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Della Palacios

Educational Consultant, Trainer and Teacher, SensAble Learning, LLC

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Should we begin teaching children letter sounds first with lowercase letters instead of letter names with uppercase letters?

What do you see more of when you open a book, capital letters or lowercase letters?

What is more important for reading, letter sounds or letter names?

Shouldn't we teach children the more germane information pertaining to the letter first, its sound, as Montessori schools do? Aa is for apple and it says /a/ is too much information for a child to take in, process and then apply to a complex language code. Why don't we start with lowercase letters and sounds, saving letter names for once a child can read a three-letter consonant-vowel-consonant word?

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  • May 9 2013: Della, this is such a great convo and should keep going....I really appreciate the voices and ideas. Our children want to read and everyone wants children to read...so opportunities to discuss such an important subject - how to best prepare a child for reading - will benefit everyone! Thank you!
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      May 6 2013: I appreciate the discourse and totally agree the brain is up to a challenge, and that some children will learn no matter how you approach teaching reading. I'm concerned with reaching them all and I will go more into my experience with this soon. I have read voraciously over the past year trying to come up with an answer why as a society, we teach letter names with capitals before sounds with lowercase or all of them jumbled together. The only answer I find is one I learned from Brenda, "marketing."

      Neuroscience supports this idea. “Sometimes the child knows the names of letters (ay, bee, see, dee..). Unfortunately, this knowledge, far from being helpful, may even delay the acquisition of reading. To know that “s” is pronounced ess , “k” kay and “i” eye is useless when we try to read the work “ski.” Letter names cannot be assembled during reading-the hookup only concerns phonemes. But phonemes are rather abstract and covert speech units. A true mental revolution will have to take place before the child finds out that speech can be broken down into phonemes, and that the sound ba is made up of two such units, the phonemes /b/ and /a/.” ~by: Stanislas Dehaene Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read
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          May 7 2013: I don't take offense. I'll tell you my aha moment story. Elle is a 4th grade student. Her reading skills are slipping, but she is not reading significantly below grade level. Her rate was slow and choppy, but her accuracy was that of an instructional fourth grade reading level according to the running record. Next, I checked her letter sounds. What I learned taught me worlds more about what Elle needed for success in fluency than the running record would have. After going through the single letter sounds, I found she was missing 9. The next week, I checked six digraphs. She knew half. One of the digraphs she did not know was /th/. When I asked her the sound these two letters together made, she said, “/t/”. So, after doing some hands-on letter sound practice, I asked her to read the Itty Bitty Phonics Readers, Bud in the Mud, short u. When I did the Sound Check the week before, she didn’t remember what sound u made, so I wanted to make sure it was in place. I am so glad I did this. She read the /u/ words with ease, but I learned two very important things. First, she is still using picture clues when reading. On page five she read tub as bath because of the picture displayed on the page. This further enforces something Brenda taught me. When children are beginning to read, all they need are words on a page. Pictures are a distraction and slow them down.
          Then, she read the page that said, “Jump in the mud with a thud, thud, thud!” But, what she said what “Jump in the mud with a tud, tud, tud.” AHA! When I had asked her what the /th/ digraph said while checking letter sounds she said /t/. Another observation made while Elle read is that she clearly said and read “the” several times. She knows HOW to say the /th/ sound. She probably memorized “the” as a sight word. She could not read /th/ in a new word outside of words she's memorized. Think of all the words containing /th/ that she hasn't memorized and will neither decode nor understand
        • May 7 2013: How interesting, Della!
          My daughter was always commended because she was able to draw at a very young age. This would come in so handy when she starts reading a writing, we were told. Not because of the fine motor skills she was developing, but because of her ability to recognize shapes and forms that she would later need to recognize the shapes and forms of letters!
    • May 7 2013: In response to your comment, Chris,
      "I disagree that it's "... too much information for a child to take in, process and then apply to a complex language code"
      I couldn't agree more.
      Children are extremely acute to the miniscule idiosyncrasies of language, which Patricia Kuhl so clearly shows:
      http://www.ted.com/talks/patricia_kuhl_the_linguistic_genius_of_babies.html
      We simply cannot underestimate the power of our own brains and what it can or cannot cope with when it comes to learning.
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    May 6 2013: I had thought that reading pedagogy typically begins with sounding out from lower case letters, as that is what I saw in my children's schools.

