Q: If we’re asking an early reader to read or spell the word frog, what is more helpful?
A) the sounds /f/ /r/ /o/ /g/
B) the letter names ‘eff ar oh gee’
Its A. The reader says the sounds /f/ /r/ /o/ /g/ and hears the word ‘frog’.
So, if early readers do not need letter names, what is it they do need? They need to link the sounds in our language to the way those sounds are written down.
When we are working with early readers, in the initial stages of learning to read, we start by teaching a simple (initial) code. This is an artificially transparent code (a code is a writing system – more on this, here) with 1:1 sound-spelling correspondence. We teach children that sounds are represented by spellings. We build on that conceptual understanding by teaching that some spellings have more than one letter (eg. spelling of /l/ in hill and spelling of /k/ in lick).
Letter names are completely unnecessary in the early stages of learning to read. In fact, letter names only cause confusion for early readers working at this level. The use of letter names not only increases what the reader has to remember, but can also be extremely confusing when reading and spelling. For example, when teaching children the common representations of the sound /ar/, you’ll likely cover four spellings: and in ‘car‘, ‘laugh’, ‘calm’ and ‘fast’ (accent dependant). If a child is using letter names, they may confuse the letter name for ‘r’ as a spelling of the sound /ar/. So, this child may spell the word ‘card’ as ‘crd’, believing that represents the sound /ar/.
Again, what is it that early readers need? If an early reader wants to write the word ‘wet’ they need to be able to segment ‘wet’ into the sounds /w/ /e/ /t/. They also need to know the representation, or spelling, of each of these sounds. If the reader has developed their skills in segmenting CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words and knows the code for /w/, for /e/ and for /t/, they can say the sounds and write ‘wet’. ‘Double you ee tee’ will not lead inexperienced readers and spellers to ‘wet’: it will only lead them to confusion. Saying letter names does not allow an early reader to hear a word. It wouldn’t be surprising if an early reader confused for ‘double you,’ especially in a classroom where letter names are being used for spelling alongside early phonics.
So, what do we do when a child asks ‘how do I spell…?’
When do we introduce letter names?
More of this in my next posts.
*I use /a/ to refer to a sound and to refer to a spelling