In this post I want to share why it is that teaching the alphabet is to incredibly important for helping children learn to read, as well as what we mean when we say that a child “knows the alphabet.” You can watch my video or read below.
If you’d like to learn more about this topic, click here to read about my book 101 Ways to Teach the Alphabet: A Hands-On Approach to Learning Letters and Sounds Through Play.
First, I want to say thank you to everyone who has commented or asked questions about my earlier email and video where I shared the story of how I got so interested in teaching the alphabet and how I developed a program of fun, hands-on, and developmentally appropriate activities to help my daughter learn her letters.
By the end of this post, I hope I will be able to convey to you why teaching the alphabet is so important as well how knowing the alphabet supports children’s reading development.
So let me start by staying that I am an academic researcher by training, having completed my Ph.D. in child development at Stanford University with a focus on the relationship between family and community language and literacy practices and children’s language and literacy development over time.
Given my research background, I love knowing what the research says about how children learn. But I also have a practical background in reading development, not only as a homeschool parent teaching my children to read but also from seven years of experience developing and running literacy programs for preschoolers as well as for 1st through 3rd graders.
So having said all that, in this email I am going to share some key research findings with you that explain why teaching the alphabet to children is so important.
Letter naming knowledge supports reading development
Back in 1967, two researchers named Guy Bond and Robert Dykstra published a very important study that explored student characteristics associated with reading achievement in first grade. Their analysis showed that children’s ability to recognize letters of the alphabet at the beginning of the year was the single strongest predictor of their reading achievement at the end of the year.
More recent research has confirmed the finding that letter name knowledge is a stronger predictor of reading achievement than any other pre-reading skill, including phonics knowledge (an understanding of the relationship between letters and sounds).
The takeaway message is this: a child who can name the letters of the alphabet prior to beginning formal reading instruction will be much more successful in learning to read than a child who cannot name the letters of the alphabet.
So how does knowing the alphabet help kids learn the read?
Research suggests that knowing the names of the letters supports the development of reading skills in at least three ways:
1. When children can rapidly name letters, they do not have to spend much cognitive energy identifying letters in text. Instead, they can dedicate more cognitive resources to the other tasks of reading, such as sounding out words and comprehending the text.
2. For most, but not all, of the letters, knowing the name of the letter gives children some information about the sound the letter makes, which facilitates reading.
3. Knowing the names of the letters gives children a common language to discuss letters. This is important because many letters make more than one sound (e.g., ‘A’ makes both the /ă/ and /ā/ sounds), and many sounds are produced by more than one letter (e.g., the /j/ sound is made by both ‘J’ and ‘G’). Furthermore, letter names provide a connection between uppercase and lowercase letters, as children learn that both ‘A’ and ‘a’ represent the same letter.
But what does it mean when we say a child “knows the alphabet?”
Research suggests that “knowing the alphabet” means that children have acquired skills and knowledge in four separate areas:
- Knowledge of letter shapes, which requires children to pay attention to key visual features such as the letter’s shape, orientation, and directionality.
- Knowledge of letter names, which requires children to understand that letters are symbols, letters have their own names, and each letter name represents both an uppercase letter symbol and a lowercase letter symbol.
- Knowledge of letter sounds, which requires children to understand that letters represent sounds, both individually (e.g., ‘S’) and in combination (e.g., ‘SH’).
- The ability to write letters, which requires children to not only have knowledge of letter shapes, but also to have the visual memory and fine motor skills to reproduce letter shape in written form.
I hope this information gives you a better understanding of both why teaching the alphabet is so important and how knowing the alphabet supports children’s reading development.
Until next time,