    Now I will look it up. I believe we have among our very active participants a very experienced reading teacher. I hope she will soon jump in with a broad view of this area.
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      May 6 2013: Hi Fritzie,

      Typically, what is done in kindergarten, is to introduce letter names.....A-Z
      Perhaps, if the majority of kids mastered the letter recognition, a teacher might want to start to introduce consonant sounds, and work on phonics. Although, this in primarily done in First grade.
      But it really depends on the kids, and their rate of mastery.

      However, many of the alphabet songs out there....on youtube and such, showcase the letters and their sounds, which is ok. It is good to expose kids to information, even though they might not be ready to make it their own.

      I just hope, that they don't start to change the way reading is taught.....again!......just to come to find out that the old way works best for most children.

      I remember a time when someone decided that phonics was not important and they used a whole language approach to reading. That did not work very well.

      Some children learn to be a fluent readers by the end of kindergarten. By the time they reach 4th grade, they might be reading at an 8th grade level........other children, not so much.

      I am not familiar with Montessori, but I am fascinated by what I am learning.
      • May 6 2013: Hi Mary,
        in case someone hasn't already provided the link:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montessori_education
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          May 7 2013: Thanks a whole lot Lizanne!!
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        May 6 2013: Mary, I think I know why. With older struggling readers, I check their letter sound knowledge and then listen to them read while doing a running record. I have learned more than ANY reading assessment I ever administered during my time in the classroom, and I administered a lot. I WISH I could go back to the classroom with the knowledge I have now. Check letter sounds. Listen to the child read. Teach them the missing sounds. Watch a notable improvement in accuracy. It's like magic! However, this lack of letter sound knowledge is disguised by a heavy memorization of sight words. It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but I'm pretty convinced right now, letter sounds trump names and sight words should never be memorized out of the context of reading.
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        May 6 2013: Mary, I'm so glad you mentioned changing the way reading is taught again. I ordered a McGuffey Reader because I wanted to know what they used in a one room schoolhouse when everyone read better than they do today, or so they say. It uses lowercase letter, sounds, consonant-vowel-consonant words and simple phonetic passages. It does not say to teach them the letter names first. Google it and you can check out the first few pages.
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          May 7 2013: Della, thank you for the link, and also for both replies.

          Let me ask you, what kind of children have you had the above experience?
          Were they native speakers, or were they esol children, or perhaps low achievers?

          What was the population of the school?
      • May 7 2013: Hi Dear Mary M.Any more detail information about phonics?is there any website about it?Because I am chinese,sometimes I heard some foreigners spoke chinese,the speaking and words pronunciation are really funny,so I doubt if I speak in english as funny as they did in chinese?So I think I should learn to speak english from very basic phonics too.Thanks:)
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          May 7 2013: Hi edulover learner, wow, there are so many free sites to play phonics games.
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          May 7 2013: Mary,
          I taught 8 years in a Title One Public School. That was before I learned what has changed the way I approach literacy. Since, I have worked with ages 0- adult, second-language learners, children in intermediate grades starting to slip, affluent children attending public school, orphans, children living in poverty, teenagers, etc. All have benefited from letter sounds in different ways. I have even worked with some special children with significant special needs with hopeful results. But, I am only one person.

          . “Phonemic awareness instruction helped all types of children improve their reading, including normally developing readers, children at risk for future reading problems, disabled readers, preschoolers, kindergartners, 1st graders, children in 2nd through 6th grades (most of whom were disabled readers), children across various SES levels, and children learning to read in English as well as other languages.” p. 2-5
          Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction
          by: The National Reading Panel
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          May 10 2013: Edulover,
          Here is a good place to start learning the letter sound pronunciation. You could start as simply as sitting with your daughter and saying the sound while pointing to a written letter. The video can help you practice saying the sounds together since I believe our languages have a few different sounds. http://m.youtube.com/virtualmontessori?uid=lJVM4CQqI_e7LitkB5kOCw&desktop_uri=%2Fvirtualmontessori You are a wonderful mother. Bart is absolutely right about interest, though.
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          May 11 2013: I am searching for online resources since you are a world away, but most are too colorful and combine letter names and sounds, say the sound multiple times, and have too many pictures taking away from the reading of the words etc.

          Remember, the simpler the better.

