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Advocating the teaching of letter names to children just entering school is crass

Here we go again! in the latest issue of Nomanis, Stephen Parker has written an article on how we should be teaching phonics to children entering school. While Stephen offers some very useful advice, there is (at least) one of his recommendations that needs to be studiously ignored: his invocation to teach letter names to young children in Reception/PP/Kindy: from the start of school.

I’ve crossed swords with Stephen before on this issue but, despite repeatedly asking him for a reason why teachers should be teaching letter names, he never answers the question. Instead, he constantly falls back on the claim that there is a correlation between children learning to read and learning letter names at an early stage in their learning.

Well, as we know, correlation isn’t causation. Indeed, as Susan Godsland and Monique Nowers have written,

”It has been established that knowledge of the alphabet letter names is one of the best predictors of later reading attainment, but those who, as a consequence of this information, advocate the early teaching of the names, are confusing correlation with causation.”

Susan Godsland

Letter name knowledge is just an indirect marker of high print exposure, a literate household, good paired-associate memory, etc.” 

Monique Nowers

So, let’s look at the logic of teaching letter names and sounds together when introducing spellings. Spellings are, I remind everyone, ways of representing the sounds in the English language.

If children are told that the spelling < a > is the letter AY and it is also the sound /a/ – and so on with all of the rest of the alphabet – many of them easily get confused about which way of reading the spelling they should use. Any knowledgeable practitioner in England teaching phonics will tell you that.

Then, there’s the issue of cognitive load. If we are trying to reduce cognitive load to the minimum required to make our teaching effective, why teach anything other than that the spelling < a > is/represents the sound /a/. More than that adds extraneous information and is likely to confuse. Furthermore, adding unnecessary information for a child to absorb can cause some of the essential stuff to fall off the table of working memory.

In the Reading Reform Foundation Newsletter, 48, (April 2002), Harrison reports that ‘In a study of 9000 Australian students, 30% of nine-year-olds still hadn’t mastered letter sounds, arguably the most basic phonic skill [My emphasis]. A similar proportion of children entering high school continue to display confusion between names and sounds.’

Given that teachers of early years will be teaching from simple to more complex, they will begin by teaching simple one-to-ones: the sound-spelling correspondences in words such as ‘mat’ and ‘sit’, followed by structurally more complex words like ‘soft’ and ‘frog’. All you have to do is to ask yourself, “If I say the letter names in the word ‘mat’, can I hear ‘mat’?” Let’s take that as being rhetorical. On the other hand, if we teach sound-spelling correspondences and ask the children to say the sounds /m/ /a/ /t/, can they hear the word ‘mat’? Let’s take that as being rhetorical too.

As Dr Jonathan Solity wrote,

‘Teaching both [letter sounds and names] potentially confuses children and doubles the amount of information they are required to learn. Letter names are best introduced after children have gained fluency in their application of letter sounds and can distinguish between letter names and sounds with fluency. Teaching names is a redundant skill in both early reading and spelling and takes instructional time which could more usefully be devoted to other activities.”

Teaching Phonics in Context: A Critique of the National Literacy Strategy, (2003), p.20.

Ah, I hear you say, but what about if a child wants to write the word ‘mat’ and doesn’t know how to spell it. Well, the easiest thing in the world is to ask the child what the difficult bit in the word ‘mat’ is for them and write the spelling onto a whiteboard or piece of paper.

All of an Initial/Basic Code can be taught in this way, without ever having to refer to letter names. So, are letter names any use at all? Yes, they are, but only towards the end of the first year when children have, through their procedural skills, acquired an understanding of how the alphabet code works, and to provide the teacher with a short cut!

Having taught different ways of spelling the sound /ch/ (< ch > and < tch >), a child might, for example, ask the teacher how they spell the word ‘such’. The teacher would ask the child what the difficult bit it is for them. [This makes the child think and analyse what exactly they need to focus on.] And, the child replies, “It’s the /ch/.” The teacher can write down the spelling, write it in the air, or, as a short cut, say it’s the SEE AITCH spelling.

So, do expert readers use letter names when they’re reading? I don’t know about you but I don’t. I convert spellings into sounds and read words in my head or aloud if I’m reading to someone. And, when I’m writing? Do I use letter names then? No, I don’t! Even with the most complex words, I’m saying syllables in my head, segmenting the syllables into sounds and writing the spellings of the sounds.

Think for a moment how difficult it would be to write a word by listening for the sounds and then converting them into letter names, instead of converting the sounds directly into spellings. It’s entirely possible, of course, that I might spell a sound incorrectly, but even if I did, as long as the spelling is plausible, the word will be read by my intended reader.

Is there then a really good reason for teaching letter names at all, apart from as a short cut to providing a spelling? Probably! If someone asks you to give your name over the phone, you will obviously use letter names because sounds are too ambiguous: is it the EE or the EE AY spelling of the sound /e/? I don’t really need to ask if little children need to spell their names over the phone. And, there’s the dictionary. Children do need to learn how to use a dictionary – but not in the first year of school.

Stephen is always extolling the virtues of the teaching synthetic phonics in English schools, following the Rose report. It’s a pity he doesn’t have a better understanding of how, in the best instances, we do it: i.e. without teaching letter names in that first year of teaching!

2 thoughts on “Advocating the teaching of letter names to children just entering school is crass

  1. Thank you for this clarification, John.
    I’ve just been debating what to do when with my (almost 3 year old) grandson. So many books for toddlers have ‘ABC…’ titles and I have considered alphabet songs too – but some of the most common ones consist of capital sounds.
    However, I do ‘sound out’ capitals occasionally, e.g. ‘P’ for ‘parking’ when out an about. Would you suggest that I should actually sound out ‘p’ even though the sign has a capital letter? Ditto recognising letters on car number plates.

    1. Hi Ann,
      Thanks for writing in.
      The capital letter p is the same as the lower case and I would simply say that it is /p/ (said without an ‘uh’ sound) for ‘parking’.
      As for words in the environment, I’d start with some very simple CVC words, such as ‘cup’, ‘sit’, ‘mat’ and ‘mug’ and say the sounds and then say the word. When our youngest daughter was only three, we’d play that game until the words got longer and longer. And then we taught her to say the sounds in simple words: ‘Tell me the sounds in sit’, etc. When I was collecting her from nursery one day, I said, “Laura, we’re going to /t/ /e/ /s/ /c/ /o/ /z/. Where are we going?” When she said ‘Tesco’s’, the nursery nurse nearly fell off her chair. And yet this stuff is really easy if you practise.
      However, much more important at the moment is to be constantly talking about everything and anything you do together, as well as reading lots of stories.
      By the way, when your grandson is four or approaching four, you might want to take a look at a free course I’ve written for parents and carers ‘Help your child to read and write’. It takes parents and other family members from first beginnings to being able to read and write hundreds of simple CVC words. You can find it here:https://www.udemy.com/help-your-child-to-read-and-write/
      With warm wishes,
      John

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