There’s More To Learning the Alphabet Than Letter Names

Apr 3rd, 2012 | By | Category: Thoughts

By Dave Krupke

During four decades of service as a public-school speech-language pathologist in the mid-west, I have been in many preschool program settings – both regular education and special education. I have seen many focused attempts to teach letter names to 3, 4 and 5 year old children, ranging from making letters in sand tables, in shaving cream, with Elmer’s glue, with chalk, with large crayons, with markers, and by tracing a letter made from sandpaper. There were many teacher attempts to associate these letters with student names in the class and with common objects, but it dawned on me just a few years ago that there was one thing missing – there was little or no purposeful attempt to associate the letter sound with the letter name! As a result, I began asking teachers about why they did not specifically facilitate letter-sound knowledge and the typical response was that they thought that letter names needed to be taught first and the children would learn the sounds later. It struck me that this was a stark example of an unintentional instructional mismatch – the adult concept that letter names should be taught first in a systematic, linear way in conflict with the oral language base that children bring to school – sounds!

It is no secret that knowing the alphabet is important – it’s an essential part of early literacy. Researchers have informed us that letter name knowledge is a very good predictor of success in beginning reading (Ehri & Sweet, 1991; Chall, 1996). Research and best practices also tell us that being able to distinguish between the letters and knowing letter names is not “all there is”! Knowledge of letter names is useless without corresponding knowledge of the sounds letters represent because “knowing how letters function in reading & writing via letter-sound association is crucial” (Schickedanz, 1999). In their book, Literacy Beginnings (2011), Pinnell and Fountas support the importance of connecting letters and sound by stating “letter knowledge is necessary, but it alone is not enough to learn to read and write . . . a great deal of other learning takes place as young children become literate . . . children need a wide variety of direct experiences that help them learn how to look at letters and connect them with the letter names and sounds”.

Children are not able to read because they know the names of the letters in the word “cat”, or even better, in the word “the”. They can read both of these words because they are able to map sound to print . . . and the sounds come from oral language. Children come to school with many more words in their oral language than in their “print” language. One of the tasks of teachers is to help increase each child’s awareness of environmental print and the students’ ability to map sound to print so they can process print for reading and for writing.

Much of early literacy development normally occurs through meaningful interactions with families, and is accomplished without conscious or direct teaching. Once in preschool or Kindergarten, children can find learning about the alphabet tedious and meaningless when taught in a narrow, linear, “skills first” program (Schickedanz, 1999). Conversely, they can find alphabet learning to be engaging and a process of discovery when it is fun & interactive, and is embedded into a broad range of authentic and functional activities.

The search for a “best way” to teach letters-sound association has been ongoing for many years. However, practice-based evidence has shown us that there is no single “best” way to teach letters and sounds. While there isn’t a single way that works for the diversity of learners in classrooms, there are intuitive ways that play to children’s curiosity, enjoyment of active engagement, and desire to explore their environment.

It has been said that learning is in the hands of children . . . literally . . . and we can teach almost anything to young children if we make it fun (Maunz, Matthews & Klein, 2001). Another strong advocate for child-friendly teaching & learning, Judith Schickedanz, wrote a book entitled “Much More Than the ABCs” (1999) and stated that great value can be gained through functional and authentic experiences via a range of activities that take place in the context of broad experiences as well as in specifically focused materials. When many authentic and functional activities are provided in a program, specific alphabet materials will not seem abstract and meaningless . . . , nor will their use result in isolated, decontextualized instruction.

During the past 3 years, I have become acquainted with Randall Klein, founder of Early Reading Mastery. Klein and two early childhood colleagues, Mary Ellen Maunz and Celeste Matthews published one of the best works I have read on early reading development called Learning to Read is Child’s Play (2001). Early in the book, the authors discuss the building blocks of early reading, the first of which is sounds. They speak to the importance of sounds, saying “one of the keys to success with teaching beginning reading is to teach children sounds before teaching them their letters” because being aware of sounds in words helps children understand how oral language maps to written language. The authors add, “teaching a child to read without first teaching sounds is like teaching a child addition without making sure she can count!” Klein and his colleagues go on to say, “beginning sound awareness is crucial to understanding and learning the letters of the alphabet . . . when a child can identify the initial sound of an object or a picture, they have been cognitively prepared to rapidly learn letter names”.

In order for children to gain a strong sense of how oral language can connect to print, they need to engage with the sounds of oral language as well as experience a variety of authentic and functional activities that link letters and sounds in unique and engaging ways. These planned engagements need to be child-friendly, brain-compatible and involve movement and hands-on activities. Only then will they truly experience the phenomenon that there’s more to learning the alphabet than learning letter names!


Author’s Note – The books cited above offer a wealth of suggestions and activities for Preschool and Kindergarten teachers. Check them out!


Chall, J.S. (1996). Learning to read: The great debate. Rev. ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Ehri, L.C., &  Sweet, J. (1991). Fingerpoint-reading of Memorized Text: What Enables Beginners to Process the Print? Reading Research Quarterly 26 (4): 443-62.

Pinnell, G., & Fountas, I. (2011). Literacy Beginnings. Portsmouth NH: Heinemann.

Maunz, M.E., Matthews, C.I. & Klein, R. (2001). Learning to Read is Child’s Play. Des Plaines IL: The Early Reading Company Press.

Schidkedanz, J. (1999). Much More Than the ABCs: The Early Stages of Reading and Writing. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

© 2012  Dave Krupke  All Rights Reserved


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