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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.

Teaching Letters in Kindergarten

November 3, 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.

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