Let’s not sing our ABCs

7 Replies

About 15 years ago I went to live in Mexico because I wanted to learn Spanish. A year on, I was still merrily mangling Spanish verbs, and my vocabulary was pretty basic, but I could get by in Spanish, both spoken and written.

A couple of years later I was living in London, and rang a hotel in Spain to make a holiday booking. The person who answered spoke no English (I’m not into fancy hotels) but we understood each other fine until she asked me to spell my name.

Blank. I couldn’t. I didn't know the names of the letters of the Spanish alphabet. In a whole year of listening, speaking, reading and writing in Spanish, I'd never needed to learn them.

Letter sounds first, letter names later

Letter names are only important when you have to spell words aloud. In face-to-face conversations, if you can show someone how to write a word, they are unnecessary. Even when you're up to your elbows in dishes or dough, you can often write in water or flour on the bench for the small, nagging person who wants help with spelling right now.

Everyone's delighted when tiny tots can sing the ABC song, even if they go a bit wobbly somewhere east of L. School kids who can't make head nor tail of reading or spelling can generally tell you that their name starts with 'em', or 'el' or 'dee' or 'double-yoo'. Teaching letter names is often a major focus of the first year of schooling.

Would the sky fall if we skipped letter names, and instead showed children spellings and told them the relevant sounds? Children who can work with sounds (hear them in words, blend them together etc) and link them to spelling patterns are the most successful readers and spellers.

Letter names are confusing

Letter names in early literacy are really a distraction from this main game.

At worst, they are often confused with sounds, so that children write 'bell' as 'bL' or 'car' as 'cR'.

This isn't surprising, because in some words, vowel sounds and letter names are the same:

  • the 'a' in 'table' (but not 'cat', 'past', 'want' or 'all'),
  • the 'e' in 'me' (but not 'red', 'the' or 'café'),
  • the 'i' in 'hi' (but not 'hit', 'ski' or 'junior'),
  • the 'o' in 'no' (but not 'got', 'front' or 'do'),
  • and the 'u' in 'tuna' (but not 'cut', 'push', 'aqua' or 'flu'

Many other letter names include one of the letter's main sounds, but:

  • at the start of some – 'bee', 'dee', 'jay', 'kay', 'pee', 'kyoo', 'tee', 'vee' and 'zed',
  • at the end of others – 'eff', 'ell', 'em', 'en', 'ess', 'ecks' and 'wy' as in 'by', 'fly' and 'cry'.

The letters we call "see" and "jee" both have one of their main sounds in their name, but it's 'c' as in 'cell' and 'g' as in 'gym', not 'c' as in 'cat' or 'g' as in 'get'.

The letter we call 'kyoo' is just another way to spell the sound 'k' – ask anyone from Iraq or Qatar. We write 'qu' instead of 'kw', and also 'gu' instead of 'gw' (iguana, language, penguin).

The letter name 'aitch' gives no clue as to the sound(s) it usually represents. The same goes for 'double-yoo', and 'ar' in Australian/UK English (we have no final 'r' sound, unlike American English).

I hope you’ll join me in skipping the alphabet song and letter names generally when teaching beginners to read and spell, focus on what they really need to know: sounds and how they're represented by letters.

Children do need to know letter names in later life, but there are much higher early literacy priorities.


7 responses to “Let’s not sing our ABCs”

  1. Kate Davis says:

    Thanks Alison for sharing this very important information in a no-nonsense way. I am also a speechie and am always looking for ways to help parents understand these principles, which they tend to find quite controversial. I'll definitely be directing them to your fantastic site from now on. 

  2. Yes letter names confuse so many of my dyslexia adults as well. My 8am adult spelt ‘slf’ for ‘self’ this morning.

    PS I still slip in an illegal ‘haitch’ perhaps as a relic from Irish nuns of yore. It makes a heck of a lot more sense than the posh ‘aitch’.

  3. Jennifer Chew says:

    When I started school decades ago in South Africa, we were taught two alphabet songs and sang one of them at the beginning of every day – BUT we were also taught sounds for the letters and how to use those in reading and spelling words. The sounds were made to seem so important that I wondered why we ever sang the names and made up my own private version of the songs using sounds rather than letter-names. Later, when I taught my own children and grandchildren as pre-schoolers, I used only sounds.

    In the Scottish study by Johnston and Watson which has strongly influenced developments in England and which is mentioned with approval in Diane McGuinness’s ‘Early Reading Instruction’, letter-names were taught as well as sounds, but the results were nevertheless very good, probably because it was made clear to the children, as it was to me as a child, that sounds were what were useful in reading and spelling.

  4. Michael Butler says:

    All of the problems you mention go away when students understand that T (for example) is the name for a symbol and that symbol also has a sound. Teaching letters makes it possible for students to talk about things like a B-1 bomber, room 221B Baker Street, I.Q, Q tips, A-O.K., the HMS Lollipop, and CT scans. In fact the possibilities are endless. It is actually not even possible to say or talk about letters using the sounds— as consonant sounds are unattached to vowels and vowels are NECESSARY to vocalize any sound. In fact, by not teaching the names of the letters you have ONLY outsourced that job to someone else outside of school which makes it easy for “them” to ask, “just what are schools teaching these days?”

    • alison says:

      You’re absolutely right that knowing letter names is helpful when you are old enough to want to find room 221 B Baker St or write or read ‘B1 Bomber’, but when children learn letter names BEFORE sounds, they often get very confused, and inclined to write ‘lft’ for ‘left’ and ‘flt’ for ‘felt’. I work with kids who make letter-name-based spelling errors all the time, and these would be avoidable if they could first consolidate the most basic/common sound-spelling relationships, and then learn letter names.

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