          There are a few samples here that are nice. http://www.learntoreadfree.com/index.php
          Search Montessori reading and that is where I would suggest you start.
      • May 8 2013: Hi,Dear Mary M.thanks a lot:).I had a look about starfall.com.It is great.lots of games and vedios in english learning are very vivid,I plan to advocate some of my school's teachers donate their old computers to a countryside primary school,and I try to collect some of chinese and english learning videos and games to install in those old computers and send to countryside priamry school freely.Just let those kids click keyboard to play for fun.
        if you have any english learning vedios for children's english learning?please share with me.now I sent my email to u.thanks.
        Those countryside primary schools haven't internet yet.So I guess the way will help them a lot.
  • May 12 2013: OOO,Dear Della Palacios,thank you very much.How great those kindergarten teachers are teaching children english in the way:)Thanks.
  • May 11 2013: Hi Dear Della Palacions,thank you very much for the email and the information for helping my daughter's english learning:).A bit pity we can't access youtube.com website in china.I do appreciate a lot you and Mary M. sharing those english learning materails with me and help my daughter a lot to motivate her interest in learning:).

    My daughter can have free time to open phonics games and fallstar.com website to play while learning english there.Last night she followed the first grade reading to read folks tale"Mr.Bunny's carrot soup".I asked her:do you like Mr.Bunny?She said:Yes.I asked her why?She said:Because Mr.Bunny likes to share his carrots with others .

    I do always appreciate a lot those reading materials can cultivate children's kindness,love...all those virtues around our world.
    I hope UN can support fallstar.com website to open all english learning materials for all over the world children to learn english well.Thank you.
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    May 10 2013: i don't know
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    May 8 2013: Thank you for your comment... Chinese writing is not alphabetical
  • May 8 2013: HI Dear Mary M. Thank you very much,I can open them all,my daughter likes the second and the third link very much,She likes listening children's reading voice:).thanks again:)
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      May 8 2013: I'm so glad!! Hurray!!

      Starfall is my favorite site for little children. It is colorful, and fun, and very educational.
      Hope she enjoys it very much.

      I copied down your email, you may want to come back and delete it from the comment section if you want.
  • May 8 2013: Let me try to answer edulover's inquiry here, but also comment on the posted topic.
    First I was born in Shanghai, and start with instructions in Chinese . But the schools at that time were all oriented toward English as a secondary language. So by the age of eleven I had at least 2 English courses in the school under my belt. But due to my own interest, I also started to read some English books borrowed from the landlady who was a graduate from an English church high school. The important point here is that if one is extremely interested in any field, it needs very few formal instructions to be good at it. By the time when I was in 7th grade, I already mastered the rules of pronunciation and spelling in English, I was the best in the English class. I quit school and went to work because of the financial problems in my family, but when one learned the relationship of the phonetic connection, one would never forget and always stay with you all your life. For example, when my younger sister decided to participate in a spelling bee contest. I gave her a few advices on phonics in English language, she eventually got the first place in the contest.
    So I I would suggest is that you could easily give her some lessons yourself based on some children's book on phonetics with graphic interpretations. That's it. If she develops further interest, she will ask for more. If not, you could always wait for several years of when she goes to college where English is needed for many fields in science and technology anyway.
    My comment on the relationship of letters and sound is very clear, However, the usual method of teaching the pronunciation is by reciting similar words with the same vowel or consonant without explaining the rules of phonics is a very inefficient way of teaching. If a student realizes these rules, then s/he could easily link the pronunciation with the spelling of the word, except when the word was derived from a foreign language carrying its original pronunciation.
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      May 8 2013: Bart, your explanation is very valuable.

      It is nice to hear from a foreign student who acquired English as a second language how valuable phonics is. Thank you for sharing your experience.
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    May 7 2013: Teaching by letter sounds - phonics - is widely used in some countries.

    See http://jollylearning.co.uk/overview-about-jolly-phonics/ for example
  • May 7 2013: Your commitment without compromise for children is such a gift. The research about how the brain works and how children learn best is paving a road to literacy; but we must adapt our practice to align with that knowledge. Children are waiting!

    I can't wait to share the astounding progress in a class of preschoolers in Colorado Springs! The graph is on its way tomorrow. I came expecting success ...but my expectations have been surpassed. Letter-sounds first is a change agent for building fundamental literacy
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    May 7 2013: Perhaps children should first learn the IPA
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      May 7 2013: I'm going to ask Brenda to answer this one... I defer to her.
    • May 10 2013: As my focus is on children under three, I believe keeping it simple is the best approach. One phoneme to one grapheme (except for x and q)...represents the basic tool of a language using the Latin alphabet. Empowering young children to identify what they see in their world is the direct and positive link to their printed language.

      It is important to see the most common letter-sound associations as the simplest tools of print. Early reading is not the goal, but reading readiness IS the goal. Every child deserves to have the the fundamental tools of printed language when they first say, "I want to read." KISS is a good thing!

