Category Archives: ABC’s

Learning to read begins with mimicking sounds

So many preschools teach the ABC’s before they teach letter sounds.  This is a mistake.  Knowing that a certain triangular shape is called an “A” is less important than knowing how to say and recognize the sound of “a.”

When I teach a beginning reader, I teach with sounds, not letters.

First I say the 42 sounds of English and ask the child to repeat those sounds.  You might think, “Is that really necessary?”  Yes, it is.  Almost always I encounter a sound or two that a child cannot say properly.  For one child it was the “z” sound.  For another it was the “ch” sound.

Reading begins with sounds, with recognizing the sounds of English and with pronouncing those sounds correctly.  Once you are sure a child can do that, only then is it proper to associate a sound with a letter.

Child seeing letter on dog's collar

One technique I have found useful is to associate a letter sound with a particular noun which begins with that sound.  This can be especially useful for vowel sounds.  I taught a four-year-old to read this way.  Picturing the known object which began with that letter sound helped her to sound out unknown objects.  When she saw picture of an ostrich, she would say “o as in octopus” and compare that “o” sound with the sound in ostrich to see if the words started with the same sound.  I used pictures of an apple, elephant, igloo, octopus and umbrella, but any pictures would do as long as they are familiar and easy to remember.  For brand new readers, I kept those pictures on the desk.

To teach a child reading, I start with consonant sounds which are distinct.  The English alphabet has 16 sounds which always sound the same at the beginning of words.  Those 16 letters are B D F H J K L M N P Q[u] R T V X and Z.

The letters “b,” “d,” “k,” and “p”  are distinct because no other consonants sound like these sounds.  A child can make a “b” sound and always match it with the letter “b”—a one-to-one correspondence.  That is what I mean by distinct.

But other sounds are not distinct.  For example, a “c” and an “s” sound quite distinct sometimes but if a “c” is followed by an “e” or an “i,” it is not distinct.  And an “s” can sound like a “z” sometimes.  A “g” can sound like a “g” or a “j” depending on which letter follows it.  There isn’t a one-to-one correspondence of a single sound to  one letter, so they are not distinct matches.

All vowels make multiple sounds.  When you start combining letter sounds to form words, start with short vowel sounds, some of which are more distinct than others.  Short “a” and “o” sounds are distinct.  “E” and “i” sounds can be hard to differentiate.  “U” sounds are easier than “e” and “i” sounds, but are harder to differentiate than “a” and “o” sounds.  So I would start associating short vowel sounds with either “a” or “o” first.  Most phonics systems start with “a,” so if you are using prepared materials, you might as well start with “a.”  But really, “a” or “o” would suffice.

Let’s recap.  Suppose a child can recognize and pronounce the sounds of English.  Then it is time to choose one short vowel and five or six distinct consonant sounds and begin to associate letters with them.  When the child can correctly assign one sound to each letter, it is time to form words with them.

How much do you know about teaching reading to little kids?

  1. Which should be taught first—blends at the beginnings of words (flag, stop) or blends at the ends of words (hand, fist)?

  1. Is it important for pre-K or kindergarten students to know their ABC’s in order?

 

  1. Which are the hardest vowel sounds for a child to distinguish?          A and E      E and I      I and O      O and U

 

  1. Do children who can name many items  read better?

family reading together

  1. Is the best way to teach reading to have the child memorize words so that every word becomes a sight word?

 

  1. Are all kids developmentally ready to learn to read by kindergarten?

 

  1. What two letters is a child most likely to mix up?

 

  1. If a child ignores punctuation, is that child likely to have reading comprehension problems?

young child attempting to touch his ear with opposite hand

  1. Is following your child’s teacher’s advice on how to teach reading a good idea?

 

  1. How many letter sounds does your child need to be able to hear and pronounce?

 

 

Answers

 

  1. Blends at the beginnings of words are easier for children to learn. So are single consonants at the beginnings of words.  End of word sounds are harder to hear.

  1. No, the order of ABC’s is not important until a child is old enough to sort words into alphabetical order—a second or third grade skill.

 

  1. E and I are the hardest. That is why it is better to teach CVC words with A, O, and U vowels first, and to spend more time teaching E and I words after the A, O, and U words are mastered.

 

  1. Yes. Research shows that the two best predictors of reading achievement are an awareness of letter sounds and an ability to rapidly name objects.

young girl with pencil in mouth

  1. No. The best way to teach reading is to use a systematic phonetic approach.  Eventually, the words we read repeatedly become sight words, but we need to know how to decipher new words, and to do that we need to understand the rules of phonics.

 

  1. No. Usually by age 7 most kids are ready to learn how to read, but even then there are outliers.

 

  1. Lower case b and d are the most mixed up. Some kids recognize the difference immediately, and others take years to discriminate between those two letters.

  1. Yes. Ignoring punctuation means ignoring meaning.

 

  1. It depends where you child’s teacher was educated. In 2016 the National Council on Teacher Quality reviewed the syllabi of teacher training programs in the US and found that 39% of the schools teach what the research proves.

 

  1. In most places in the US, 42 sounds comprise our spoken language. However, regional dialects can increase or decrease that number of sounds slightly.

 

How’d you do on this quiz?  Read comicphonics regularly to know how to teach your child reading based on what the research shows.

 

The place of phonics in reading instruction

True or false?

  1. Speaking is natural. Reading is not.
  2. All students learn to read differently.
  3. Kids in early grades should receive explicit phonics instruction.
  4. About 2/3 of US fourth graders can read proficiently.

(The answers are at the end of this blog.)

How kids learn to read, how reading should be taught, and how teachers of reading should be taught are still controversial in the US. This is despite an 18-year-old exhaustive study of research on reading—the National Reading Panel— authorized by Congress in 2000 which found that phonics should be the basis of reading instruction.

Even with overwhelming research, many teacher training colleges do not teach would-be teachers how to teach phonics.  And so the graduates of those schools do not teach their students through a phonics-based approach.  As a result, 60% of US fourth graders are NOT proficient readers, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Students who don’t read well by fourth grade

  • Are more likely to fall behind in other subjects.
  • Are less likely to finish high school.
  • Are more likely to be poor readers their whole lives.
  • Are more likely to be poor.
  • Are more likely to be imprisoned.

Scientific research shows that a phonetic approach to reading is crucial.  Our brains are wired to learn to speak and walk without instruction, but we cannot read without instruction.

Yet in 2016, the National Council on Teacher Quality, after reviewing the syllabi of US teacher training programs, found that only 39% are teaching their would-be teachers how to teach reading based on phonics.  This is 18 years after the US study was published!

In other words, teacher training school are either ignoring the research about how children learn to read or are willfully disregarding it.  And as a result, many students are not learning to read.

When I studied for my master’s degree in education in the early 1990’s, I took a reading course in which the instructor belittled the role of phonics in learning to read.  She said it was one of many factors, all about equal.  I thought phonics was fundamental, but I didn’t have the scientific research to back up my position.

But for the past 18 years we have had overwhelming research that shows that a phonics-based approach to teaching reading is what works best.

If your child is struggling to read, find out if his or her teacher is teaching reading using a phonics-based approach.  If you are taking your child to a tutoring center to learn reading, make sure the center is using a phonics-based approach.  If you are teaching your child to read, use phonics.

What do I mean by phonics?

  • Identifying the sounds of English. Sounds, not ABC’s, come first.
  • Matching those sounds with symbols (letters) which represent those sounds
  • Merging those sounds and symbols to form words.
  • Identifying patterns among the symbols (for example, an “e” at the end of a one-syllable word) which change or influence the sounds letters make.

(The answers are true, false, true and false.)

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.