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.