Letter Sounds

the Key to Reading Success

11/20/2009  |  BRENDA LARSON

“I know my letter sounds!”

We want all our children to be able to say this by the end of kindergarten, yet so many of our at-risk students struggle to learn these all important foundation skills for reading and spelling. Statistics indicate that over 30 percent of children starting school are at-risk for development and learning problems.

The one factor at the core of these struggles is our age-old tradition of initially introducing children to letter names.At a very early age, children begin singing the “ABC” song, with many of them learning the famous letter “lmnop,”and parents the world over teach children to identify letters by name. However, in doing so, we are setting our at-risk children up for confusion and failure.

We first need to look at the importance of letter names and letter sounds in our goal of developing literacy.The chart gives some of the common uses for each.

It is readily apparent from this chart that letter sounds have a much larger impact on successful literacy skills than letter names. Although spelling is listed for both names and sounds, it must be pointed out that only mature spellers use letter names for spelling.A typical first grade student, when asked to spell the words “what” or “from,”would listen to the sounds heard and print “wut” or “frum.”The whole concept of inventive spelling, which we encourage in young children, is based on letter sounds. Letter names have no purpose in beginning reading and spelling, and are most probably the root of initial failure for many.

Some experts do recommend teaching the letter names first because they say the names help with the sounds.An examination of the letter names proves this statement false.

Of the 26 letters, only eight letter names help children with the sound — b, d, j, k, p, t, v and z.

When children say these names, the first thing their mouth does is make the formation for the sound as well (the name b suggests the sound /b/). Children apply that rule to all the letter names. Unfortunately, the remaining 18 letter names do not follow that rule. For the letters c, g, h, q, r, u, w and y — the letter name actually suggests a sound for a different letter (the name c suggests the sound /s/).The names for the remaining vowels — a, e, i and o — have no connection to the short vowel sounds we introduce first.The letters — f, l, m, n, s and x — do have the sound in the name, but it is at the end and many children identify these letters as the short /e/ sound (as in met) as the mouth makes the /e/ sound initially when saying the name.

At-risk children tend to present with memory problems, especially short-term memory, but also long-term as well. Given this fact, it is imperative that we put the most important information into that memory and minimize information that has the potential to confuse. If we want a child to decode the word “can,”he/she needs the letter sounds,not names,to do this. It stands to reason that we need to introduce letter sounds to children first (we tend to remember best what we learn first), refer to letters by their sound rather than their name and expect children to do the same.When over two-thirds of the letter names have the potential to confuse children trying to makes sense of the beginning reading process, should we not be removing this obstacle from their path to reading success? In this way, when children come to decode words, the information they pull out of their memory will be the information they need to become successful readers.

Brenda Larson recently retired after more than 34 years in the British Columbia public school system. Most of her career has been spent in the area of Learning Assistance, providing support to regular education students struggling with various aspects of their learning. Visit www.itchysalphabet.com or contact Larson directly at 877-368-7890.
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