Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Regardless of the age at which you begin learning to read in English, one of the first things you are taught is the alphabet. There are songs (for example, this compilation of songs from Cocomelon) to help with memorizing the sequence of letters, and it is common for families to read picture books (such as those in this list from The Best Children’s Books website) to young children that present the alphabet along with illustrations of objects beginning with each letter. In fact, being able to name letters effortlessly has long been considered an important predictor of reading achievement (Chall, 1967). But knowing the letter names is not the entirety of the alphabetical knowledge needed to support reading development. This post will explain what early readers should be taught about letters and why those skills are important.

Letter Names

Children in several countries (e.g., United States, Canada, Brazil, France) commonly learn the names of letters before they learn the sounds, but children in England usually learn letter sounds before they learn the names. Findings from research comparing children 5–7 years old in the United States and England indicate that children taught with the different approaches will make different kinds of errors in letter-name and letter-sound tasks. But as they develop their literacy skills, differences in performance decrease (Ellefson et al., 2009). This means that, ultimately, it does not matter whether letter names or sounds are taught first because each facilitates learning the other and there is not consistent evidence of either being easier or harder to learn.

The names of letters are efficient because they provide a label for referring to the symbol and its various forms and fonts. Naming a concept such as a letter facilitates learning by cognitively mapping language or words onto the concept (Nelson et al., 2008). In addition, most English letter names contain a sound that the letter represents. Researchers have found that children tend to learn the sound faster and more accurately when it is at the beginning of a letter name (e.g., “b,” “p,” “t”), compared to when it is at the end of the letter name (e.g., “l,” “m,” “n”), or when the sound is not a part of the name (e.g., “h,” “w;” Piasta & Wagner, 2010; Treiman et al., 2008). Thus, children who learn the letter names use that information to learn the letter sounds.

Letter Sounds

Those who recommend teaching students the sounds of letters before the names point out that the sounds are needed to decode words (Rose, 2006). Although current research has not consistently found that there is an advantage to learning the sounds first, it is true that knowing the different letter sounds is necessary in order to decode print (McArthur et al., 2018). However, single letters do not represent all the sounds in English. There are sounds that must be represented by letter combinations, such as the consonant digraph sounds /sh/, /th/, /cth/, etc. If instruction focuses on the sounds of the language first, then children may be learning sounds that map to single letters as well as sounds that map to letter combinations.

Findings suggest that children of different backgrounds and language experiences successfully can learn approximately three letter-sound correspondences per week and that these can include sounds represented by single letters and those represented by two-letter combinations (Vadasy & Sanders, 2021). In addition, it is possible even for 4-year-olds with limited literacy knowledge to balance their learning of letter names with letter sounds—as opposed to learning one feature of the alphabet exclusively (Roberts et al., 2018).

Letter Formation

Alphabetical knowledge is not limited to what students can say about letters; it also includes the ability to write them. In fact, the same areas of the brain are activated when physically forming letters as are activated when visually recognizing letters (Li & James, 2016), and being able to form letters quickly and effortlessly is associated with being able to name letters fluently (Reutzel et al., 2019). With the increasing use of keyboards, researchers have observed a decline in handwriting instruction in schools (Dinehart, 2015). However, handwriting and drawing facilitate brain development in ways keyboarding does not (Askvik et al., 2020). Students are more likely to recognize and produce letters properly when they practice physically forming them (Longcamp et al., 2006).


Alphabetical knowledge is multifaceted and involves names, sounds, and physical formations of letters. All are important to early reading development. Students can learn either letter names or sounds first, but learning how to write the letters facilitates being able to distinguish and remember them. The goal is not solely to learn the alphabet but to equip students with the building blocks for decoding words.


Askvik, E. O., van der Weel, F. R., & van der Weel, A. L. H. (2020). The importance of cursive handwriting over typewriting for learning in the classroom: A high-density EEG study of 12-year-old children and young adults. Frontiers in Psychology11(1810). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7399101/   

Chall, J. (1967). Learning to read: The great debate. McGraw-Hill.

Dinehart, L. H. (2015). Handwriting in early childhood education: Current research and future implications. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy15, 97–118. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468798414522825

Ellefson, M. R., Treiman, R., & Kessler, B. (2009). Learning to label letters by sounds or names: A comparison of England and the United States. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology102, 323–341. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2671388/   

Li, J. X., & James, K. H. (2016). Handwriting generates variable visual output to facilitate symbol learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General145, 298–313. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4755885/   

Longcamp, M., Boucard, C., Gilhodes, J. -C., & Velay, J. L. (2006). Remembering the orientation of newly learned characters depends on the associated writing knowledge: A comparison between handwriting and typing. Human Movement Science25, 646–656. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.humov.2006.07.007

McArthur, G., Sheehan, Y., Badcock, N. A., Francis, D. A., Wang, H.-C., Kohnen, S., Banales, E., Anandakumar, T., & Castles, A. (2018). Phonics training for English-speaking poor readers. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews11https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6517252/    

Nelson, D. G. K., O’Neil, K. A., & Asher, Y. M. (2008). A mutually facilitative relationship between learning names and learning concepts in preschool children: The case of artifacts. Journal of Cognition and Development9, 171–193. https://doi.org/10.1080/15248370802022621

Piasta, S. B., & Wagner, R. K. (2010). Learning letter names and sounds: Effects of instruction, letter type, and phonological processing skill. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology105, 324–344. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2978809/    

Reutzel, P., Mohr, K. A. J., & Jones, C. D. (2019). Exploring the relationship between letter recognition and handwriting in early literacy development. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy19, 349–374. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1468798417728099   

Roberts, T. A., Vadasy, P. F., & Sanders, E. A. (2018). Preschoolers’ alphabet learning: Letter name and sound instruction, cognitive processes, and English proficiency. Early Childhood Research Quarterly44, 257–274. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2018.04.011

Rose, J. (2006). Independent review of the teaching of early reading: Final Report. Department for Education and Skills, United Kingdom http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/5551/2/report.pdf

Treiman, R., Pennington, B. F., Shriberg, L. D., & Boada, R. (2008). Which children benefit from letter names in learning letter sounds? Cognition106, 1322–1338. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2267370/

Vadasy, P. F., & Sanders, E. A. (2021). Introducing grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs): Exploring rate and complexity in phonics instruction for kindergartners with limited literacy skills. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal34, 109–138. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-020-10064-y