First Is Not Always Best

“A is for apple, C is for cat, P is for pig.” How many times have you seen workbooks, posters and Sesame Street reading lessons with material like this? It’s a staple in the world of early reading.

It seems so logical. We know that it’s important to make reading as simple as possible when we introduce it to children. And what could be simpler than focusing on one letter and then providing words that start with that one letter? It allows children to see whole words and related pictures while saving them from the demands of more complex processes such as “blending” (that is, combining 2 or more letters to make one sound as in arriving at the “ap” in “apple” or the “ca” in “cat.”)

Unfortunately, this ubiquitous approach has a major downside. Weeks and months are spent on this strategy. In some programs, for example, it goes on for 26 weeks (almost a full school year) as one week is devoted to one of the letters of the alphabet. So there is an “A” week, a “B” week and so on. With many students, particularly those who are identified as “learning disabled” the approach lasts even longer since the children do not seem to “remember” the sounds for each letter. So additional time is spent on “review.”

Children, seeing the time and effort committed to the initial letters of words, draw a totally reasonable conclusion. First letters are very important! That conclusion in turn leads to one of the prime error patterns that comes to dominate reading. Faced with a real book and lots of words, anytime they confront a difficult word, the children look at the first letter and take a guess as to what the word might be. This error pattern can and does have devastating effects on skilled reading.

Fortunately, if you start early, it’s not difficult to keep this pattern from taking hold. What is needed is to get your child’s eyes moving so that they analyze all the letters that are in a word. Game like activities such as the following can prove to be useful in reaching that goal: We’ll use the “A is for apple” example, but the activities can be adjusted to fit any word. In all cases, you’ll be using other words for comparison. Unless he or she chooses to do so, there’s no need for your child to read these other words; it’s fine if you simply tell him or her what they are “saying.”

1. Point to “apple.” “The word starts with A. Now look at these words” (bake, man, sand). Do they also have a’s in them? But none of them start with A. Where does the A appear in each of those words?

2. “Apple starts with A, but it does not end with that letter. What letter does it end with? Okay, here are some words and in some of them the ending letter in ‘apple’ actually starts the word. Here look at these. (egg, cat, dog, eat). Point to the words which start with the e.”

3. “Here is a set of three letter words that contain an “a.” (Show art, ace, cat, man, tea) Some of them start with ‘a’, but some do not. Find all the words where the ‘a’ does not start the word.”

4. “Apple is a fruit. Here is a list of fruits: banana, apricot, grape, pear. Does every item in the list have an ‘a’ in it? But only one begins with an ‘a’ as if does in “apple. Point to that one.”

In these activities, you are using a kind of word play that teaches your child to get beyond the misleading first letter strategy. In addition, the word analysis that it involves—both in terms of what you are saying and the words you are showing–does wonders for language and ultimately for reading comprehension.