By Richard Colombini, MA
Parents and teachers may be pleased when children can identify the name of each letter, but it's actually not a useful skill when children are first learning the fundamentals of reading. Unfortunately, this method of learning carries with it a strong cultural paradigm developed by those who believe nomenclature is more valid than function; the names of letters are more important than their usage. This is incorrect thinking. For letters, it's all about their function.
Expecting a child to be able to read by teaching the names of letters is like expecting someone to build a shed knowing only the names of the tools.
The best way to teach children to read is by introducing the isolated sounds of the letters. For example: "a" of "apple." This way of training provides children the foundational keys needed to build and read words. Children who attend Montessori schools master reading at a very early age because they first learn only the sounds of letters.
Why Teaching Letter Names Doesn't Teach Children to Read
Insisting that children learn the names of the letters is misdirection, is simply a waste of time and should never be taught to emerging readers. Teaching that the letters c-a-t spells "cat", for example, gives the child no useful tools beyond rote memorization. They can't learn independently, for example, that if c-a-t spells "cat" and h-a-m spells "ham," then h-a-t spells "hat." In reality, children can read without ever knowing the names of letters.
The Sight-Word Method
Teaching the sight-word method is like asking child to play a game when he is not first taught the rules. A famous proverb illustrates this: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
When we apply this proverb to reading instruction, words would represent fish like: c-a-t spells "cat". This is commonly known as the "sight-word method". Children are given fish after fish after fish and never taught the skill of fishing. It requires the rote memorization of each letter sequence separately resulting in dependent learners who are unable to catch fish (build words) for themselves.
The fact is, the sight-word method (learning the names of letters) has always failed in tests and experiments comparing it to the phonics method (learning the isolated sounds of letters).*
Teaching Children How to Fish (Build Words Independently)
Teaching a child to fish begins with the three skills that make up the foundation of reading:
1. The sounds of a language
2. The written or printed letters which represent those sounds
3. How these sounds, represented by the letters, are combined in sequence to make words
By teaching the sounds of the letters (phonics) you are providing the child the first steps of fishing - how to build his own words. Only by knowing the sounds of letters can children understand how to build and decode words, becoming independent learners. Beginning readers need explicit instruction and practice, which leads to the realization that spoken words are made up of smaller units of sounds.**
A whole new world of possibilities opens to the child who learns how to form and pronounce words on his own!
*Flesch, R. "Why Johhny Can't Read" pp. 60.
**(Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998) "Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children"