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When teaching reading, DON'T teach the letter names.: Alphabet Garten

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When teaching reading, DON'T teach the letter names.

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by Sarah Mueller


How do you say “B”? You probably said “Bee”, right? Of course – that’s the name of that letter. And how do you make the sound of B? Every reader knows its “buh.”

It’s easy for you, as an adult to automatically remember both of these details about the letter B. It’s not so easy for a child learning to read, it’s this second piece of information, the letter sound, that he needs to learn. Teaching him the letter name, “Bee,” just adds confusion and should be postponed until later.

 ABC Blocks

If you are teaching reading to young children, whether in English or German, you should always start with letter sounds, not names.

How do I teach reading using letter sounds?

When you teach letter sounds, you simply refer to a letter by it's sound, not it's alphabetical name. So for B, say “there’s a buh”. For K, say “here’s a kuh”. For children ages 2-5, you never need to say a letter's "name."

Put letter names completely out of your vocabulary for the time being. I would even go so far as to suggest that you do NOT teach the alphabet song, unless you're going to sing it using sounds, not names.

Letter names only confuses the learning to read process

It may sound a little counter-intuitive, but that's just because most people were taught to read by learning letter names first. When a child learns a letter name, then he has to "translate" from the name to the sound in order to sound out a word. It's a very inefficient process for the brain to perform. He sees the word hat, has to recognize the letters by their names, then has to remember that H says "huh", A says "a" and T says "t" and finally recognizes the words as "hat." Of course it happens faster and faster as he gains experience but if he has any trouble at all making these associations, he'll be tripped up and his learning may stall.

When a child learns letter sounds directly, he doesn't have to take the intermediate step of associating letter name to sound. He sees hat, and can immediately think "huh a t", then blend the sounds together into "hat." It's a much more direct process for him. His brain only has to remember 1 thing for each letter, not both a name and a sound.

The bonus to this method is that many letter sounds are the same in English and German!

So once your child can read in one of these two languages, he'll have a head start on reading in the other. Most of the consonants sound the same in German and English (B, H, D, P, K, R, C, F, M, N, L, T, X). The same is not true of the letter names - they are all different.

But most schools start teaching letter names!

That may be the case, but it doesn't mean it's pedagogically the best method. The reading program we use in our homeschool teaches using this method and is in use in thousands of schools and homes around the country. While using this method with my oldest child, my middle son picked up the letter sounds and was easily able to sound out short words by the age of 4. He received very little instruction - he just was around as I was teaching letter sounds to his brother. He put the rest together by himself.

How will my child learn the letter names? At what point should I teach names?

Once your child is reading easily, you can teach letter names, in English and in German, probably in the course of a few days. Children do need to know letter names if they are spelling something out loud or reading abbreviations, for instance.

This method won't turn your child into a reader overnight.

Learning to read is a complicated process. Your child still needs to learn the letter sounds, be able to remember the first sound by the time he reaches the last letter, and understand how to blend them together. It's a pretty complicated task for a 5 year old, if you think about it. But at least with this method, you're using the most direct path to reading for your child. Why introduce additional confusing factors if you don't have to?

Your quick takeaways:

  • For a direct path to reading, teach sounds, not letter names.
  • This method works for English and German.
  • Learning to read is complicated. Some kids need more time than others.

So try and retrain your instinct when talking about letters with your little one.

Leave the letter names for later. He needs to learn his letter sounds and let them become automatic before spending time learning letter names.


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