Category Archives: ABC’s

Knowing ABC names isn’t important to beginning readers

When most children are four, they can say, or should I say sing, their ABC’s properly, except for the L-M-N-O part.

But can they pronounce the basic sounds associated with each of those letters?  I know they can’t.

For example, I ask what sound is “pictured” by “y.”  The child says “w” as in “why.”  Or I ask what sound is represented by “w.”  The child says “d” as in “double you.”  The children are giving me the sound of the letter’s name, not the sound represented by the letter.  This causes confusion when they try to pronounce CVC words.

Look at the disconnect between how letters are named and the basic sounds which those names represent.  In the case of vowels below, the basic sound is considered to be what has been called “short vowel sounds.”

ABC name    basic sound    pronunciation

A                      a                     ay

B                      b                     bee

C                      k                     see

D                      d                    dee

E                      e                     ee

F                      f                     eff

G                      g                    jee

H                      h                    aech

I                      i                      eye

J                      j                      jay

K                      k                     kay

L                      l                      el

M                     m                    em

N                      n                     en

O                      o                     oh

P                      p                      pee

Q                     kw                   kue

R                      r                      are

S                      s                      ess

T                      t                      tee

U                      u                     you

V                      v                      vee

W                     w                     double you

X                      x                      ex

Y                      y                      why

Z                      z                      zee

Of the basic sounds of our language, only eight are represented by letter names which begin with that sound.  (Sounds represented by more than one letter, such as “ow” and “th” are not shown here.)

This made me wonder how important knowing the names of the ABC’s  is compared to knowing the sounds those letter characters represent.  I have concluded that it is the sounds which are important, not the names or graphics we assign to those sounds.

To prove this, look at the sounds which children from other countries say when they see certain  letters.  When children in Germany see “v,” they pronounce the “f” sound in English.  Those same German children, when they see a “w,” pronounce it like a “v” sound in English.  When children in Russia see a “p,” they pronounce it like an “r” sound in English.

So the picture/character/graphic is arbitrary.  Someone long ago in England (or more likely, ancient Rome and Greece) assigned certain letter symbols to portray certain sounds.  But other persons in other parts of the world assigned the same letter symbols to portray different sounds.

Since I discovered this, I teach letter “sounds” differently.  When I work with beginning readers, I try not to use words like “A,” “B,” and “C” when I refer to letters.  Instead I say the sounds those letters represent.  I say “a,” “b,” and “k,” and I ask students to do the same.

If you are teaching your child beginning reading in English, I recommend that you focus on the sound, not on the name of the letter.  The sound is what children need to know in order to read, not the name we give to the letter representing that sound.

Teaching sounds, not letters, is where reading begins

The basic “code” of written English is sounds represented by letters.  Learning this code begins with learning to recognize the sounds of English.  Combining these sounds into two- or three-sound words is where forming words begins.  And this can be taught to children before they ever see a letter.

Because learning the code of written English is so important, learning to recognize its sounds should not be rushed.  A lifetime of reading, a career, the ability to support a family—so much depends on being able to read.

Kids need plenty of time and various kinds of interactions with sounds to learn to recognize sounds.  The younger the children, the shorter their attention spans and the more need for game-like ways to learn.

But the learning doesn’t begin with letters.  It begins with sounds.

I recommend you use several strategies to help your children identify sounds, working with your child one-on-one using manipulatives.  Why?

Your child wants nothing more than to interact with you. Putting down your cell phone and sitting by her side shows your child you treasure her.  And working with her on reading skills shows her how important you consider that knowledge to be.

Research shows that the more senses we use, the more likely we are to remember. If a child can touch manipulatives, hear you say sounds, say them herself, see objects when she says sounds and feel your warm hug when she learns, the learning will stick. Plus she will be relaxed and happy, in an emotional state which is open to learning.

Some of the strategies I recommend to teach tiny children how sounds form words are these.

