Do Not Teach Letter Names First

She cried a lot. 

Reading was a major struggle for this second grader. She would do just about anything to avoid reading. Whenever she was confronted with the written word, she would get upset, cry, and sometimes even throw a tantrum. 

At the beginning of each year, I give all of my students a DIBELS reading assessment to see where their strengths and weaknesses are. 

The first part of the test is Letter Name Fluency and she did just fine.1 She knew the names of letters perfectly.

For the second part of the test she had one minute to read as many nonsense words as she could. The average second grader can read 30-60 of these words in a minute. 

She read three. Incorrectly.

Nem. “en nnn, eh, em mmm. En-em.” Wrong.

Rep. “er, eh, pee puh. Rep-ee.” Wrong.

Lom. “el lll, owe ohh, em mmm. Ell-o-me.” Wrong. 

Times up.

What happened?

Nonsense words are my favorite diagnostic test because they strip bare the child’s decoding strategy. You can hear exactly how they approach reading. In this case, I could tell that she was mixing up letter names with sounds.

A previous teacher had told her that the “sound of the letter” was in the name, so she could say the name of the letter to remember the sound. In effect, she had attached two sounds to the symbol, its name, and a phonetic sound. She was very confused about which was the name and which was the sound.

Why do people teach letter names?

The prevailing rationale for teaching letter names is that the names of the letters can be generalized to help children remember the sound that letter “makes.” (Never mind that most English letters represent more than one sound. And how does this help with digraphs?)

The name of B is bee. The intention is that children will segment off the first sound in bee as /⁠b⁠/, and that the symbol B represents /⁠b/. What children actually learn is that the symbol B represents bee.⁠1 Why complicate things when you can simply teach that /⁠b/ is represented by the symbol B?

The other rationale for teaching letter names is that letter names are the only stable part of the writing system; letters are capricious and “make” a lot of different sounds, but the name is constant. “C is see even if it says /k/ or /s/.“ This is a misidentification, the shape is what stays the same. Furthermore, neither the name nor the shape are the important anchor point. The stable part of the writing system are the 40+ phonemes. “/⁠k/ is /k/ even if it’s spelled C, K, or CK.”

D is for Derby

Put it into practice

  • Most children already know all of the letter names by the time they are in first grade; it’s not the end of the world. In an ideal world, I would have parents avoid singing the alphabet song, asking the child to spell out loud, or refer to letters by their name. But I understand this is easier said than done, even I slip up!
  • What you want to do is connect the letter-symbol with the sound it represents. Always focus on the sounds.
  • When you are referring to letters and letter combinations, point to the letter or write the letter. Say “This is the symbol for /p/” or “I’m going to write the letters that stand for /sh/.”
  • When you are doing phonemic awareness activities or sounding out a word, the child may say a letter name instead of a sound. Be consistent in your corrections, “That’s a letter name, tell me the sound.”

What’s the evidence?

While there is a strong correlation with letter-name knowledge and reading achievement (0.62), the same correlation is present in number-name, shape-name, and color-name knowledge.⁠3 In other words, children who know the names of many colors are likely to be good readers; this doesn’t mean we should teach the children colors in order to make them good readers. (This probably indicates a relationship between memory and reading outcomes.)

If the students are taught sounds are represented by letters and they are given explicit training on phoneme-letter relationships, it reduces the learning time to decode words by half, compared to groups that learned letter names first.⁠4 What would you do if it took half as long to teach children basic reading?

But they have to learn letter names!

The prohibition on letter names isn’t permanent. Letter names are useful and as adults we use them often in day-to-day life. You should teach them, just not first.

Hold off until the child is reading and writing phonetically, then you can teach letter names, the alphabet song, alphabetical order, and anything else related to the names.

The Rhyme & Reason Reading Program

This is the reading program I made for my school. It brings evidence-based practices to the Montessori classroom. If you thought this post was helpful, you’ll find the book even more helpful.

P.S. I was only able to work with that young girl for a couple months. In that time, she began to correctly sound out words. She was still very slow, but she no longer cried.

1 The school I taught at required that we administer DIBELS with high fidelity, so I did test for letter name recognition. I personally found the letter name portion of the test to have no predictive power over a child’s reading ability. Good readers and poor readers alike knew letter names.

2 Samuels, “The Effect of Letter-Name Knowledge on Learning to Read.”

3 McGuinness, Language Development and Learning to Read, Chapter 15

4 Jeffrey and Samuels, “Effect of Method of Reading Training on Initial Learning and Transfer.”

D is for Derby is actually very charming book with beautiful illustrations. It’s targeted at older elementary students which isn’t a problem. I just didn’t have any other books in my house that featured letter names… I could have sworn I had Chicka-Chicka Boom Boom.

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