Monday, September 14, 2009

When teaching reading, DON'T teach the letter names.

How do you say “B”? You probably said “Bee”, right? Of course – that’s the name of that letter. And how do you make the sound of B? Every reader knows its “buh.” It’s easy for you, as an adult to automatically remember both of these details about the letter B. It’s not so easy for a child learning to read, it’s this second piece of information, the letter sound, that he needs to learn. Teaching him the letter name, “Bee,” just adds confusion and should be postponed until later.

If you are teaching reading to young children, whether in English or German, you should always start with letter sounds, not names.

How do I teach reading using letter sounds?
When you teach letter sounds, you simply refer to a letter by it's sound, not it's alphabetical name. So for B, say “there’s a buh”. For K, say “here’s a kuh”. For children ages 2-5, you never need to say a letter's "name." Put letter names completely out of your vocabulary for the time being. I would even go so far as to suggest that you do NOT teach the alphabet song, unless you're going to sing it using sounds, not names.

Letter names only confuse the learning to read process
It may sound a little counter-intuitive, but that's just because most people were taught to read by learning letter names first. When a child learns a letter name, then he has to "translate" from the name to the sound in order to sound out a word. It's a very inefficient process for the brain to perform. He sees the word hat, has to recognize the letters by their names, then has to remember that H says "huh", A says "a" and T says "t" and finally recognizes the words as "hat." Of course it happens faster and faster as he gains experience but if he has any trouble at all making these associations, he'll be tripped up and his learning may stall.

When a child learns letter sounds directly, he doesn't have to take the intermediate step of associating letter name to sound.
He sees hat, and can immediately think "huh a t", then blend the sounds together into "hat." It's a much more direct process for him. His brain only has to remember 1 thing for each letter, not both a name and a sound.

The bonus to this method is that many letter sounds are the same in English and German!
So once your child can read in one of these two languages, he'll have a head start on reading in the other. Most of the consonants sound the same in German and English (B, H, D, P, K, R, C, F, M, N, L, T, X). The same is not true of the letter names - they are all different.

But most schools start teaching letter names!
That may be the case, but it doesn't mean it's pedagogically the best method. The reading program we use in our homeschool teaches using this method and is in use in thousands of schools and homes around the country. While using this method with my oldest child, my middle son picked up the letter sounds and was easily able to sound out short words by the age of 4. He received very little instruction - he just was around as I was teaching letter sounds to his brother. He put the rest together by himself.

How will my child learn the letter names? At what point should I teach names?
Once your child is reading easily, you can teach letter names, in English and in German, probably in the course of a few days. Children do need to know letter names if they are spelling something out loud or reading abbreviations, for instance.

This method won't turn your child into a reader overnight.
Learning to read is a complicated process. Your child still needs to learn the letter sounds, be able to remember the first sound by the time he reaches the last letter, and understand how to blend them together. It's a pretty complicated task for a 5 year old, if you think about it. But at least with this method, you're using the most direct path to reading for your child. Why introduce additional confusing factors if you don't have to?

Your quick takeaways:
For a direct path to reading, teach sounds, not letter names.
This method works for English and German.
Learning to read is complicated. Some kids need more time than others.

So try and retrain your instinct when talking about letters with your little one. Leave the letter names for later. He needs to learn his letter sounds and let them become automatic before spending time learning letter names.


Emily C said...

That's an interesting concept, but one that makes a lot of sense.

So what do you do if you have a 2 year old who already knows the names of his letters? He's pretty good with most of the letter sounds in English, thanks to, but I'm struggling with knowing where to take him from there.

Also, he adores preschool websites with games, etc, but I've never been able to find any in other languages (my internet searching skills in french and german are very limited)

Sarah Mueller said...

Emily - Great question. If he already knows the names, you can help him to learn the sounds. You can say "Yes! That's a "Bee" and it says "buh." What does this letter say? It's kind of like when kids learn the names of animals and the sounds they make - they are able to keep them separate (although my 2 year old still calls sheep "Baa's") but it's easier if they only have to master 1 thing first.

You're right that most games will use letter names or maybe a combination of the two. You might have the best luck making up your own games to play with him using letter names - I spy something that starts with "sssss" or helping him "unglue" words (i.e. sound them out).

At age 2, I think the best use of your time is to read as many books as you can and just talk to him about everything.

Anonymous said...

I disagree though
I think they need to be taught in combination. Why would you teach one concept and then go back and teach it all over again. The sound and name are of equal importance.

Sarah Mueller said...

I do appreciate your comment but I disagree.

Oh, but they aren't of equal imporance. The sounds are much more important than the names. A child can learn to read beautifully without knowing letter names but would have a very hard time reading if he only knew names but not sounds.

You won't be teaching one of them over again if you separate the sounds from the names. They are two distinct concepts and when you teach them together, you may find the child is confused at having to remember these two disparate ideas.

Of course some kids have no problem at all learning both names and sounds together, but others will. My five year old has learned to read beautifully using this method.

Anonymous said...

I love it! You are so correct in what you are saying about learning sounds and their importance over the letter name. We unfortunately live in a society that has been taught backward for so long, that it is hard to convince the masses to undo the wrong and do what is right for the the natural learning process.

I have tried to explain this concept to educators around me and most give me the "dear in the headlights" look. One of my most discouraging situations is with the state in which I live as I have been interested in moving my preschool into the public school to meet the needs of my families in regards to being able to meet financial as well as transportion needs. (I personally, am not interested in being a public educator, but I am in this for the families.) In a conversation with a state early childhood education representative, I was informed that I teach too much and basically that teaching sounds to students was absolutely absurd.

As I look at my program, I know what I do is working for I have children 2 half days a week for 30 weeks and many are reading simple words by the end of the year. This doesn't happen for those students being taught letter names.

I don't know what your education backgroud is, but I believe in your philosophy and I am in hopes that we can have a new revival in this old way of teaching.

Headsprout may be a program some parents may be interested in. It is an online reading program that teaches through a sound approach. It does have a price tag, but their is nothing more important than learning how to read. I have no ties to the company, I am simply a parent using the program for my child. (Being mom and teacher does not always work.)

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I meant to write "deer in the headlights" not "dear". I missed the preview button.

Sarah Mueller said...

Hi Anonymous,

Thanks for your comments. It is a shame when people won't look at facts and see what works. It sounds like the children in your care are getting a wonderful education! By way of introduction, I am homeschooling my 3 boys and have had to do a lot of research to find out what works best. We're currently focused on learning the basics through the type of reading and spelling described in this post, a firm foundation in math using a master approach (Math-u-See is wonderful!) plus lots of living books for our other subjects.

I welcome your thoughts and comments. Just an aside, my blog has recently moved in case you're interested in subscribing - here's the new link

Sarah Mueller said...

By the way, we'll be continuing with more educational articles in January!

Thea said...

Agreed! I did this with my son at age 2, and at age 2 1/4 he knew how to read basic CVC words and some 4 letter words. I tried to shield him from the letter names, but he would pick up on some, like the letter W, and then he would sometimes get tripped up and read 'DoubleU Eh T' for example, for the word 'WET'. Letter sounds are definately the way to go first. I googled it and not much came up, why are there not more people doing this?