  • Work on a few sounds at a time with objects around the house. If your son’s name is Bill, for example, start with the “b” sound. Put a ball in your son’s hand and say “b” (the sound, not the letter) as in ball.  Put a banana in his hands and say “b” as in banana.  Do the same for other consonant sounds and for all the vowel sounds, even sounds we represent by two letters.  You can say “oi” (the sound) as in oink, or “ch” (the sound) as in child.  You can start this activity when a child is two or three without ever showing the child a letter.

 

  • Find objects in picture books which begin with basic English language sounds. ABC books are good for this, but the goal should not be to say “A is for apple.”  Rather it is to focus on the sounds in words.  At first start with words which begin with a sound, but then move on to small words which include that sound in the middle of CVC words like “cat” and “bag.”

 

  • When the child recognizes a handful of consonant sounds and a vowel sound such as “a,” say the “a” sound and a consonant sound slowly, one after the other. Make sounds which form a word like “a” and “t” or “a” and “x.”  Repeat the sounds a little faster each time until the child can hear the sounds come together.  Usually the child will say the word, but if not, help her to hear how the sounds come together to form a word.

 

All these activities can be done prior to ever showing your child a letter.  And they can be done with all 42 sounds in English.  Identifying sounds and understanding how they come together to form words is the basis of reading.  Save the ABCs for a later time.

 

The younger the student, the shorter the reading lesson

Many four-year-olds can learn to read, but their lessons must be short and involve games and manipulatives to keep them engaged.

That’s what I have learned from many years of teaching little kids to read.  After about ten minutes, many little ones lose interest or become distracted.  Then it is time to stop or to move on to a different approach.

For example, last week I worked with a four-year-old girl who is learning to associate sounds with letters and to form her first CVC words.  The lesson was supposed to last 45 minutes, but after 30 minutes, she could no longer sit still.  Here is what we did in that half hour:

  • We began using letter tiles which she loves to touch. She would pull one of the 26 letters I had presorted and tell me the sound associated with that letter.  She knew all but two, “v” and “y,” so we set aside those two and every few minutes we reviewed them.
  • Next, we reviewed last week’s lesson, making CVC words with tiles the vowel “a,” words like “cat,” “man” and “bad.” For five minutes she participated, moving some of the letters herself, but then she noticed my necklace and wanted to wear it.  I let her, but from her attention was diverted.  After another few minutes we moved on.
  • I had created BINGO cards using CVC words, so her next task was to identify the word I said from among the nine words on her card. This worked for a few minutes, but then she became distracted by the BINGO markers themselves—pieces of plastic I had cut out—and she started making patterns with them.  Enough of that.
  • We returned to making words with the tiles to no avail. I cut the lesson short, grateful that she had worked for a half hour.

With a five-year-old last week, the situation was much the same.

child playing card memory game

  • I corrected the few pages of phonics homework she had done while she dumped a container of letter tiles and put them in ABC order, chatting all the time.
  • She told me the sounds associated with each letter, reminding me that “k” and “c” make the same sound. She gets mixed up with “g” and “j,” so we set them aside to review as the lesson progressed.  I pulled letters to make words with beginning blends, such as “smell” and “stun.”  She said the words but in a few minutes, she lost interest.
  • We moved on to a workbook in which she read tiny sentences using CVC and CCVC words.
  • Finally I dictated a few words with blends in them and she wrote them.
  • A half hour passed, the scheduled time for her lesson.  Now she got her reward:  time to build houses out of the letter tiles.

For all elementary school aged children I plan several parts to each lesson, but for the youngest, I need one activity for each seven to ten minutes to keep them engaged.

Is it important for beginning reader to know the ABC’s in order?

No.  Knowing the ABC’s in order isn’t important until a child learns alphabetical order.child making letter T with his body

What is important is for a beginning reader to hear and say the 42 sounds of English, and to be able to associate each of those sounds with a letter or pair of letters.

Some reading specialists recommend not showing a child letters until the child can repeat the sounds.  In English, sounds come first.  Sounds are paired with one or more symbols (letters) so we can show sounds visually.Child sitting with legs outstretched, forming the letter L

When I teach children sound-letter pairings, I start with the consonants since most consonants, like “b” and “k,” are always pronounced the same.  Then I move on to short vowel sounds, saving “e” and “i” until “a,” “o.” and “u” are learned since “e” and “i” sound similar.  That still leaves more than a dozen sounds to match with letters or letter groups.

