I’m going to says something outlandish and radical, because I’m feeling edgy today. Perhaps it is because both my infant and my toddler are fighting colds, it feels like no one has slept in days, and I’m way over my caffeine quota for the day – and it is only 8:00 AM!
STOP TEACHING YOUR CHILD LETTER NAMES.
Ready to dig into this one?
Yes, there is value in teaching letter names which I will speak to below. However, letter names get BEATEN TO DEATH in many children’s books, activities, songs, games, toys, and pre-school and Kindergarten curriculums – you name it (pun intended).
Yes, we SHOULD introduce and expose children to the alphabet and to letter names; however, we MUSTN’T get overly fixated or stuck on this!! (and I assert that we DO get fixated on how many letters a kid can recognize and label – as an educator that works in Kindergarten, we talk about this a LOT as a marker or indicator of knowledge, development, and growth).
Here’s the skinny: being able to name letters does not have any functional utility when it comes to reading: We do not USE letter names when we read, write and spell.
What we DO use is sound-symbol correspondence, and that is what we should focus on – our children having the ability to say sounds while viewing symbols. Sound-symbol correspondence is the foundational skill needed for reading – to be able to look at letters (symbols) and decipher or retrieve the correct sound that each letter or letter combination represents.
If a child can retrieve the corresponding sounds and slide them together, they can recognize a word and activate the corresponding meaning in the language area of their brain. That, after all, is the purpose of reading – to see a word on a page and then access its meaning.
For this process to work – for a child to effectively develop the ability to read – we must first recognize the letter and then retrieve the appropriate sound. The name of the letter is not required.
Ok, so I admit there is some utility in being able to label things to consolidate concepts. Part of the ability of being able to recognize something, such as a letter symbol, comes from being able to name it.
As an example, consider birdwatching: without labels, we would report a bird-watching outing as “I saw a black and white and yellow bird, and then I saw another black and white and yellow bird but it was different”.
Part of the brain’s ability to recognize the difference between a Warbler and an Evening Grosbeak is by the linguistic concepts or language information that is contained within the label. The label “Grosbeak” allows a form of “definition” or representation – e.g., “the grosbeak has a large powerful bill capable of crushing seeds, and yellow, white, and black colouration with a bright white band on the wing”.
We hold a representational definition in our brain – the information that describes or represents “what is Grosbeak” can be “lumped together” and stored under the label “Grosbeak”. Now the brain can quickly and easily determine, identify, and distinguish the Grosbeak from other birds; it can also recognize when other birds with slight variation in plumage patterns are still Grosbeaks – not a new species.
Are you able to complete the metaphor? Having the label of the letter “b” helps you to identify and distinguish “b” from other letters such as “d, p, q” but also allows you to recognize that “B”, “b”, and “b” are still the same letter (this is called form constancy). The label provides a “hook” to store all of the information about the letter under it. In short, having a letter label can help in identifying and distinguishing letters, which is important to developmental literacy.
So, letter labels are necessary – but insufficient – for what it is we need children to do: learn sound-symbol correspondence. Children need broader experience and instruction with letter CONCEPTS rather than letter names.
What is a letter concept? We hold a concept of each letter in our mind, just as we hold a concept of “duck” – everything a duck is, and everything it is not. This includes information such as category (bird), flies, lays eggs, can swim, often found in water, what it looks like, the sound it makes, and types of ducks (mallard, teal, wood duck).
Regarding letters, we similarly store information about how a letter looks, a motor plan about how to print or write it, where it occurs in the alphabet, where it is located on a keyboard, the sound (or sounds) it makes, other letters it often pairs with.
An important part of the concept of “b” is how it patterns in our writing system. For example, the letter “b” can form consonant clusters with other letters and is usually the first consonant in a cluster when you can hear the “buh” sound such as in the words “blue” or “brush”; this is likely to happen at the beginning of a word or syllable. The letter “b” may also show up as the second letter in a consonant cluster but this likely happens at the end of a syllable or word and you are not apt to hear the “b” sound as in the words comb or numb).
All of this information – visual information, sound information, orthographic and linguistic patterning – get stored within a representation as a language concept – your concept of “what is ‘b’”.
In summary, having a letter label can help in identifying and distinguishing letters, which is important to developmental literacy. Teaching letter names help to facilitate the development letter concepts; however, the label of “b” is only one small part of the larger representational concept.
In order to completely and efficiently learn letter CONCEPTS, the brain must process letters across 3 levels: The way it looks (visual processing), the sound it makes or represents (sound processing), and what the letter “means” – the language concept or language-based description of what a letter looks like, sounds like, and where/how it patterns in speech and print.
My rebuttal is that working on sound-symbol correspondence ALSO provides a way for the brain to distinguish the difference between visual letter symbols, and once distinguished, once individual letters are quickly recognized apart from each other, it is very easy to THEN learn the corresponding letter names. This is a bigger-picture perspective that develops a more rounded and robust letter concept, and instruction from this perspective includes more multi-sensory and multi-linguistic experiences with letters. Stay tuned for more on activities that you can do at home and in the classroom in parts 2 and 3.