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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Why Letter of the Week May Not Be Such a Good Idea

April 11, 2016
Teacher question: Our district is trying to determine the proper pacing for introducing letter names/sounds in kindergarten. One letter per week seems too slow; 2 seems a bit fast. Most teachers are frustrated by 2 per week. We are thinking about going with 1 for the first 9 weeks, then doubling up. This would have all letter names/sounds introduce by February. Can you offer some advise? How much is too much?
Shanahan response:
This seems like a reasonable straightforward, simple question. And, it is, if you are a teacher, principal, or curriculum designer trying to plan a year of instruction. However, it is not the type of question that research takes on, so I can give you an answer, but it has to be one constructed on my understanding of the teaching of reading (research-based, but not research proven).
The problem is that I could give a very specific answer like, teach one letter per week during kindergarten (and let’s face it, “Letter of the Week” is very popular). However, if I answered it in that way, I’d be ignoring some really important issues, like whether we want that much focus on individual letters and what is it that we want kids to know about letters.
So let’s start with a really basic question:  What should a kindergartner know about this aspect of literacy by the end of the year? 
In my opinion, kindergartners should know the names of all 52 uppercase and lowercase letters. That means they should be able to name the letters presented to them in random order. They should also be familiar with one of the sounds associated with each of those letters — and it would be great if they knew both the “long” and “short” vowel sounds (so if I named or showed them a letter they could produce its sound, and if I made the sound, they could tell me the letter).
Kindergartners should be able to sound out some one-syllable words or nonsense words using the letters they have learned. They should be able to fully segment single syllable words easily, and perhaps even be able to manipulate some of these sounds (adding them, deleting them, reversing them). And they should be able to print each of these letters and their names without having a visual model in front of them (and print their names).

That description would be really easy to accomplish in some communities, where kids come to school already knowing letter names and some of the sounds, and it will be tougher in others. However, it would send kids off to Grade 1 ready to really become readers (especially if other aspects of literacy and language are being taught too).

In any event, to accomplish all of this I would devote 30-45 minutes per day to these decoding issues — including the teaching of the letters (that's for full-day kindergarten; I would cut this in half in half-day situations). However, that does not mean you should sit kids down for 30-minute letter learning lessons — you might work on letters 2 or 3 times per day, for anywhere from 5- to 20-minutes per sitting.
I think a combination of 1-2 letters per week is reasonable, but I wouldn't teach new letters every week. Remember letter naming or even letter sounding isn’t all that we want them to learn.
For example, let’s say that on Week 1 I teach the “m” and “t” (letter names and sounds, upper and lower case), on week 2, the “p” and “h,” and on a third week, I teach only the letter “o” and its short sound. Then, on Week 4, there would be no new letters introduced. We would focus on using the 5 letters already taught. That means all of my decoding minutes would be spent on phonological awareness exercises focused on those specific sounds, blending various combinations of those letters (op, ot, om, top, tot, Tom, pop, pot, pom, hot, hop, etc.) into syllables, decoding and trying to spell syllables/words on the basis of the sounds alone. 
If you gave each vowel its own week, and taught many, but not all, of the consonants in pairs, you could easily introduce all the letters over a single semester of kindergarten — and the students would have had at least 45 hours of practice with those letters; meaning a reasonably high degree of mastery should be accomplished by most kids.
That means that those “non-letter introduction weeks ”— like week 4 above — would be available 18 times during the year — fully half the year. You’d be spending as many weeks introducing letters as not introducing them. Those weeks would allow substantial amounts of phonemic awareness practice with those sounds, decoding work with those letters and sounds, invented spelling work and word construction with those letters and sounds, and ongoing review of all of that to ensure that the learning is really mastered.
I would not save up those combination weeks until the second semester. I would salt them throughout the year to make sure that the learning was substantial and deep (meaning that kids would not just “know” those letters, but would be able to do something with them). Again, staying with my example above … 3 weeks of letter introduction, and then a week of consolidation might be followed by another week or two of letter introduction, and then back to consolidation with all the letters taught to that time. That kind of a scheme could go on most of the year. Of course, if you noticed that your kids weren't retaining some of that, there would even be times that you could add in extra days or weeks of consolidation work as needed.
With a plan like that, by summer, your kids would know their letters. But more importantly, they’d be able to perceive the sounds within words, and to engage in simple decoding and spelling using those letters and sounds. Outcomes not common in "letter of the week" teaching environments.

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