There is a strong persisting cultural paradigm that says that teaching the names of the letters is an essential element to start children off on the path to reading. This is usually done with “The ABC Alphabet Song. Parents and teachers may be pleased when children can identify the name of each letter and think their child has made significant progress on the path to reading. Unfortunately, this is not so.
There is no academic research showing the benefits of letter name acquisition to reading proficiency. However, all of the academic studies do show that what really helps children learn how to read is teaching children phonemic awareness, the alphabetic principle, phoneme blending, and phoneme segmenting.
For letters, their function is far more important than their names.
The best way to introduce children to each letter is by telling them the most common sound that each letter makes. An example of this would be the /a/ of “apple.” Even better is to add some rhythm, “/a/ /a/ apple.” This way of training provides children with a foundational key needed to build and read words. In their book, “The ABCs of CBM,” Michelle and John L. Hosp and Kenneth W. Howell tell us something important about early reading. They tell us that pupils who can distinguish letter sounds and read simple words in preschool and first grade are much more likely to perform better later on in higher grades. Therefore, let’s help children distinguish letter sounds by teaching letter sounds directly.
Why Teaching Letter Names Doesn’t Teach Children to Read
Insisting that children learn the names of the letters is unhelpful misdirection. It is an outdated cultural paradigm based on ignorance of what really helps children learn how to read. It provides the children with no useful reading skills. Teaching children letter names adds nothing to help them understand phonemic awareness. Teaching children letter names adds nothing to help them understand the alphabetic principle. Teaching children that the letters c-a-t spells “cat” gives the child no useful translatable tools. They can’t learn independently, for example, that if c-a-t spells “cat” and m-a-p spells “map,” that m-a-t spells “mat.” There is an assumed but indirect teaching implied of the sounds of the letters. It is far better to communicate this sound relationship directly with children. For example, a child that is taught that /c/ + /a/ + /t/ is “cat,” and /m/ + /a/ + /t/ is “mat,” might easily be able to tell that /h/ + /a/ + /t/ is “hat.”
In reality, children can read without ever knowing the names of letters.
Many preschools, especially, Montessori schools, teach children the letter sounds as the name of the letter. In these schools, children master reading at an early age because they first learn only the sounds of letters.
The Sight-Word Method
Teaching the sight-word method is like asking a 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 represent fish like: c-a-t spells “cat.” This is commonly known as the “sight-word method.” All words are taught like flashcards. Children are not taught direct letter-sound relationships. 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 cannot catch fish (build words nor decode words) for themselves.
The fact is, the sight-word method (learning the names of letters at the word level) has always failed in tests and experiments comparing it to the phonics method (learning the isolated sounds of letters).*
There are, however, certain words that do not follow simple spelling and grammar rules. These words are best taught as rote learning. These words are essential to know for successful reading, but they are a relatively small list of words. Two of the most common lists are the Dolch Word List and the Fry Word list.
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 (phonemic awareness)
2. The written or printed letters which represent those sounds (the alphabetic principle)
3. How these sounds, represented by the letters, are combined in sequence to make words (blending, segmenting and reading)
By teaching the sounds of the letters (phonics), you are providing children with the first steps of fishing. You are helping them along the way of learning how to fish. Only by knowing the sounds of letters can children understand how to build and decode words. 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”