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?
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.
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.
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.
Share, D. L. (2004). Knowing letter names and learning letter sounds: A causal connection. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 88(3), 213-233.
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.
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.
Venezky, R.L. (1975). The curious role of letter names in reading instruction. Visible Language, 9, 7-23.