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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.

What sounds to teach when?

July 24, 2007

I'm often asked what the best sequence is for teaching letter sounds. From the work done by the National Reading Panel, we know that systematic and explicit phonics programs teach children letter–sound relationships directly in a well-defined and predetermined sequence.

Most systematic phonics programs sequence phonics generalizations from least difficult to more difficult. Even still, there are lots of programs that teach letter sounds using lots of different sequences.

Richard Venesky (whose book I've written about before) analyzed the distributions of single consonant units, based on a corpus of almost 20,000 words.

The results might shed some light on what sounds to teach when. In the initial position, are the most frequently occurring single-letter units. From this list, is not commonly taught early on because it can make two sounds (as in city and cat).

Other consonants and consonant units occur much less frequently, particularly in the initial position. These include . Those consonant units should probably not be among the first sounds a program teaches.

Lots of programs start with consonants /b,m,r,s,t/ and the short vowel /a/, thus enabling lots of words like bat, mat, rat, and sat. A guiding principle for letter–sound sequence should be that the sequence enables children to read a large number of words using just a few sounds.

For readers who work with a sequence that makes sense and is working, I'd love to hear more about it. Or if you work with one that has you scratching your head, I'd love to hear about that too!


Hi Tasha,That's right, I do not advocate teaching the letters by using the alphabet sequence. We know some letters are used more frequently than others, and by taking advantage of that and teaching the highly useful ones first, you are able to help your students read and write more words more quickly. Hope that helps!

The sequence that we teach our letters in makes no sense to me. We teach b and d together and don't teach the vowels until last.

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