      This is SUCH a good conversation! Thank you all! Thank you, Della, for such a good topic.
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    May 7 2013: A4, beef or mutton... Consider how children growing up in a different letter soup have to learn! How come many children, especially boys, can easily identify logos when they are stuck on the butt of a motor vehicle?
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      May 7 2013: “In Dehaene’s evolutionary terms, early pictographic symbols, which utilized known shapes in the external world, ‘recycled’ the circuits used for object recognition and naming.” p. 33 Proust and the Squid by Marianne Wolf

      “After many centuries people discovered that they could even turn their pictures into symbols that represented the sounds of their language… These ‘sound pictures’ are called letters, written symbols standing for the sounds that make up all of our words.” p. 6-7 Ox, House, Stick: The History of Our Alphabet by Don Robb
  • May 7 2013: There simply is no "one way" to teach the fluency of reading and writing. What works for one child, doesn't for another. Some children learn to read without any "instruction" or plan and others need to be taken through step by step no matter which method you use: lower, upper, chicken or egg.

    The goal of learning to read is not to "learn to do it faster" but to learn to do it by the time you are seven or so and enjoy it enough that you will stick with it throughout a lifetime.
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      May 7 2013: I agree with everything you said and probably would have said the same thing myself before learning what I learned in the past year and a half. i am truly trying to figure out if I am missing something.

      I really want to know why letter names are so prevalent in society. Everything I thought I knew about kids having reading comprehension is now showing itself as a problem with letter sounds. If you happen to teach, grab a struggling reader, check their basic letter sounds and listen to them read-carefully. Keep a running record and see what you notice. I bet you will notice something.
    • May 9 2013: Heidi, I agree ...."The goal of learning to read is not to learn to do it faster"...I would add, by the time the child is ready to read......whatever the age. Each child is SO different and when the fundamental tools of print are known - sound-letter associations - reading can happen more incidentally in child time. Fluency is another subject and suggests another conversation, as does comprehension.

      I also believe a more child oriented approach will ensure our mutual hope that a child ..."will stick with it throughout a lifetime."
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    May 6 2013: Hi Della, nice to meet a fellow educator from the sunshine state!!

    As an elementary teacher I have always done both simultaneously.
    In many occassions, children come to school already knowing the letter names from parents, or from watching children's educational programs.

    I find your idea interesting though. Do you think it should be implemented starting in kdgtn?
  • May 6 2013: I am happy to see this conversation, Della! Having taught in a Montessori program for over 3 decades, I was always frustrated by the desire in a child to learn to write and read and the many obstacles we put in their way: letter names in particular. It often took 6 months to a year longer to learn to read for the child who came to the school at three knowing letter names. I have heard words like "effortless" and " seamless" used to describe the ease with which a child discovers how to write and read when they know the actual tools of print - letter-sound associations ( actually sound-letter associations is more accurate). As a neuropsychologist friend of mine said in response to teaching letter names first, "why would you do that to a developing brain." The alphabet was designed to represent the sounds we speak . Encoding and decoding is about sound. Keeping it simple, introducing incrementally, building confidence, exploring and playing with the most useful information - sound-symbol associations - really makes a difference from my experience.
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      May 6 2013: I consider myself this woman's apprentice. I learned more in the (nearly) past two years from her than a bachelor's degree, master's degree, some doctoral work, numerous professional developments and classroom experience taught me.
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    May 13 2013: I started this conversation to see if anyone can help me understand why preschoolers and kindergartners are taught the ABC's first with letter names.

    -Everything I read points me to the conclusion letter sounds should be taught first with lowercase letters.
    -Logical reasoning brings be to the conclusion letter sounds should be taught first with lowercase letters.
    -Every child I work with leads me to the conclusion letter sounds should be (or should have been) taught first with lowercase letters.

    “…what can psychology and neuroscience recommend to teachers and parents who wish to optimize reading instruction? …we know that conversion of letters into sounds is the key stage in reading acquisition. All teaching efforts should be initially focused on a single goal, the grasp of the alphabetic principle whereby each letter or grapheme represents a phoneme.” p. 228 Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read by Stanislas Dehaene (Don't let the name alphabetic principle fool you. It is all about the sound-symbol relationship. It has nothing to do with letter names.)