However, many teachers drill the ABC’s by singing the ABC song.  They might test beginning readers on the order of the ABC’s, making allowances for the “L, M. N, O” section which is almost always the last part learned.

Find out what your child’s teacher expects.  But to answer your question, no, knowing the order of the ABC’s is not important for beginning readers.

How to teach a child to read with little cost

If you are attempting to teach your child to read, and you go to Amazon or your local book store and find literally hundreds of instruction books, dozens of video games, and all kinds of apps and CDs, and boxes of flash cards, where do you begin?  Is all that “stuff” really necessary?

I suggest a method which includes spending time with your child but not much money.

Start with the sounds of English. There are about 42 in most parts of the US.  Say the sounds aloud, one at a time.  Let your child listen and repeat the sounds aloud.  If he can’t say one or two of the sounds, work on those sounds for a few minutes each day until he can hear and repeat all the sounds.  (Supplies you will need:  a list of the 42 sounds, available free on this website and online.)

Next, explain that we associate letters with those sounds.  Start with consonants and teach the child to match each sound with a letter.  Move on to vowels and explain that some sounds share the same letter.  (At this point, don’t try to teach digraphs or exceptions.)  Say a particular sound and ask your child what letter goes with that sound.  Show a handful of letters to choose from and add more options as the child gains accuracy.  (Supplies you will need:  a set of the ABC’s on cards, on letter tiles or written by hand on index cards.)

Once the child can associate sounds with letters accurately, form CVC (consonant—vowel—consonant) words, such as “c a t.” From years of experience I have found that letter tiles work best at this.  (I use Scrabble game tiles, but there are other kinds.)  Set the three letters an inch apart.  Say the letter sounds one by one.  Move the letter tiles together slowly and then more rapidly, saying the letter sounds so that they eventually slur together.  Help the child learn that when we put letter sounds together, we form words.  (Supplies you will need:  lists of CVC words available free online.)

At this point, your child can read many of the words in some books, such as The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham and  Hop on Pop.   Encourage the child to read the words she can and you read the other words.  If you own the books and don’t mind marking them, you can underline the words your child knows as she reads–a visible proof to the child that she can read.  (Supplies you will need:  a few early reading books available free online or for less than a dollar each at most resale stores.)

CVCC twin consonantsNext you need a plan to sequence the teaching of various types of words.   You can find plenty online.  Most plans start with two- or three-letter short vowel words like “cat” and “ax.”  Then they move on to blends, first at the beginnings of short vowel words (“blot”) and when those are understood, at the ends of such words (“blotch.”)  Adding “s” to form plurals is considered such a blend.  Then teach digraphs and sight (Dolch) words.  (Supplies you will need:  Lists of sight or Dolch words available free online.)

Some authorities suggest teaching two- and three-syllable short vowel words at this point, such as “catnip” and “tunnel.” Others suggest tackling one-syllable long vowel words beginning with words ending with a silent “e” such as “bake” and “tune” and then moving on to other long vowel combinations such as “ee” and “oa.”  There is no right or wrong sequence.  It is important to keep reviewing words the student already learned and mixing them up while you are teaching new kinds of words.  (Supplies you will need:  Lists of such words available free online.)

boy choosing right root for a prefixAt this point, you might teach prefixes and suffixes, or words which don’t follow rules such as two-syllable words with one consonant between the two vowels. Does the consonant go with the first syllable (“robin”) or with the second syllable (“robust”)?  (Supplies you will need:  Lists of such words available free  online.)

Three- and four-syllable words follow the same rules as one- and two-syllable words, but the problem is where to put the inflection so that they are pronounced correctly.  Help the child pronounce such words all possible ways until she hears the correct way.  You and your child might read books you own or library books, and when you come to long words, stop, and figure them out together.  (Supplies you will need:  Picture books, and lists of multi-syllable words available free online.)

By now your child is reading.  She might need help occasionally pronouncing a particular word, or more likely, understanding the meaning of an unfamiliar word.  But learning the sounds of English (phonemes) and linking those sounds to form words (phonics) is largely done.

