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Dr. Joanne Meier

Along with her background as a professor, researcher, writer, and teacher, Joanne Meier is a mom. Join Joanne every week as she shares her experiences raising her own young readers, and guides parents and teachers on the best practices in reading.

Assessing and learning the letters of the alphabet

September 17, 2012

Teachers, parents, and researchers often wonder similar things about the alphabet. Specifically, what's the right order to teach letters? How can I best assess what a very young child knows about the alphabet? Should I start by teaching my preschool-aged child the first letter of her name, and then go from there?

A recent study in the August 2012 Journal of School Psychology, IRTs of the ABCs: Children's letter name acquisition, both reinforces what we already know about letter name learning and sheds new light too. I encourage you to read the full study if you can, although for the uninitiated, item response theory (IRT) can be a bit daunting!

In everyday language, here's what the authors learned:

Of particular interest to researchers and those who assess letter naming knowledge:

So, in what order should letters be taught? Sadly, there's still no definitive sequence. It may be reasonable to being with a "personally relevant" letter (first letter of the name). Maybe it's reasonable to skip the easy to learn letters and sprinkle them in among the harder to learn letters. Maybe it's reasonable to teach them in order of prominence within written language, a common technique used by teachers. This one study wasn't able to take on all those research questions, but they're good ones!


We had a research based tutoring firm train our tutors this last summer and the evidence show that letter "names" should not even be taught; only the sounds--and by that I mean ALL of the sounds for each letter and letter combination. We call them "spellings" in our sessions. For instance, ea has several sounds, a has several sounds, "f" can be "spelled" with f or ph, etc. For instance, there is not benefit to knowing L sounds like "el" when we know it will make the "l" sound when reading it in a word.

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"Children are made readers on the laps of their parents." — Emilie Buchwald