'Let’s stop teaching letter names and start with letter sounds'

A leading advocate of phonics wants elementary schools to change the way they teach the alphabet

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Nathan was busy trying to read about a cat in a hat. He had learnt the alphabet, from A to Z. He could chant it and sing it, so he was ready to start reading.

However when he came to read this story, the word c-A-t sounded to him like Kate, who was another girl in the class. He was using the letter A he had been taught, but it didn’t seem to work. It was the same with the word h-A-t which seemed to him like ‘hate’.

The teaching of reading by sounding out and blending is well established now, but are we giving children the right building blocks? To be able to read they need the letter sounds, of course, rather than the letter names. Often a teacher will explain to the children that letters have names and sounds. But which one should they use? Typically the letter name is given prominence. Go into any reception classroom and there is an alphabet on display. Only rarely is there a wall frieze of the letter sounds.

The issue is more than just teaching sounds rather than names. It follows that all letter sounds should be taught, so including the digraphs, sh, ee, and so on. The best results are seen when children are taught all the 40+ letter sounds as one continuum, rather than separated out into single letters and digraphs. 

Can we tell what difference this might make? Studies have shown that children taught with synthetic phonics, so with letter sounds and blending, learn twice as fast as those taught to memorise whole words. After one year they had a reading age that was 12 months ahead of their actual age.

It is a reasonable assumption that the more that letter sounds and blending are the core strategy, the nearer the school will be to achieving that 12-months' gain.

There is also a wider story of inclusion. Studies with synthetic phonics show boys doing as well as girls. I have visited schools where it has been explained that you cannot expect boys to do as well as girls. Yet when I look at their teaching, letter sounds and blending have not been central.

So the challenge here is to our mindset, to the idea that the teaching of reading starts with the alphabet, when it should be letter sounds.

Chris Jolly is publisher of Jolly Phonics

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