Blast from the Past: This entry first posted on March 14, 2016. This question about what would be the best instructional sequence continues to come up regarding teaching the alphabet or teaching phonics. As this blog makes clear (I hope), sequences of these skills are more determined by some rather general, commonsensical guidelines that have emerged from empirical study, but there is no “science of reading” approved sequence that is most beneficial for learning.
Is there a particular order in which teachers should teach the letter sounds?
Not surprisingly, this teacher’s question comes up often.
I find it hard to explain to them that there is no research-proven best sequence for teaching the ABCs or phonics.
But that is the case.
Back when the National Reading Panel (2000) report to Congress came out, there was a similar hubbub among our legislators. The Panel had reported that phonics programs with a clear sequence of instruction — “systematic phonics” — were most successful. Consequently, they wanted to require that all teachers teach phonics using that best sequence.
The problem was that the Panel wasn’t touting any specific curricular sequence. No, it was just emphasizing the benefits of a planful and planned curriculum. About 18 different phonics curricula were examined in that collection of studies, and each of them had its own sequence for introducing letters and sounds.
And they all worked. That is, those phonics programs were successful in conferring a learning advantage on the children who were taught them.
Programs that had planned sequences of instruction — any planned sequence –— did better than approaches that promoted the idea of responsive phonics -— the notion that teachers should teach skills as the children seemed to need them.
Personally, I wasn’t surprised by this finding, since as a classroom teacher I had tried to teach phonics in such an individual, diagnostic way, keeping track of what I had covered with each child. It was an unholy nightmare. It required way too much managing on my part and way too little learning for the kids.
Teaching in a sequence is important because it ensures that all of the skills get taught — and taught thoroughly. But no sequence has proven to be superior to any other.
That doesn’t mean that letter or sound orderings should be completely arbitrary in a curriculum, just that many variations are going to be effective.
It makes sense, for example, to start out teaching some of the most useful or frequently appearing letters and sounds. Children learn such letters — including the ones in their own name — more quickly than the letters they don’t see as often (Dunn-Rankin, 1978). It is wise to teach the vowels along with letters like t, h, s, n, before taking on the much less frequent ones z, q, x, or k. Kids can successfully learn these letters in any sequence, but teaching the most frequent ones early, enables them to read words sooner.
When I was a becoming a teacher there was a controversy over whether it was best to introduce consonants or vowels first. Lots of argument, but not much data. Our professors demonstrated that if you took all the vowels out of a message you could still read the text, so they claimed consonants were most useful and therefore more worthy of early attention. Other authorities argued back that there are no words without vowels and vowels have some of the highest frequencies. Accordingly, they thought vowels merited earlier instruction.
Common sense eventually won out.
Instead of making it an all or none proposition, teaching a combination of consonants and vowels makes the greatest sense since it allows kids to read and write words earlier. Teach a few consonants along with a single vowel, and kids will be able to read and write several three letter words (CVCs). Then teach a few more consonants and another vowel and this number of words multiplies.
Another valuable sequencing criterion has to do with avoiding ambiguity. We should try to minimize confusion to make early reading easier. That means we need to separate the introduction of very similar letters and sounds.
At one time, psychologists flirted with the notion of teaching highly similar letters together since that would allow teachers to highlight the features that distinguished those letters from each other. But empirical studies found that it was much better to separate similar elements (Gibson & Levin, 1975). Teaching them together turned out to be confusing.
Don’t teach b and d together, or m and n, for instance. Letters that are visually or phonemically similar need to be kept separated in their introduction.
Teach one item of the confusable pairs thoroughly, before introducing its partner. A student who already has strong purchase on either the /p/ or /b/ sounds, will have less trouble mastering the other. The same can be said about learning the letters b and d. If students are taught one of these well prior to taking on the other, they will master them. But teach them together and they are likely to be unsure of which is which.
Another sequencing issues has to do with capitals and lowercase letters. Which of these do we teach first?
Lowercase letters have greater value in reading. You simply see more of them, so the knowledge of such letters is more predictive of eventual reading achievement (Busch, 1980).
But kids are more likely to come to school knowing their capitals (these are somewhat easier to teach because they tend to be a bit more distinctive visually, and because so many preschool alphabet toys emphasize capitals).
Since we want children to see capitals and lowercase forms to be functionally identical in reading (a G and a g will represent the same phonemes), I prefer to teach these together. This is especially useful many lowercase letters that are miniature versions of the capitals: c, k, m, o, p, s, v, w, x, y, z.
Beyond these very general guidelines (usefulness, avoid ambiguity, consonants and vowels, uppercase and lowercase), the “appropriate” sequences of instruction for letters and sounds are arbitrary and you have a wide range of choices in the order that you intend to introduce them. Likewise, beyond these general guidelines, sequence of instruction is not a useful distinguisher among commercial programs you might be considering.
Basically, when it comes to teaching phonics and the alphabet, sequence doesn’t matter very much.
Busch, R. F. (1980). Predicting first-grade reading achievement. Learning Disability Quarterly, 3, 38-48.
Gibson, E. J., & Levin, H. (1975). Psychology of reading. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.