    Stay tuned, world. Brenda Erickson is a long-time Montessori practitioner who developed Souns®, a literacy outreach program of Counterpane Montessori, a 501c3. I am a traditionally trained educator and consider myself her apprentice. Together, we are on a mission to see to it children read!
  • May 12 2013: New readers should be taught words first not letters. And the first words children should and do learn are the words that are most important to them. Their names. Then children should be given the opportunity to see the similarities and differences in their own names versus the names of their friends. Other important sight vocabulary words include environmental print, words in favorite books, and commercial words like McDonalds and MOMA. Proceeding on, the next task is to use a child's meaningful sight vocabulary of ten to fifteen words to teach letters of the alphabet and their corresponding sound/symbol relationships. The question is not whether to teach lower or upper case letters of the alphabet. The question is how to systematically and with joy engage children in the development of a working sight vocabulary. This approach relies on the theory of learning that emphasizes whole to part learning rather than part to whole. This approach also relies on using inductive rather than deductive reasoning. It's an approach that values language usage over phonemic awareness. Emphasizing whole to part learning and inductive reasoning requires an integration of language, literature, art, and discussion through the language experience approach to reading and writing. After rereading this, it all sounds very complicated; but it's actually quite thrilling to run a classroom where reading and writing are presented to new readers in this manner. Although this is not an easy approach, it is quite invigorating and rewarding.
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      May 12 2013: Thank you for your reply, Marsha. I am in the midst of research on this topic. I am actually quite happy you posted this as it is a good lead into the next conversation I have in my head.

      Some kids are going to learn no matter what we do to teach them or how we throw literacy at them. These kids will learn the way that you propose. I am focused on the kids who seem to "stick" at third grade and don't improve. I think I know why.

      Evidence that the brain is a pattern decoder is described on page 72 of Pinker’s work Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language. “Children make errors such as blowed and knowed more often than for any other kind of irregular verb.” These errors are not made because of poor modeling. The errors are made because the brain has picked up on patterns in the language and applies them to new situations.”

      The same applies to a brain that has memorized "sight" words or "instant" words on flash cards or in other ways out of context. I understand that all words are not phonetic but these words MUST be taught within a context. Over and over again I find kids firing out random sight words, "this" instead of "with" or "he" instead of "I." The words look nothing alike. Kids are not guessing. This is an intellectual activity of the brain having memorized whole words out of context and this does great damage to comprehension when a child reaches third or fourth grade.

      This is especially true for second language learners. Imagine if a child has not yet mastered speaking the language and then he/she is expected to memorize 100 random sight words. The brain is clever. It finds patterns but it applies it in problematic ways while reading. Kids taught me this.

      I feel SO strongly about this that I will not let my children memorize the "100 kindergarten words" words sent home by school. Instead, my kiddos learned sounds, constructed words, practiced reading, learned nursery rhymes and are read to a lot. It works.
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    May 11 2013: At age 3 with my grandchildren, if you can get their full attention, they appear to remember just about everything.
    My 3 year olds new word is 'paramecium'. I was showing her them in our microscope. Today, at the mother's day party, I told her to tell her mom her new word and she pronounced it perfectly. She does have a problem with the letter 'R'.
  • May 8 2013: oh,I can't send any message to u..Please contact me anytime.Thanks.
  • May 8 2013: Hi Dear Della Palacios,thanks you very much.Yes,English has been taught at grade three in China.But because of education system,all teaching been judged by students' scores.And students' scores are from a test which just forcus on words and sentences memory.100 percent students been bored learning english in primary schools.It is too bad.
    Sometimes I keep thinking:why don't they go to teach students english for fun?let them speak,talk as much as they can.And why don't people go to judge students english learning by listen them talking,speaking,reading?for primary school students isn't it the best way to judge students' english level and teachers' teaching?
  • May 7 2013: oh,my girl is eleven-years old,I would like her coming to learn english.She likes reading very much,of course all books she read are in chinese.She can write 400 to 600 words composition.on weekend,she often addicted to read books alone to midnight.she fancies fiction books:animals stories...but too bad,she doesn't like her chinese textbook as much as those fictions.And she often feels depressed about school's studying:because they are all judged by tests' scores.I am also a teacher,but sometimes I feel helpless to see my child growing up under such an environment which is lack of interests motivation.
    I try to find many english learning website to stimulate her english learning,but it seems doesn't work.I read all your comments here,most of you are teachers and educators,Could you share with me how can I motivate her english learning interest?
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      May 7 2013: “…what can psychology and neuroscience recommend to teachers and parents who wish to optimize reading instruction? …we know that conversion of letters into sounds is the key stage in reading acquisition. All teaching efforts should be initially focused on a single goal, the grasp of the alphabetic principle whereby each letter or grapheme represents a phoneme.” p. 228 Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read by Stanislas Dehaene

      I am depressed, too, by a culture of tests that suppress interest and motivation. Is she in school where English is taught? Once I find out a little more, I'll try to come up with some ideas for you!
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        May 8 2013: I am depressed three........after 25 years teaching.....we aren't any better off.
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          May 8 2013: I met a professor who said, "China is trying to break kids out of the box they have put them in with education and we are trying to put our kids into that box." I thought it was well said.

