Did you know that teaching letter names can hinder reading instruction?
Yes, you read that right. Teaching your child letter names before they are taught the sounds can hinder your child’s reading instruction. Children need to learn the association of sounds to letters first so as not to confuse them as to the purpose of letters. Letters are representations of sounds. Yes, we have names for the letters but beginning readers really have no need to learn letter names unless you insist on having them spell words aloud, which really is not necessary when learning to read.
So how does it hinder reading instruction? Students who learn letter names early are usually highly praised by the adults in their life for accomplishing such a feat. That early accomplishment toward learning to read is something the child is proud of and will hang onto tightly. When it is time to learn the sounds associated with the letters they can get confused because many of our letter names start with a sound other than the one they represent, say for example, the letter F. The letter name for F actually starts with the sound /e/ like in net. The letter name for F has a total of two sounds blended together: /e/, and /f/. Many children when asked to identify the sound that goes with F will say “e”.
The same holds true for other letters as well like C and G. When a child is asked for the “sound that C makes”, he or she may answer, “s”. Now we have a teaching point that is above their current level. Yes, the letter C can be associated with the sound /s/, but this is not the time to introduce it. You also can not tell the child that he or she is wrong, because indeed the letter C can be /s/ but we don’t want to reinforce the idea that the first sound in the letter name is the sound it always represents. Too much information for a beginning reader. Beginning readers need to know C as the sound /k/ in order to decode basic words at their level. This also goes for the letter G whose name starts with the sound /j/, which again can be associated with G. Yes, students are taught that some letters do represent more than one sound but beginning readers are not ready for this yet. Reading “cat” and “dog” will be much easier if the student doesn’t have to decide which sound for C and G to use.
One last example. I have had students tell me that the sound that goes with W is /d/. Huh? Yes, /d/ like in dog is what I’ve been told. Why? Think about the first sound in the letter name W. Yep, its /d/ “double U”. Same holds true for the letter Y, in which I’m told has the sound /w/.
Still not convinced? Here’s a bigger problem students have with letter names. Students depend on them to figure out words! When faced with a challenge, you work with information you know right? Some students who know letter names first will try to “sound out words” with letter names. Have you ever tried to figure out what a Seeyaytee is? Well its one of the most simple words to read! “C’mon, you know that word, sound it out!” The letter names in the word cat sound like “seeyaytee” when blended together. This simple word has now turned into a three syllable word that sounds nothing like cat, or any other word the student may know. Students work with what they know, and if they know letter names first, that’s what they’ll go to. Especially frustrating when a parent or teacher keeps telling you how easy the word is!
Naming letters is not as important as learning the sounds of letters. I know, you may be thinking, “Well I learned my letter names before the sounds and I learned to read just fine!” Well, congratulations. I did too but it doesn’t mean it may not cause problems for your beginning reader. Why not set them up for success at the start by teaching the most important thing first, the thing that they will hold onto tightly and depend on when faced with challenging words: the sounds.
So have you ruined your child’s chances for success as a reader because you’ve already taught them the letter names? Of course not. A good discussion with your child as to “why we aren’t using letter names anymore” is a good honest start. Using language like, “what sound do we say when we see this?” while pointing to a letter will do the trick. It takes some getting used to, I know. I can take some of the load off of you by modeling the appropriate way to encourage learning the sounds. My online tutoring course does the work for you. Once you get the hang of it you can continue on your own or proceed with further lessons. The program is comprehensive from “Fat Cat Sat” to multi-syllable words with special endings. (Click the Products link on my website for details.)
This post is longer than I intended but I think it leads easily into my future post about what words to use when teaching your child to read.