Learning the alphabet is a foundational skill in reading. If we don’t understand printed symbols on a page, we cannot read words and unlock their meaning. The National Early Literacy Panel’s report in 2008 concluded that learning the alphabet was the #1 predictor of future reading success.
What does it mean to “know” the alphabet?
Alphabet knowledge is the ability to name letters, identify the sounds they make and their printed shapes. For most children, alphabet knowledge begins to develop before they enter school. By the end of first grade, most children have mastered the alphabet. The top predictor of reading success hinges on accurate and automatic alphabet knowledge.
Learning the alphabet supports the alphabetic principle
Printed letters are the visual links that we pair with speech sounds. Our brains store these letter-sound associations and use them to read and write words. The fundamental insight that spoken sounds can be mapped onto printed letters is called the alphabetic principle. Teaching the alphabet explicitly and systematically helps children acquire the alphabetic principle and form these long-lasting associations.
What must young children learn about the ABC’s?
Alphabet knowledge consists of knowing:
- letter names (26)
- letter sounds (44 English phonemes or spoken sounds)
- letter writing (52 uppercase and lowercase printed letters)
- usage to apply known letters in reading and writing words regardless of different fonts (size, design, style of letters)
There are 44 phonemes or speech sounds in English. Of those individual speech sounds, 25 are consonant sounds and 19 are vowel sounds. A consonant is any sound that is produced by closing or slowing the flow of air through our vocal tract. For example, say the word bee and feel how your lips close together to make the /b/ sound at the beginning of the word. A vowel is produced by open airflow without friction in the vowel tract. We produce different vowel sounds by changing our tongue’s position and the shape of our lips. For example, think about how the vowel sounds change and feel in your mouth as you say the words aloud: feet, fat, foot.
Notice that English has more sounds (44) than printed letters (26)! This is one reason why learning to read is challenging for young children and for second language learners. You can learn more about the spoken sounds of English here: 44 Phonemes of English.
What makes written English challenging to learn is that more than a single letter can represent more than one sound — and to complicate it further, the same sound can often be represented by multiple letters or letter patterns. For example, English has eight different spelling patterns for long /a/: cake, sail, ray, they, eight, vein, great, baby.
However, the alphabet also has a built-in support for learning letter-sound associations. Letter names in the English alphabet are iconic, meaning that most letter names hold a clue to one sound that the letter makes.
Let’s try some examples to think about this.
- Which English consonant letter names begin with the sound that the letter frequently stands for?
- Which English consonant letter names end with the sound that the letter frequently stands for?
- Which English consonant letter names do not have an association with their sound?
While some argue against teaching children letter names, we can see from the examples that letter names can support students’ learning of letter sounds. In U.S. schools, most children are taught letter names in early childhood, and letter names serve as a label to give us a shared language when we talk about the alphabet in early childhood classrooms.
Alphabet knowledge: pronouncing letter sounds
When teaching students the sounds that letters represent, it is critical to know how to pronounce letter sounds, and to know basic characteristics of phonemes in the English language. Certain sounds are easier when a child is first learning to read printed words. For example, it is easier to pronounce sounds we can hold in our mouths (continuant sounds) such as the /m/ in me as opposed to sounds we can’t draw out (stop sounds) such as the /t/ in top.
The video below provides a model for pronouncing each letter’s mostly commonly taught sound as well as some tips for teachers. Pay attention to the idea of the “schwa” or unstressed vowel sound. Practice saying the letter names/sounds. Can you produce them accurately for students? (Source: Rollins Center for Language & Literacy, Cox Campus )
Assessing alphabet knowledge
Students should be given a formal or informal alphabet assessment during middle or end of preschool (4 years old) or the beginning of kindergarten. Assess children’s knowledge of letter names, the most common letter sounds, and letter writing. This should be administered one-on-one at the start of the school year, at mid-year, and again at the end of the year. Continue assessing until the student has mastered the alphabet. Use the results to plan daily alphabet instruction.
Examples of assessment questions
Show student one letter at a time and ask:
- Can you tell me what letter this is? (Record the student’s response)
- Can you tell me what sound it makes? (Record the student’s response)
Age or grade typically mastered
Many students enter kindergarten with the ability to recognize letters. Fewer students recognize the letter sounds. Both are taught in kindergarten.
Explicit and systematic alphabet instruction
For many children, knowledge of the alphabet and letters begins well before school entry with informal instruction at home. Some children can identify the names and sounds of letters when they enter school and some cannot, making it important for early grade teachers and reading specialists to know how to develop alphabet knowledge in young children.
The videos below explore some common practices in the preschool and primary classrooms that support the use of direct and targeted instruction in the alphabet.
REACH Workshop Series: Alphabet Knowledge
(Source: North East Florida Education Consortium )
Learning the names of the letters
Reading expert Linda Farrell works with kindergartener Reese to master the name of every letter. She helps Reese sing the alphabet song clearly and with no mistakes. She teaches him to look carefully at letters as he names them. Ms. Farrell also helps Reese identify every letter of the alphabet accurately, including differentiating between letters that look similar (in Reese’s case, ‘y’ and ‘v’). Learning the name of every letter is a critical pre-reading skill. From our Looking at Reading Interventions series.
More on alphabet knowledge
Browse our alphabet knowledge resource library
Learn more about building children’s knowledge of the alphabet through our articles, tips for parents, video, FAQs, and research briefs. Visit our Alphabet Knowledge section