Are You Still Teaching Letter Names?


Are you thinking, “What else would we teach?”

The traditional methodology of teaching reading introduces letter names first rather than letter sounds. We have been conditioned to think that this is what a child needs to become a proficient reader. 


In the opening three sentences of this article, you have processed and read 40 words. There are 202 letters in these 40 words. Within those letters, 34 of the 44 phonemes (sounds) of the English language are used. Only six (a, e, i, o, u and r) of those 34 sounds are letter names and these are the only six letter names in all the English phonemes. This should encourage us to evaluate the impact of teaching letter names as opposed to sounds. We must adopt the philosophy “See the Sound — Think the Letter Name.”

We’ve spent over 30 years looking at the practices of teaching reading in the early elementary grades. Seeing students struggle with the traditional approach to teaching reading should make us cognizant of past practices that have not been successful for many students. Consider the NAEP’s 2007 fourth grade data — 34 percent below basic readers, 34 percent basic and only 32 percent proficient and advanced readers.

Walking, talking and reading are all very complex skills for the young learner. Most parents successfully develop walking and talking in their child before their child enters school. How are parents successfully developing these complex skills? We found four factors that parent’s do that provide opportunities for their child to easily and successfully develop walking and talking:

They give the most needed information.

• They do not hide information.

• They do not teach to mastery.

• They have high expectations for their child’s success.

So what have educators done to teach reading that takes these actions into account?

Tradition emphasizes letter naming first in the teaching of reading. We have already noted that only six of the 44 sounds in English are actual letter names. The remaining 38 of the sounds needed for reading and talking are NOT letter names. Educators are still putting the letter name on the pedestal. We are asking a young learner to make a cognitive decision of when to use the letter name and when to use the sound. When letter names are emphasized the most, what will a young learner choose to use? SOUNDS are the fundamental and building blocks necessary for the child to have success with reading. We need to make the sounds the most important.

In a typical preschool or kindergarten classroom, capital letters are predominantly displayed and made most important. This is another case of putting information that is not the most needed on a pedestal. 

Go Away Dog, (I Can Read! Shared My First Reading Book), by Joan L. Nodset is an example of an emergent reading book. There are 835 letters in the text of this book. Only 57 of them (6.8 percent) are capitals. The remaining 778 letters (93.2 percent) are lowercase letters. In the text, there are only 13 different capital letters while 23 different lowercase letters are used. It is obvious that lowercase letters dominate written text, yet traditional methods of teaching reading emphasize capital letters. 

We must look at what educators give our young learners. We need to realize that letter names and capital letters are not the priority for the young learner to transition from non-reader to reader as easily as possible. Lower case letters and SOUNDS are.

Hiding information from the young learner must also be addressed. Traditionally, the kindergarten child is provided with only 29 of the 44 sounds. Most long-established reading programs give the sound of each of the 26 letters plus the five long vowel sounds (letter names) which equals 31 sounds. Since “c” does not have a sound of its own and “x” is actually two phonemes joined together, the learner is being given a total of only 29 of the 44 phonemes. What we have been doing is giving the young learner the challenge of putting a puzzle together without giving them all the pieces. 

The learner is presented with the remaining 15 sounds slowly throughout first grade. It is a frustrating process for a young child who does not have all of the pieces needed for reading.  The child’s absorption rate for learning is amazing. Consider what happens when you watch a new cartoon show with a young learner. Who learns the characters, relationships and buzz words first? With their great absorption rate in mind, we need to re-think what we are asking young learners to do with the amount of information we are giving them.

Another point for consideration is how we teach to mastery. As a child learns to walk, the parents would never say, “No, you can’t try pulling up on that chair because you haven’t learned to roll.” Often educators say, “You can’t start on the sounds because you don’t know your letters names.” Educators have said that this is the order of learning to read and each student will go in this prescribed method. All children are not the same. Information should be given in fun and fast-paced activities, but not so that it is hidden. Emergent readers are able to take in large amounts of information that will allow them to become proficient readers. Children will internalize the information as they become developmentally ready. Mastery comes over time and success is celebrated step-by-step all along the way, just as it is when a child is developing the skills of walking and talking. 

A final area to consider in developing learning success focuses on high expectations of achievement. A parent’s love of their child will not let them say that their child can’t succeed. We hear educators making comments like, “That’s another one of those Howard’s. They are good kids but ... ” Sometimes you might hear, “He is from the other side of the tracks, or that project, or that neighborhood. He doesn’t have a chance.” Such negative expectations place a new and unnecessary obstacle in the child’s way. Educators must provide all children with all of the pieces necessary for reading success and refuse to “write off” any child, even one who has struggled in the past.

After looking at the process that parents use to develop walking and talking, we have tried to copy it. For the past three years, church preschools in the Charlotte, NC, area have started emphasizing sounds over letter names by presenting 35 sounds (32 of the 44 phonemes) beginning on the child’s very first school day. They have changed all the text that should be lowercase to lowercase, thereby making it most important. They are providing all 44 phonemes before mid-year in transitional kindergarten and by year-end in four year olds’ classrooms. They are modeling writing in front of the kids, showing how sounds make words and how to use the sounds of the letter shapes to say words. The teachers are doing this with the understanding that there is no one program that will give all kids the ability to read. However, by giving the most needed information, each and every child has the best chance to become a reader as he becomes developmentally ready. The teachers’ expectations have changed because of the success that they have seen. 

Claudia Myers, a 30 year preschool director at Trinity United Methodist church says, “We are in the second year using this method. Not only are the children more comfortable than they were with the “letter of the week,” they are having fun! It is only mid-year and most of our four and five year olds are actually reading words by thinking the sound when they see the letter shape.”

Stop ignoring these facts and follow a process that leads to success in developing reading. Give young learners the information they most need, stop hiding needed information, let them enjoy step-by-step successes to eventual mastery, and expect success from learners regardless of their personal advantages or disadvantages. This gives all learners, especially those who struggle, a better chance to become independent readers and to experience success. We can no longer ignore the fact that children need sounds and lowercase letters BEFORE they need letter names and capitals in order to transition from non-reader to reader as easily and successfully as possible.

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Comments & Ratings

  7/13/2013 4:47:12 PM
Della Palacios 

Stanislas Dehaene's book, Reading in the Brain explains the neuroscience behind why this method works.
  3/1/2013 9:35:37 AM

Check out the work of Diane McGuinness, "Early Reading Instruction, What Science Really Tells Us About How to Teach Reading," 2004, MIT Press Cambridge, MA. Her research supports the statements in this article.
  5/20/2011 11:12:02 AM

Where is the research to support the last statement of this article?

Issue 20.1 | Spring 2018

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