          I have not yet watched the PBS special, but I saw Sir Ken Robinson was scheduled and I'm guessing he is last. He does know what he is talking about. It's recorded on my cable box and I plan to watch it soon!

          By turning teaching into a standardized, rigid, scripted format followed by high-stakes, stressful, standardized testing, there is not much room left for closely watching students and learning what they need and enabling their abilities. A curriculum is not a script. It is not a textbook. A true "teacher" will recognize the "curriculum" needed for each student and allow that student to learn.
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    May 6 2013: I love the lively conversation. And I truly want to know if there is something I am missing. Letter sounds with lowercase letters allow literacy to happen seamlessly. So, why as a society are we teaching our young so differently?
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    May 6 2013: Hi,
    "What do you see more of when you open a book, capital letters or lowercase letters?"
    Capital letters stand out and are naturally more visible, but which words, names etc. start with capital letters depends on the language and which culture the language was born in. Maybe giving the children skills and possibility to see the diversity and figure out the language on their own would be a good idea, I've never worked with small children though. I was an eclectic child, learned the language, the sounds, through listening and observation while being literally trained in the language of music (musical dictandos and such), then learned which letters apply to which sounds, then caligraphy, capitalising and the rest. I cannot say all this worked, it was sabogated by other factors. But generally, I think that determining which skills a baby has and developing them as early as possible would be a good idea.
    Best wishes.
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      May 6 2013: Excellent point that some languages use capital letters more extensively than others. For example, are there not some languages in which all the nouns are capitalized, regardless of placement in the sentence?
      • May 6 2013: True - German is riddled with capitals.
        A friend of mine is American and raised her children in Germany - I'll have to ask her how they dealt with this!
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        May 6 2013: Thank you, Fritzie, for hosting this conversation! I just realized this new TED forum. This is wonderful!

        I propose this method for English as that is my experience. It also works brilliantly teaching students who are second language learners. Beyond that, I do not know.
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          May 6 2013: Hi, Della. I am not the host of this thread, but I do scoot around as many conversations as I can, trying to help people think about things, find resources, and get good results from the exchanges. We have lots of steady members who are interested in engaging in meaningful discourse with people from all over the word on a variety of subjects, giving feedback on ideas in progress, and sharing what they have learned in their adventures in living.

          Welcome!
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        May 7 2013: You're obviously speaking of German. In English, nationalities are capitalised, not in Norwegian. Only countries. It's interesting how this can influence the reading and learning process.
        Has anybody in this thread/conversation/forum ever tried speed-reading, by the way?
  • May 6 2013: Hi Della!
    I happen to be a Montessori kid, and my children go to school here in the Netherlands, where the public school system is modeled after that of Montessori. My daughter is 6, and is learning to read and write right now, and like you suggest, they do learn only lowercase letters. (And on top of that, they learn cursive! It could be my faulty memory, but I don't remember learning cursive til much later... but that's off topic.)

