching of names vs. sounds? Your summary sort of lumped it together in saying that the program being used should be more ambitious with names, sounds, and decoding. I guess what I want to know is do you know of any evidence that supports one way or the other whether letter names or letter sounds should come first? Or is it one of those “Which came first, chicken or egg?”situations?


Timothy Shanahan
Apr 10, 2017 09:25 PM

Anonymous-- I don’t think it is a chicken and egg situation at all, though generally kids are more likely to learn their letter names prior to the sounds (simply because that is what parents tend to teach and alphabet blocks, magnet letters, posters, etc. tend to emphasize the letters). Many experts have concluded that one of the benefits of knowing letter names is the support the names provide for learning the sounds. But school programs often teach them together--students will learn the name and sound of particular letters. We were unable to find any studies evaluating the effectiveness of just teaching the alphabet; the letter names are either combined with decoding or with phonological awareness (studies do find that including the letters in such teaching improves its effectiveness). The questioner was definitely asking about letter names, and yet, I was encouraging a broader teaching of these elements--including the sounds or including letters within phonological awareness.


Apr 10, 2017 09:26 PM

There is an interesting article by Linnea Ehri,“Orthographic Mapping in the Acquisition of Sight Word Reading, Spelling Memory, and Vocabulary Learning,” Scientific Studies in Reading (2014), in which she says that “recent findings indicate that OM [orthographic mapping] to support sight word reading [by which she means quick and efficient decoding rather than whole word memorization] is facilitated when beginners are taught about articulatory features of phonemes and when grapheme-phoneme relations are taught with letter-embedded picture mnemonics.” When I taught kindergarten last year, the “letter-embedded picture mnemonics” I used was Zoophonics, and I never referred to letter names. Ehri states that “if children do not know letter names, then teaching them all of the arbitrary, meaningless shapes, names, and sounds takes time. An approach that eases the task is to use embedded picture mnemonics”; My students used the blending and segmenting of sounds to read and write.


Timothy Shanahan
Apr 10, 2017 09:27 PM

Harriet-- Thanks. You are certainly correct that there are no studies showing that the teaching of letter names (by themselves) improve later reading achievement, and the relationship between knowledge of letter names and reading is strong but only correlational. However, there is a substantial body of research showing that kids make better and faster progress in learning phonological/phonemic awareness when such instruction is coupled with letter name teaching.


Apr 10, 2017 09:28 PM

Here is some anecdotal evidence which proves nothing. I have been working with 24 struggling first graders for the past month who came from last year’s four K classes, one of which was mine. Of these 24, three are my students, and of these three, two are the highest functioning in the group. They never try to decode CVC words using letter names, which many of the other students do. One of these three is a candidate for falling into the achievement gap, which I’m trying hard to prevent, and I know for a fact that more information--like letter names--would have confused him last year. Don’t reading “experts” say that about 70% of kids crack the code regardless of what we do? I’m trying to prevent code confusion in the other 30%. When one of my struggling K students, who was writing about a new toy, asked me how to write the /oy/ sound, I knew that at the very least he understood that letters are pictures of sounds, and he needed to represent those sounds in his writing. So I showed him.


Apr 10, 2017 09:30 PM

Believe me—I’ve read all the research. I’m reminded of the Woody Allen joke, “Doctor, my wife thinks she’s a chicken. I would do something about it, but we really need the eggs.” Likewise, “our reading specialist thinks she can teach kids to read without using letter names. We would do something about it, but we really need to prevent reading problems.” My high poverty kindergartners exactly proved Ehri’s point that there simply isn’t enough time to make up for a lack of literacy experiences at home, and we must cut to the chase and teach what counts. My students never went through a “letter-name stage” because I never referred to letter names. So they never wrote the word “when”; as “YN”; as many kids do. They wrote it as “wen” knowing they needed to represent three phonemes. The Soviet psychologist Elkonin (of Elkonin boxes fame) said that coming to school knowing letter names was one of the worst habits children had. Neuroscientist Stanislaus Dehaene, The Reading Brain


Timothy Shanahan
Apr 10, 2017 09:30 PM

Harriet-- And yet Linnea argues that letter names are useful and should be taught. There is a long line of research (Venezky, Treiman, Beers, Bear, Schlagle, Henderson, Gentry, etc.) showing how young children use letter names in decoding and encoding words. There are some letter names that do confuse (briefly) and, yet, there is a clear payoff from knowing most of the letters.


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Letter Teaching in Kindergarten


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