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Dr. Joanne Meier
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Joanne Meier

Assessing and learning the letters of the alphabet

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 (opens in a new window), 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:

  • For all kids, regardless of race or SES status, some letters are harder to learn than others.
  • There’s a small subset of letters more easily acquired by kids, without even being taught. These letters include uppercase O, A, and B.
  • Other letters pose more of a challenge to learn: uppercase U, Q, and V.
  • Children are very likely to know the letter that is the first letter of their name. This is true even if that letter is one of the harder-to-learn letters.

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

  • If you’ve got the time and resources to assess all kids on all letters, the raw total scores are sufficient.
  • If you need or want to create a shorter and quicker assessment, the data from the IRT can help guide instrument development that uses a sampling of letters. The authors (Phillips, Piasta, Anthony, Lonigan & Francis) write, “the raw sum score is not actually on an interval scale (i.e., the difference in the latent skill gain between the 3rd and 4th letters acquired is not equal to the skill gain between the 14th and 15th letters acquired) As such, growth trajectories that use an IRT-based interval scale of theta scores will be more reliable.”

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!

About the Author

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

Publication Date
September 17, 2012