Learning the alphabet

I avoid teaching letter names because I've seen too many children get the names of letters mixed up with the sounds letters represent.

When children are learning the alphabet, it's the sounds they really need to know to get started with reading and spelling. I wrote more about this in this previous blog post.

Schools expect children learning the alphabet to know letter names

However, schools often expect children to be able to recite the alphabet using letter names, and otherwise name letters, before they start school.

Children who can't do this can be marked down, even though they know at least one sound for every letter, are starting to be able to read and spell.

So this is a conundrum for parents.

You don't want your kid marked down for not knowing letter names, even if you don't agree with this being a requirement.

On the other hand, if they're going to find both names and sounds confusing, you don't want to teach them both at the same time.

Tiffany Hogan's animal analogy

US researcher Dr Tiffany Hogan was a keynote speaker at the recent Speech Pathology Australia conference (I couldn't go, but I had my spies – thanks Jane!), and has suggested a neat analogy that might provide a helpful workaround for this learning-the-alphabet problem.

Dr Hogan suggests showing beginners a picture of a cow, here's one of my brother's…

and saying, "This is called a cow, and it says 'moo'". That is, you present a picture of something the child knows about that has both a name and a sound.

To boost the analogy you could show the child a picture of a pig, here's the most hilarious one I ever met, she was simply enormous but thought she was a small puppy:

You'd tell the letter-learner(s): This is called a pig, and it says 'oink'".

Then for good measure you could show them a picture of some birds – here are my canaries, Buddy and Cyril. Buddy adopted me a couple of years ago, I got Cyril to keep him company, and I have been trying to work them into a blog post for absolutely ages, aren't they handsome?

You'd say, "These are called birds, and they say 'cheep cheep'".

All right, this post is turning into an excuse for putting gratuitous photos of animals on the internet, but really, what is the internet for? In fact what we really need at this juncture is probably a cat:

Not very LOL, but anyway you'd say, "This is called a cat and it says "miaow". Or "meow", if you prefer that spelling.

Once the analogy of things having both names and sounds is established, you show the child a letter, preferably one that doesn't represent too many sounds, such as the letter "b". I'll put a nice big one here in case you actually want to use this post as a teaching tool:

Then you say "this is called B (letter name), and it says 'b' (sound)". Then move on to discuss other letters and the sound(s) they represent. I guess you have the rest of the alphabet there somewhere and don't need me to type it here.

This seems like as good a system as any to help young children learning the alphabet to get their heads around the difference between letter names and the sounds letters represent, if they are going to be expected to know (and perhaps penalised for not knowing) letter names when they start school.

It might also be a good way to disentangle the two concepts for learners who are past the age when most children learn the alphabet, and have been taught both names and sounds, but still get them mixed up.

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