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Letter names or sounds?

This post has been written as a quick response to a debate on Twitter about whether teachers should be teaching letter names or sounds or both to young children just embarking on learning to read and spell.

Until young children (Reception/Y1) are secure with sounds – i.e. they understand that letters are representations of sounds in words – they should not be introduced to letter names. Teaching letter names (as well as sounds) to young children is bound to cause many children confusion. What’s more, this confusion very often lasts until secondary school, where pupils who can’t read and write well are often thoroughly mixed up about what this code is all about.

But, understand that teaching letter names from the start isn’t the same thing as talking about sound symbols collectively as ‘letters’! So, for example, a teacher might teach the two-letter spelling [ ss ] and say, “This,” pointing to the [ ss ], “is two letters but it’s one sound. It’s /s/. Say /s/ here.” Why is this different from telling the pupil that the spelling is ‘double ess’? For two very good reasons: first, the alphabet code is a code for the sounds in our speech and the two letter spelling [ ss ] in the example represents the sound /s/; second, because we want to orient pupils in the direction of understanding how the code works: we can spell sounds with one, two, three or four letters.

To take another example: the pupil is reading a book and stumbles over the spelling [ ea ] in the word ‘stream’. Assuming that the pupil is still working with the one-to-one sound-spelling correspondences and also that the pupil is being taught to segment and blend to a high degree of proficiency, the teacher simply runs their pencil under the spelling and says, “This is /ee/. Say /ee/ here.” And that’s it! Really simple! And the bonus is that the pupil is being ‘sensitised’ to what will shortly be taught formally.

If the pupil is writing, the teacher should be encouraging pupils to think about how to spell sounds in words as they write. A high quality phonics programme will be doing this from the start. Inevitably, pupils will come to areas of complexity that, as yet, exceed their competence. Again, when the pupil says they cannot spell a particular word, there is a judgement call. If the child is still in the early stages of learning the code and they want to write a relatively complex word like ‘delicious’, clearly there too many different complexities to make sense to a child. In this instance, the teacher can and should supply the word. However, if the difficulty is with a word, such as ‘bright’, for instance, the teacher should be asking the pupil what the difficult bit in the word is. As before, if a pupil is working with one-to-ones and can segment and blend, the bit beyond their present knowledge will be the spelling of /ie/. In this case, the teacher writes the spelling [ igh ] on a whiteboard and says, “This is how we spell /ie/ in ‘bright’”. Again, what could be easier?

When pupils get into learning that sounds can be spelled in more than one way and that most spellings can represent more than one sound, the formulation changes. By now, the pupils should understand the nature of the alphabetic code: i.e. that letters, singly or in combination, represent sounds in our language. And, this is when the teacher no longer has to write the spelling on a whiteboard but can simply respond to the question ‘How do I spell the /ie/ in ‘bright’?” with “It’s the i g h (said as letter names) spelling”.

This technique works perfectly well for learners of any age. At age five, one may well be writing the required spelling on a whiteboard; at age nine, when the word is ‘archaeology’ and the pupils are learning about the Egyptians, the teacher can give the required spelling as letters names: ‘We spell the sound /ee/ in this word [ ae ].”

Teachers are often confused by research that purportedly shows that children who know sound-spelling correspondences and letter names are likely to become more literate, or whatever the claim is. The problem with this is that children who do know both have often been exposed to lots of prior learning. In any case, half the time the researchers have never taught young children and don’t understand themselves the subtleties and intricacies of when and how the teaching of letter names is likely to be both necessary and effective.

Once pupils understand how the code works, letter names then become an essential. If children are taught how to read and spell in a systematic, highly structured way by people who understand the right combination of skills, concepts and code knowledge needed to learn such a complex body of knowledge, they are likely to acquire increasing competence and confidence in dealing with our spelling system.
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One thought on “Letter names or sounds?

  1. This is all well and good, but it raises other other questions; e.g.:
    –When are "young children just embarking on learning to read and spell?" It could be argued that this begins at birth, if not before that. Certainly they learning "phonemic awareness" as neonates, and learning to discriminate/generalize–not all men are daddy and not all animals are doggies–as infants. They are learning that numbers have names that can spelled with letters, symbolized as numerals, and that communicate quantitative and qualitative distinctions. And so on. None of these learning/teaching complexities are problematic for children. Why not? Because adults are consistent in clarifying the contingencies. In schooling where children are taught to read using "mixed methods" and to use "creative spelling," of course there will be children who are "confused."

    –What do you do with kids who come to school already having learned/been taught letter names and who can read and spell their names and some other "whole words?" In many schools this will be all the kids and in almost every school it will be some kids. They've already learned what you say they shouldn't be taught. Actually, it's "not a problem." If they are consistently told, "Say the sounds and read the word," they will learn; just as they have been learning other generalizations/discriminations. (Spelling is a different matter, but that's a whole nother story.)

    –What do you do about txt msging, emoticons, and such, which occupy a lot of kids' written communication these days? Kids entering school are encountering alphanumeric keyboards on phones and family "computers;" what do you do about that? Again, the use of letter names is "no problem" unless the instruction makes it a problem.

    In short, tweeter conversations debating "letters or sounds" sound like problem creation rather than problem solving–to put a name to it.

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