Want to help your kid learn to read? Ditch the Alphabet Song
Much has been written about why we are still ineffective at teaching reading despite 20 years of research that spells out best practices.
Part of the reason is that we’ve always taught reading backwards.
For decades the first step to reading has been “learning our ABC’s.” Thus we inundate kids with the Alphabet Song from the womb, assuming letter knowledge leads to reading and spelling proficiency.
But when you think about it you begin to realize: This reverses history!
We spoke long, long before we wrote anything down. Cavemen grunted and groaned. Biblical peoples passed stories from generation to generation.
When Phoenicians were inventing the alphabet, do you imagine they created a letter and then asked, “Now, what sound should we make for it?”
No. Historically, sounds have always preceded letters. Yet in teaching reading we juxtapose the process; we introduce symbols before we teach their corresponding sounds.
Young children with well-developed phonemic awareness skills tend to be successful readers, … while children without these skills usually are not.
Children are introduced to B, for example, and told this is a letter and it is called bee. It stands for the sound /b/. It is a symbol.
When children start applying this symbol knowledge to words it results in messy exchanges, such as, “Yes, that letter’s name is C, but it ‘says’ /k/, and sometimes /s/;” and, “Sure, that’s the letter A, but in this word A doesn’t make its long sound, it makes its short sound.”
This backwards process contrasts sharply with the way we teach math.
With math young learners typically use manipulatives — blocks, plastic rods, marbles, etc. — to learn about numbers, counting, and adding-subtracting.
First they count the objects, then they learn a symbol (1, 2, 3, etc.) that represents the number of items they are holding in their hands. By trading objects with a classmate, they learn that the symbol + means getting more, the symbol — means having less, and the symbol = means the same amount.
Math moves, in other words, from concrete to abstract. In reading it’s just the opposite.
In reading, we start with abstract letters and work backward to match them to the concrete sounds children have heard in words all their lives.
We mean well, but really, what’s the rush for our children to learn their ABCs?
This is the math equivalent of presenting first-graders with the number 3,333, then proceeding to explain how each 3 stands for a different total depending on its place value.
Maybe some schools teach math that way, but most use cubes, poker chips, popsicle sticks, number lines and similar objects to help kids understand the concept of base 10, building from ones to 10s to 100s in an orderly progression.
Can reading be taught in a similar fashion? Yes it can. In some places it actually is. But not enough places — and certainly not in the average U.S. public school.
A research-based approach
An abundance of data over the past half century has identified the cornerstone skill of learning to read.
It’s called phonemic awareness — the ability to distinguish and manipulate each sound, or phoneme, within words.
“Young children with well-developed phonemic awareness skills tend to be successful readers,” noted a landmark 2000 report from the National Reading Panel, “while children without these skills usually are not.”
Phonemic awareness is different than phonics.
Phonics concerns matching sounds with letters, then using that correspondence to sound out words. Phonemic awareness deals only with sounds.
If students are struggling with sounds, adding letters only multiplies their burden.
Kids with good phonemic awareness recognize that the word “cat,” for instance, has three sounds: /k/, /a/, and /t/, while the word “shift” has four: /sh/, /i/, /f/ and /t/.
They can blend separate phonemes into words. Given /k/ + /a/ + /t/, they will say “cat.” Given /ch/ + /ur/ + /ch/ they will say “church.”
They can also fluently omit, add, and switch phonemes.
For example, they can say “stop” without the /s/ (top) and without the /t/ (sop). When asked to add /s/ to the beginning of lip, and then a /t/ at the end, they will say slipped.
If asked to switch the last two sounds in cats, they will say cast.
Many children won’t be able to do all these things right off the bat, of course. They need practice so they can improve.
Phonemic awareness can be developed in a variety of ways.
Young learners can group simple pictures by a common sound: bat, cap, black, ant; chin, chest, cheese, chalk; cave, rain, steak, eight.
They can play classroom “I Spy” by finding items that begin or end with a certain sound, or that have a specific vowel sound.
They can manipulate phonemes using colored blocks, beads, or even pieces of candy.
To represent “at,” for example, students would show two different-colored blocks — one block for each sound. Asked to change the word to “it,” they would substitute a new block for the first one.
By adding a block, they can make “sit.” By then changing the middle block, they can show that a new sound (/ee/) replaced (/i/): “seat.”
They can build progressively, from showing simple vowel-consonant (VC) words such as am, up, is, on to complex CCVCC words such as slump, brand, crest, and twins.
Let’s note again: None of these activities require letters.
At this point symbols don’t matter. If students are struggling with sounds, adding letters only multiplies their burden.
This is where we start to get it wrong, when we teach letters un-tethered to sounds.
We mean well, but really, what’s the rush for our children to learn their ABCs? Most kids can belt them out as soon as they can talk; 20 percent will still struggle with reading.
Letters can be added to the blocks as students learn the letter names. Spelling patterns can be introduced and taught progressively from most to least common.
Students can learn, step by step, that English spelling has a logical structure and is largely phonetically accurate.
They can learn that English is a combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Greek, and that word origin predicates pronunciation and spelling.
They can learn these things, but by and large they won’t learn them in school.
So parents, it’s up to you. If you really want to help your baby or toddler learn to read, get proactive.
Stop singing them the ABC song, do some research, quit trying to buck the natural order.
Don’t start with letters. Start with sounds.
Adam Worcester is a freelance writer and reading tutor who lives near Seattle, WA.