    She can read books for her age, which do not have any capitals either, and only minimal punctuation. She is excited about reading more, but gets confused when trying to read a capital letter. I sometimes wonder if learning caps will be like learning a completely different alphabet for her, but have faith the educators know what they're doing!
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      May 6 2013: I am a traditionally trained educator with a master's degree in education. Until I met a the woman who taught 40+ years in the Montessori school and opened my eyes to this method for my children. I used it with my two children. My daughter, 6, in kindergarten, can read just about anything you put in front of her at this point. My daughter who is 5, in VPK can read 3 letter words. I am not a Montessori teacher, but refocusing emphasis on sounds first makes total sense to me!
  • May 6 2013: I have tried multiple approaches and have favored the sound first approach as it makes the most sense for natural mastery. Just like toddlers begin speaking by imitating sounds they hear spoken around them and to them, so reinforcing learned schema is best achieved by a continuation of this natural learning process. Building on that with images of the letter, (both upper and lowercase together to maximize sight and sound exposure and sometimes a picture of an object that demonstrates the sound) seems the most direct and logical approach to sound acquisition. I sing the "ABC" song with my students and my own children using only the letter sounds. Letter naming is really not significant for mastery until the Emergent Reader begins writing and spelling; processes that the brain computes very differently. This is not to say that we must avoid saying or teaching the names of the letters at all in the early years. No, it just should not be the first and most important concept to begin with. This would also prevent alot of confusion for many Emergent Readers if more emphasis was placed on sound-letter recall first vs Letter Name recall first as many learners struggle with transitioning between letter names and sounds letters make. Also, I favor teaching the letter/sound "q" always paired with the vowel "u" as rarely in the English language will one find the letter "q" alone so why not give learners the upper hand early on?
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    May 6 2013: Is an arithmetic analogy appropriate here? How would we teach youngsters the sum of 2+2 before we teach them the names of the digits? If they have no idea what the character "2" is called, what good would it do to try to teach them the sum of 2+2? Teaching the spelling and pronounciation of the digit's names must precede teaching the arithmetic operation. Just so, in language, what good does it do to teach the sounds a letter represents when the student has no idea what the letter is called?
    • May 6 2013: I agree, Edward.
      In my post above, I commented on my concern about my daughter's ability to read lowercase, but struggling with uppercase letters. The system here teaches kids only lowercase when beginning to read and write, and do not teach the upper and lowercase letters simultaneously. I express my concern about that above.
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        May 6 2013: I'm not sure how to answer that. I don't argue for Montessori method, just this piece of it, teaching sounds before names. Give kids the important information first. Once the lowercase letter sounds are mastered, add capital letters. In the states, you can't avoid uppercase letters and names. Marketing is set on teaching children this way which is slowing down literacy.
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      May 6 2013: Edward,
      I love that you brought up math.
      Think of it this way
      A child is learning to read cat
      That child has learned
      /see/
      /aye/
      /tee/
      and
      /k/
      /a/
      /t/
      With all of the extraneous information, a child has a 1/8 chance of getting /cat/ right.

      The letter name is useful for spelling out loud, a memorization skill. Sounds are useful for literacy, a very analytic skill. Children need the important information first.

      Adding 2+2 and understanding it has little to do with the name but first corresponding the meaning of the number with one-to-one correspondence as the name is learned. Unfortunately, many schools rely too much on memorization and too little on understanding.
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        May 6 2013: Do I understand you are saying that in the beginning classroom the FIRST aspect of reading, writing, and speaking a language which should be taught is the audible sounds (according to Spalding there are 70+ in English) used in that language? Oh heck, I can simplify my question even more-- are you saying teach sounds first and the alphabet second?
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          May 6 2013: Yes, but not 70 + to start. Start with hard consonant and short vowel. 1 symbol (letter) = 1 sound. When a child learns to read cat, or any consonant vowel consonant word, then teach letter names, but not until that point.

          “Knowing the rules of a given language for letter-sound or grapheme-phoneme correspondence is the essence of the alphabetic principle, and becoming expert in these connections changes the way the brain functions.The person who hasn’t learned these rules has a different brain by adulthood, a brain that is less precisely attuned to the sounds of his or her own language. p. 150 Proust and the Squid by Marianne Wolf
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        May 6 2013: RE: "Yes, but not 70+. . . " Thanks for the fact-filled response. I learn slowly and none too surely, so tell me if I am looking at this question properly. If we teach sound without the alphabet I think the wheels will come off! For example, the teacher would ask the students to listen to and then audibly duplicate a given sound. The student would NOT be taught to associate that sound with any graphic representation? I do not see how that can work Della.
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          May 6 2013: I suggest teaching the sound with the alphabet letter first, before teaching the name.

          So, instead A= aye or As is for apple and it says /a/, just teach...

          a -> while saying /a/ (not aye)

          Was that clear?

          Teach the prominent sound first as if it is the letter name. Then, give them the "name" later because it is not critical for reading.
          The Montessori method teaches this way.
          The McGuffey Reader taught this way.
          I taught both of my children this way (5 & 6)- 6 y/o reads with ease in kinder & 5 y/o reads 3 letter words in preK
          I intervene with reading problems using sounds with every struggling reader I meet and it works.
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          May 6 2013: Check out this video, a synopsis of literacy in our house....
          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-C5aKzZWu8
        • W T 100+

          • +1
          May 7 2013: Edward......just when you thought your work with spelling and abc's was done....here we are revisiting language.

