Rethinking Letter Names

Sounds or letter names, letter names or sounds – or both?

Everyone seems to have their own way of thinking about this.   At a basic level:

There are 26 letters of the alphabet and 44 phonemes (sounds) in Australian English.  Letter names are the way that we describe and name the letters and/or graphemes to represent those 44 phonemes.

Image from Maitri Learning

This is all quite simple and I am sure we’re all on the same page until… it comes to teaching methodology and whether we teach children sounds first, letters first or both together.

 My own view on this comes from the perspective that it’s ideal to teach everyone in the way that will benefit our most vulnerable students. So, to that end my recommendation on this one is to teach the ‘sounds’ only until children know the basic code of the alphabet. That is:

The most common sounds that correspond to the 26 letters of the alphabet as well as th, ch, sh, qu, ng.

Read Write Inc Chart from TES

At that point, when children have automaticity of the phoneme grapheme correspondence AND can blend and segment with confidence, they will be firm enough in their foundations to not be distracted or inhibited by the introduction of letter names.

Let me explain. 

When children learn letter names first – often influenced by well-meaning parents, preschools or child care and television shows like Sesame Street and The Wiggles they develop a connection between the letter and the letter name. This connection can be really strong by the time they get to school. Then when they arrive, they have to build a whole new connection to that grapheme.

I have seen bright children impacted by this very issue and have thought what a shame it was that their earliest experiences of learning to read were made more difficult because when they looked at letters, they had to ‘take a moment’ and fight their first thoughts. For some children this alone is enough to turn them off learning to read.

The impacts of letter names first are also seen in spelling where children are much more inclined to try and remember how to spell words by memory using letter names rather than by segmenting the words and connecting the sound they say with the grapheme they need to write. For those children with great memories and no reading challenges this will probably not impact them too much, however for those children who require a more systematic and explicit path (around half) it can lead to frustrations and delays in acquiring fundamental skills.

Let’s assume that the child has learned letter names and sounds at the same time. How does that complicated things for the child who has issues with rapid automatic naming (RAN), working memory challenges or a language difficulty?  How do we predict which children in our class will have these difficulties? In short, you can’t do this with certainty.

For children who do not have any road blocks to learning to read, they will likely be just fine learning letter names and sounds at the same time, but those children who are vulnerable in some way need to be given every chance to start their reading journey with as few obstacles as possible.

Holding off on teaching letter names will disadvantage nobody. Teaching them early will certainly disadvantage some.  Equitable teaching means that we teach in a way that reaches all children and sets each of them up for success. Teaching ‘sounds’ before letter names is one small thing we can do to contribute to a child’s future reading success.

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3 thoughts on “Rethinking Letter Names”

  1. Hello Jocelyn, I have just read your article and listened to the video about teaching sounds before letter names with great interest, However, I had a lot of trouble giving a block with the s letter shape on it a third and unrelated sound identifier so than instead of simplifying the sound/symbol/object relationship, for me it made it head-spinningly confusing. My thought is that RAN is where the focus should be for all school starters to build a foundation of vocabulary, memory development, thinking and looking ahead when naming a row of objects in a left to right direction, clarity of speech (mouth movements, breathing, correct enunciation), plus teacher-led rhyming games, actively vocalising and feeling both the rhythm and beat of rhyming couplets and nursery rhymes, syllabic identification of their own name, building out-loud spoken representations of internalised ideas, creating descriptive adjective-noun couplings about a word – e.g. green frog, big frog, jumping frog – to develop that most neglected aspect of early reading, visualisation.
    My background and experience has been, in a nutshell, combining oral language, drama, speech, untuned percussion with poetry, active listening, musical literacy and incorporating creative movement with language.
    Children loved this richly social, rigorous and diverse way of learning so much they wanted school on the weekends. (!) Progress for all abilities was astonishing.
    I now write resource material incorporating all the above.

    Is any of the above of interest to you?

    Warm regards,
    Ellie Hallett
    Toowoomba Q

    1. Hi Ellie. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I think that the rich language based experiences you describe sound wonderful! When I taught preschool, I tried to incorporate as much of what you describe as possible and definitely saw a difference in the way that children were ‘tuned in’ to oral language. My intention with using the pictures, was simply to put adults in the position of having to learn a new connection for a previously learned item. I didn’t intend that it would particularly replicate the language related processes of learning to read. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. Take care, Jocelyn.

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