Ask Reading Kingdom: Why Teach Names of Letters to Beginning Readers?

Dr. Marion Blank, creator of answers questions that relate to children’s literacy and education. To help your children learn to read and grow into educated adults, we feature Reading Kingdom’s educational insights on a regular basis.

Brenda (teacher) asks:

”Can anyone explain to me what the purpose is for teaching the ‘names’ of the ABC’s to beginning readers?”

Reading Kingdom answers:

“There is really no good answer to this question but it is great that you are raising it—because it is such a pervasive issue in early reading instruction. The fact of the matter is that naming letters is an activity that takes up a lot of time and effort. Not only does it not necessarily yield any benefit, in many cases, it is a detriment to progress. For example, for kids with memory problems (a characteristic of children with reading problems) letter naming takes up memory capacity –while failing to teach any significant element of reading. The simple fact is that there are 1,768 ways to spell 40 phonemes and the letters frequently have different sounds than the “names” they have when we recite the alphabet.

But the naming of letters has always been a staple of early reading instruction. That basically is “the answer” to your question. It is in the status of being taken for granted and things that are taken for granted are rarely questioned.  Still, as with so many things that are taken for granted, many reasons are given to justify its use. The major one is that children who know letter names and sounds at the start of reading ultimately do better in reading and spelling. So the thinking is: “let’s teach letter names to children who do not have them, and their performance will improve to be like those who do know the letter names.”

Those who follow this line of thinking tend not to remember that correlation does not prove causation. For example, it is also the case that children who come from homes with higher incomes also do better in reading and spelling. But that correlation is not leading to suggestions that we increase the incomes of the families whose kids are encountering reading problems.

If the field were open to evidence and people were more willing to examine the many “givens” that go unquestioned, then we would almost certainly acknowledge that, as with so many activities in reading instruction, the practice is unnecessary and in some cases detrimental.”

Dr. Marion Blank, creator and founder of The Reading Kingdom program is happy to answer your questions about reading, education and learning. To ask Dr. Marion a question, visit Reading Kingdom’s Facebook Page and let us know how we can help.

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