In part 1 and part 2 of this blog series, I discussed how some of our traditional focus on letter names is not advantaging all children to become readers. I started to draw some attention to the importance of SOUNDS.

When I discuss this with parents in clinic, the questions are usually along the same vein … “how”?

Parents report that talking about letter names is natural, but focusing on sounds feels foreign.

I offer up an analogy that might help shed some light. When parents first start reading books with their little one, they tend to focus on labels. They point to objects in the baby and toddler books and tell children the names of the things inside. Once the child is talking, they tend to move toward questions, again directed at labelling – What is this? What shape is this? What colour is this?

It’s not long before parents want to up their game. They point to a picture of a farm animal, but now the question shifts: “What sound does this one make?”. Bear in mind that this feels NATURAL to parents – to point to a cow, and ask the child to generate “moo” as a response.

This same set-up is a great way to teach children sound-symbol correspondence. Early on, my wife and I adopted this practise with our daughter. There is a plethora of alphabet books out there for babies and toddlers, and right from the get-go we read them as “aahh” is for apple, “buh” is for baby. We always focused on the sounds first.

I would point to a letter on a page – sometimes the first letter of the first word on the page was much bigger, for example – and I would say, “this letter says sssssssss”.

My daughter had an alphabet puzzle, and I would ask her to find a letter that says “puh”.
In her Richard Scarry word book, I would ask her to find the word “moose” – to look for the letter that says “mmmmm” and then be able to find the word “moose” that way (this was of course supported by pictures, but it set the foundation for word recognition once our texts became more advanced).

It is important to bear in mind that I was NOT teaching my daughter reading. She was keenly interested in looking at books. She would ask, “What does this word say?” or, “What sound does this letter make”? Our instruction was naturally integrated into our process of book reading. We would often talk about the pictures and look for words or sounds in the books – we wouldn’t even necessarily READ the book.

My daughter was learning a different way to interact with texts and to attend to letters, sounds, and words. And it made a difference – I remember the first time when we were driving and she pointed to a stop sign and said, “dad, that sign has a snake sound on it”!

My daughter, now 3, knows all her letter names. She also knows 22-26 sounds that correspond to those letters, depending on the day. She knows digraphs such as “sh”, “ch”, “wh”, and “oo”. I taught those to her by telling her that 2 letters make one sound, and telling her what the sound was. I added some hand cues or gestures, or rhymes/mnemonics to provide some “hooks” for the sounds these letter patterns make. I often give sounds a name – a snake sound, the quiet library sound for “sh”, the “popcorn” sound for “p” and so on. I did not typically provide the letter names. I didn’t need too. Her visual processing system is adequate to recognize the letters, and her language system can supply the corresponding sounds. Result? She can recognize and read words such as “the”, “shoe”, and “too”.

I will post a video to the YouTube channel (https://youtu.be/lSgjn3GPe8g).This video shows my daughter at age 2. This is the first time I showed her some CVC words – some consonant-vowel-consonant word patterns (words like “dog”, “cat”, “hat”, and “top” fit this pattern). The set of cards I pulled out even had some non-words in them. I had no idea what to expect, and I was surprised to see that she was able to read them. We had played a lot of word games, so I knew she would be able to do the necessary sound blending – to slide the sounds together to come up with a word – but I wasn’t sure if she would be able to process each separate letter and retrieve the corresponding sound.

Is she a genius? Debatable! ;p However, I assert that providing continual exposure of the sound-symbol association – showing her the letters while talking about the sounds – laid the foundation for her to be able to decode at age 2. Of course, a big part of this experiment which may not be replicable with all children is the attention and engagement factor. She really PULLED this learning toward herself – she had an interest in words, letter shapes, and the sounds they make. She also has an intact sound-processing system. At age 2, she was able to listen to and accurately repeat multi-syllabic words; so, the SOUNDS that she is hearing are being accurately perceived and processed in the brain. (If your child cannot accurately repeat longer or less-familiar words, I strongly recommend getting an assessment from a Speech – Language Pathologist – the necessary processing skills for literacy are under-developed!).