Board books meet babies’ literacy needs

baby reading a bookBoard books, those small-sized, thick cardboard books with brightly colored pictures and rounded corners, are celebrating their 70th birthday (more or less).  They were born with the baby boom in the late 1940’s, came in various shapes and sometimes included tactile surfaces for babies to touch.

By the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, board books became a recognized “genre” of children’s literature.  Illustrator Helen Oxenbury was an early pioneer of these books meant for one- and two-year-old children.  Some of her books have become classics.

They have caught on for many reasons.  Board books are small in size, some just two inches square, perfect for tiny hands.  Their pictures are simple illustrations of babies and little children.  The illustrations use primary colors to attract toddler eyes.  The round edges of the books can be chewed by teething babies.  Board books can be flung, chewed and slapped without ripping.

Some board books have become classics, such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle and Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss.  Others teach ABC’s and counting.  Many focus on babies—animal babies and human babies.  Some have words—just a few and often in rhyme—but many are wordless.

Babies can learn quite a bit about literacy from “reading” board books.  They learn that books start on the left-hand side and move to the right.  They learn that book pages flip right to left in English.  They learn that there is a right-side-up to books.  They learn that the pictures and words have meaning.  They learn that reading is a fun experience and often a special time with someone they cherish.

For most children today, board books are their introduction to reading.

Work with kenesthetic learners’ strengths–their bodies

Most preschoolers and many school-aged children are kenesthetic learners, that is learners who learn best when they are physically active.

Should my child sit still when she learns to read?

Ask such a child what “humongous” means, and she will spread her arms as far as she can reach.  Ask a one-year-old what the dog in the picture is doing, and the child will get down on all fours and sniff.  Ask a child the difference between up and down, the child will stand on a chair and say, “up,” and then jump to the floor and say, “down.”

These children use as much of their bodies as possible not only to learn but to demonstrate that they have learned.

How do you know if a child is a kenesthetic learner?

Child sitting with legs outstretched, forming the letter L

  • The child loves sports—running, jumping, dancing, and tumbling.
  • The child seems more active than other children of the same age.
  • The child gestures while talking.
  • When the child sees a demonstration, the child wants to try it herself.
  • The child ends the day dirty—dirt under his fingernails, peanut butter in his hair, shoes scuffed—and he is oblivious.
  • When reading or writing, the child kneels on a chair, stands, sits on the desk, stands on the chair and leans over, and does all of these in the span of five minutes.
  • The child fidgets while learning—tapping her fingers, puffing up her cheeks, wriggling her shoulders—yet she pays attention.
  • The child loves Legos, puzzles, and toys that can be put together or taken apart.
  • The child has great hand-eye coordination, and can learn to control pencils, paint brushes, screw drivers and tools with ease.

dhild running with book in hands

How does such a learning style affect reading?  What can you do?

  • Since a kenesthetic learner often reads later than his peers, you might panic that he is lagging his classmates. It helps if you can accept that for this child, reading is a low interest activity.  You can reinforce what he is learning by connecting it to activities he loves.  “A is for arrow.  B is for basketball.  C is for coach.”
  • Because the child needs to move, let him swing his legs, stand, lie on the floor, or move a rubber ball from hand to hand as he listens to instruction.children moving letter tiles
  • Break up reading lessons into mini-lessons with in-between times when the child is free to move around. Use this time for the child to act out what he has learned.
  • Since the child likes to use his hands, teach using manipulatives such as letter tiles, pictures to sort by sound, parts of sentences cut into phrases, flashcards, and online work which includes using a mouse. Vary the writing instruments the child uses since the feel of some will attract the child to work.
  • Suggest that the child draw what he is learning. Have her fill in boxes and use arrows to show relationships.
  • Use repetitive physical activity to deepen learning. Throw a ball back and forth while spelling new words.  Take a walk while discussing subjects and predicates.  Move magnetized words into sentences on the refrigerator while shifting weight in a dancing rhythm.  Draw mind webs while reading to show comprehension.
  • Teach a hard concept after physical activity.