Woman hand working drawing alphabet letter on notebook

As parents, we often find ourselves at the roadblock of teaching alphabet letter names or sounds first. Learning the alphabet is an essential piece of learning how to read a puzzle.

Teaching the letter first has its advantages:

1. Foundation of English Language: The basis of English literacy instruction is knowledge of the alphabet. While it is true that decoding instruction is based on letter-sound instruction, the knowledge of letter names provides a common language to discuss the letters.

2. Upper and lowercase letters: Letter names also provide a connection between upper and lowercase letters of the alphabet. Teaching the letter name “A” provides a bridge between the symbols of A and a. These connections are critical to building memory networks in the brain for the alphabet.

3. The letters give background information: Many letter names also provide clues to the most common sound that the letter makes. For instance, the letter name “B” includes the sound /b/ within the name of this letter. In these instances, the letter name provides important background information for children to learn letter-sound correspondences more rapidly.

4. Consistency: The names of letters are consistent, “c” is a “c” every time.  The name never changes. Whereas the sound a ‘c’ makes can vary from the hard ‘c’ as in ‘cat’, the soft ‘c’ as in ‘city’ and the ‘sh’ sound as in “chef’.

5. Transferring knowledge: Many children learn the alphabet song, and it is common for kids to then use this knowledge and transfer it to what the letters look like. For example, many kids sing the alphabet song as they put together an alphabet jigsaw puzzle.

Teaching phonics first has its advantages:

1. Sound/Symbol recognition is stronger

A child who learns reading through phonics will have excellent “phonemic awareness,” which means that he will be able to associate letter symbols with their appropriate sound, even when letters can make more than one sound. For example, a child who learns phonics will be able to see a “p” and know that the sound is “puh.” This skill will prove incredibly useful when the child sounds out unknown words and syllables.

2. Sounding out unfamiliar words is easier

A child who has strong phonemic awareness can put sounds together to make syllables. For example, if a child knows, through learning phonics, that “ch” can say “chuh,” or “shhh,” depending on the word, he will know to try out both when sounding out an unfamiliar word. Donald R. Bear, Marcia Invernizzi, Shane Templeton and Francine Johnson, authors of “Words Their Way,” argue that teaching phonics will allow students to learn the regular patterns of words, allowing for easier reading.

3. Knowing spelling patterns make reading multisyllabic words easier

Because spelling is based on sound/symbol awareness of the majority of the English language, teaching reading through phonics will develop strong spellers. A phonetic learner who is spelling a multisyllabic word such as “conversation,” will know that there is a prefix, “con,” a suffix, “tion,” and four syllables, each starting with a consonant and ending with a consonant. A whole-language learner would have to memorize what the word says and would not understand how to break the word apart to read or spell it.

4. Students learn syllable structure

A student who learns phonics will become familiar with syllable structure. She will know that a closed syllable will end in a consonant and have a short vowel, while an open syllable will end in a vowel that makes a long sound. She will know that when two vowels are together in a word, the first one makes a long sound while the other stays silent. These rules, among others, are very useful in decoding and encoding words, says William H. Miller, Ed.d, author of “The Reading Teacher’s Survival Kit.”

5. Sounds learnt with picture support

There is some evidence that children learn letter sounds more easily when they are part of picture support. E.g. The A as part of an apple.

Finally, there is no clear and definitive evidence in the research at the moment to distinctly argue one way is superior to the other. Whether you teach the letter names or the letter sounds first, it is important that kids learn one system consistently in its entirety.