There is much debate on teaching letter names and sounds. One camp says we should only teach letter sounds. Then, once children have mastered letter sounds, educators should introduce letter names. The other camp recommends teaching letter names and sound at the same time.
Reading Elephant is designed for struggling and dyslexic readers. Therefore, we are in the camp that recommends teaching letter sounds first. After children have mastered letter sounds, then the educator should start introducing letter names.
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Why do we recommend introducing letter sounds first?
First off, if you’re working with a student who is not a struggling reader, teaching letter names or sounds first doesn’t matter. A child who has no trouble with learning to read will perform well under both circumstances.
This is why you find people on both sides of the debate. Often, they clump all children together. Some reading researchers don’t account for the minority of kids who are dyslexic or even severely dyslexic. They don’t set these children aside and then think about how these children should be taught.
Children who are likely to struggle with learning to read due to dyslexia, a language delay or another disability that impacts reading acquisition should learn letter sounds first. Why? Letter sounds unlock the words. Letter names do not.
Letter sounds help us decode the words.
When we read, we use letter sounds, not letter names. For example, when we read “cat” we say, “c-aaa-t.” We do not say the letter names, “see-ay-tee.”
In my practice as a reading interventionist for dyslexic children, I’ve seen kids who know their letter names well. The family and educators have worked hard since the child was young to ensure their pupil knows letter names.
However, the letter name knowledge doesn’t transfer to decoding. In fact, it has no impact on the child’s ability to read the words sound-by-sound. It can even disrupt, or be a hindrance, to reading words. The child who knows letter names well, but not letter sounds, will often read “cat” as “see-aaaa-t” or try to use some combination of names, sounds and guessing. This, of course, doesn’t work and the child can’t decode.
If, however, the child knows letter sounds first, and knows them well, she will begin reading. When she sees a word like “Sam” she will read “SSSS-aaaa-mmmm” and not “es-ay-em.” When she sees “bug” she’ll say “b-uuu-g” and not “bee-you-gee.”
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Why should you teach letter sounds first?
-Letter sounds unlock the words. Letter names do not.
-Some kids mix up letter sounds and names while reading a word. If you teach letter sounds first, the child is less likely to make this mistake.
-Letter names are not really all that valuable in either decoding or encoding. When we read, we say the sounds. When we spell, we also say the sounds in our heads. The only time we use letter names is to spell OUT LOUD to ANOTHER PERSON. So if someone asks the child “Hey, how do you spell dad?” the child will respond with letter names “dee-ay-dee.” However, if the child spells “dad” on his own, he’ll say the letter sounds in his head “d-aaa-d.” Though letter names serve a social purpose, they do not really help the individual child progress in decoding or encoding skills.
What about the research?
To be clear, there isn’t a lot of conclusive research on the matter. Part of the problem is reading researchers don’t set aside dyslexic children and study them and only them. They lump all children together. Therefore, the research gives the appearance that teaching letter names or sounds first doesn’t matter.
Why don’t reading researchers run a letter name and letter sound study on dyslexic kids? Well, it’s difficult to identify a dyslexic child before he learns to read. We usually identify a dyslexic child after he’s shown difficulty learning to read.
Therefore, we can’t really set aside dyslexic preschoolers who have no experience in letter names and sounds. How would we ever identify them as dyslexic? We can’t run an experiment to see the conditions possibly dyslexic kids perform best in: learning letter names first, learning letter sounds first, or learning them concurrently. That wouldn’t be a very conclusive study.
There is some research that says preschool letter name acquisition is a predictor of reading success. But of course it is! The children who have no trouble memorizing sound-symbol correlations in preschool are also going to have no trouble memorizing sound-symbol correlations in k-2. So I contend that this research is repetitive and roundabout. It’s like saying a good skateboarder will have no trouble learning to skateboard.
For the dyslexic child, learning letter names will be hard. Learning letter sounds will also be hard. This is why it’s critical that educators start teaching the dyslexic child letter sounds right away: something that’s immediately relevant to decoding actual words. Teaching letter names to the dyslexic child might make adults feel good. However, letter names don’t help the dyslexic child actually decode the words.
Reading Elephant argues that when you teach a dyslexic child, the method you use for introducing letter sounds and names matters a great deal.
You should teach letter sounds to mastery first.
Then, only afterwards, introduce letter names.
But don’t spend too much time on letter names, because, contrary to what many assume, letter names don’t matter all that much for either reading or spelling.
Cognitive scientist and reading researcher Stanislas Dehaene discussed the importance of letter sounds in his book Reading in the Brain.
“Sometimes the child knows the names of letters (ay, bee, see, dee…). Unfortunately, this knowledge, far from being helpful, may even delay the acquisition of reading. To know that “s” is pronounced ess, “k” kay, and “i” eye is useless when we try to read the word “ski.” Letter names cannot be assembled during reading—the hookup only concerns phonemes.” –Stanislas Dehaene (pp. 200) from Reading In The Brain, The New Science Of How We Read.
The above quote from Stanislas Dehaene is reminiscent of my own experiences as a private dyslexia practitioner. I’ve worked with many dyslexic children who knew letter names but couldn’t read at all. When they came across a word, they did as they’d been taught: they said a letter name and then sank back in defeat. They knew they couldn’t read.
One child I worked with didn’t know any letter sounds at the end of kindergarten, despite extensive letter name and sound lessons from other educators. To help this child, I erased any mention of letter names in our lessons. I only referenced symbols by their sound. I only asked him for the letter sound. I introduced 2-4 letter sounds at a time and gave him lessons to mastery. Then I introduced 2-4 more letter sounds while reviewing the letter sounds he’d already been taught. We worked on piecing the sounds together in phonemic awareness activities: “c-aaa-t says cat!”
Within a month of 2x per week lessons, he was successfully reading cvc kindergarten stories with accuracy and fluency. The mom was in shock. The child was ecstatic. He’d felt like a failure all year. Yet, here he was successfully and confidently reading.
I’ve had many experiences like this. Many dyslexic children need to learn letter sounds 2-4 at a time until mastery. They NEED letter names taken out of instruction all together.
These children might be rare. But they still matter.