I will post a 2nd video to the YouTube channel (https://youtu.be/pXP_A-j-pRY) of my daughter and I engaging in one of our sound-symbol games so you can get an idea what activities can look like. In this example, I have some letters printed on laminated cards, and I am asking her to either find the letter that makes the sound that I provide, or to point to a letter and tell me the sound it makes. We also used these letter cards to play memory matching, or Go Fish (“do you have a letter that says “puh”?). If you watch this video, you will be able to really envision how the neural pathway between the visual processing of letters and the sound processing of the sounds they represent gets created and strengthened!

Summary:

Sound instruction works – my reading 2-year old is proof. I want to reiterate that I don’t advocate for teaching reading early – there is no need. Children must demonstrate a readiness and a desire. If this doesn’t happen until Kindergarten, that is just fine. However, we can lay the foundation by helping children develop an interest in books, drawing attention to print features within books, and talking about sounds. This can be as simple as playing “I Spy” in the car, and asking your child to find something that starts with the “mmmmmm” sound rather than the letter “em”.

I think it is important to point out that by age 2, my daughter could look at and label all 26 letters by name. She easily learned and acquired letter names without any FOCUS on it. When the brain is organized around sounds, and can process all the sounds that a letter makes, as well as process all the sounds within the letter’s name, then learning letter names becomes a “no-brainer”.

Make no mistake – we did not AVOID letter names with my daughter. We just didn’t beat them to death. We more often identified letters by sounds in books; however, when the letter name was needed to complete the rhyme, such as in Dr. Seuss’ A-B-C book, we kept the rhyme intact and used the letter name.

Learning the ABC song to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is a rite of passage for children, and I would never advocate for taking that away from kids!

Learning the alphabet is important – it teaches children that there are 26 letter shapes, and each one has a distinct name. This allows them to develop a concept around each letter – essentially, there are 26 categories of letter. This if very important for Figure Constancy – children learn that both a lower-case “a” and an upper case “A” are the same letter, and therefore the same sound correspondence rules and constraints apply. Similarly, a, A, a, A, A all represent the same letter, the same construct, the same category. The alphabet is an important framework to begin organizing the system of how our spoken sounds and words can be represented visually by our alphabet.

Labelling objects, including letters, helps to solidify the visual-verbal link: when you can see something and accurately label it, it strengthens the neural connection or information pathway. That’s why children that have difficulties labeling colours and shapes are often at risk of having a language disorder or later – a literacy disorder. (If your child has difficulty with labelling and/or concept development, I recommend an assessment by a Speech – Language Pathologist).

So, we can spend a lot of time and energy teaching letter names, and letter-to-label correspondence(and we often do), which comes with no advantage … OR we can teach letter-SOUND correspondence – the visual symbol-to-sound association which HUGELY advantages children in learning the “code” of reading and spelling. Once kids acquire sound-symbol association, letter names are usually learned simply from exposure with no explicit teaching, repetition, or practise required!!! It is like a bonus, a by-product that comes from effective instruction.
Think about how natural this is. We have a biological, innate visual processing system that easily develops to recognize shapes and symbols. We have a biological, innate language system that acquires the sounds of our language and starts to acquire vocabulary words. These things happen naturally, developmentally, just through exposure. It makes a lot of sense to match the visual symbols with the spoken sounds they represent.

The unnatural part is the alphabet. It was invented by man. An artificial symbol system of 26 letters that attempts to capture the 44 spoken sounds that we have in English. Each letter arbitrarily and somewhat carelessly named. It is an effective measuring stick – if children learn the alphabet and letter names, we know they have an intact categorizing and naming system. So, it is useful for assessment. However, knowing the names of letters provides little advantage to actually reading, beyond being able to recognize letters. To learn to read, children NEED to learn sound-symbol association, and this is actually a fairly natural teaching process when you think about it – it makes sense to look at letters, and hear the sounds they make!

That is what we should focus on – saying sounds while viewing symbols. This creates a pathway between the visual processing and sound processing areas, and it is a crucial neural connection that is often neglected in literacy instruction – it is not addressed with spelling words, copying sentences, tracing, forming letters out of playdough or writing letters in sand, using cartoon alphabet letters, flashcards … none of those traditional and common-place academic activities goto work on the sound-symbol relationship that is ESSENTIAL to reading.