          I'm learning a whole lot. I hope you are too.
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          May 8 2013: Mary, I LOVE you for saying that. You are a lifelong learner and it shows! If you are anywhere near Orlando, perhaps we can meet sometime.
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        May 7 2013: RE: "Check out this video. . ." I have two questions: 1) The little ones who are reading and reciting in the video do not know the alphabet? True or false? 2) They cannot recognize and recite the names of the letters used to write the words they are reading? True or false? I seem to keep hearing you say the names of the letters are NOT taught until "later". Perhaps these two single-word answers will penetrate my thick skull! Thank you Della!
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          May 7 2013: They do know the alphabet. Still sing the alphabet song. (Kids need to learn dictionary skills.) Just don't identify it to start. Society is out to teach children their alphabet. Check out bookstore aisles, online shopping for "early literacy" children's tv. It's unavoidable. (Neither of my children are in Montessori school. One is in kindergarten in a public school. The other is in a traditional preschool. Both learned to read at home, not at school.

          My older daughter learned names first.
          My younger daughter learned sounds first.

          My older daughter fought me when we began working with sounds until she realized the use. She explains it here.

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7H5icTnAwAY
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        May 8 2013: RE: "They do know the alphabet. . . " OK. The answers to both of the true/false questions I asked you is "False". But I still think you do not agree that It is necessary to know the names of the letters before a student (of any age) can associate sounds with letters and groups of letters. Babys make sounds but they do not LEARN LANGUAGE until they are able to associate sounds with letters. I still do not understand how your younger daughter, or anyone else, could learn sounds without knowing the letters which represent those sounds. I think we agree sounds are essential to language. What I disagree about is in what sequence those sounds are learned. . . you say sounds first, then letters, I say letters first, then sounds. Why are you so adamant about not teaching the alphabet first?
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          May 8 2013: I am adamant about doing what is right and what is best for each child.

          Every child I meet shows me this works.

          Everything I read supports that this works.

          I can't find anything that supports doing it the way we are doing it except for a cultural assumption it is done this way supported everywhere by marketing. (And I've read A LOT trying to figure out what I am missing.)

          I truly want to know what I am missing. Why are we teaching letter names first, capital letters first or a combination of everything when teaching children sounds honors analytic skills. It frees the learning brain to understanding print that surrounds them every day.

          I did not teach my daughter to piece together a word. She did it on her own. I heard her say, "/ss/ /a/ /n/ /t/ /a/. Does that say Santa?" That was the first word she read. She had all the pieces to the puzzle and put them together. I pulled the car over and made her reread the first word she read to me because I couldn't believe it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BrCj69m0ek4
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        May 8 2013: RE: "I am adamant. . . " What was your daughter seeing that prompted her to make a particular sound? Was it not a letter, or a combination of letters? How could she have proceeded if she had no prior knowledge regarding those letters, if they were meaningless to her?
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          May 9 2013: Oh, Edward. I don't think I'm communicating as clearly as I need to be.

          Along with learning the letter, she is learned the sound. I am saying teach the letter (or symbol) w with the sound /w/ instead of "doubleyou."

          Or, teach the letter symbol g as /g/ instead of "gee."

          Or teach the letter symbol z as /zzz/ instead of "zee/"

          Save the name matching the symbol for after the sound is learned and applied to literacy.

          Does that make more sense?

          Watch this example. http://sounstalk.wordpress.com/2013/02/17/the-magic-is-in-the-play/
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        May 9 2013: RE: "Oh, Edward. . . " Delightful video! Thanks for taking the blame for our prolonged failure to agree but I think I might be the problem here. So if I pointed to a letter and asked your little one, "What is this?" They would answer with a sound rather than a name? They can sing the alphabet song with sounds rather than letter names? There is more than one sound for many (all?) letters so they have more that 26 characters in their version of the Alphabet Song? I keep seeing the math analogy. I could teach kids that 4+5=9 by telling them, "When you add this [pointing at the "4" character] to this [now pointing at the "5" character] the sum is this [now pointing at the "9" character]." I could teach all that without revealing the name of the character and the quantiy it represents. I realize that with numerals the name and the represented quantity are the same, and that is not so with letters. But I do not see the validity, let alone the advantage, of withholding the names of the letters until the sounds are learned. I just don't get it. It's not like it's a big waste of time to teach the letter names at the beginning of the learning process. In fact, it seems logical to start at the beginning. Are sounds a cause?. . . No, sounds are an effect. What causes sounds?. . . Letters! Teach letters (cause) first then teach what sounds (effect) those letters make. Please don't feel obliged by courtesy to endure more of this debate. I simply do not see the advantage or the rationale for teaching sounds before letter names. All the best, and welcome to TED!
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          May 9 2013: You are asking the right questions from the perspective of a deeply-rooted paradigm. I will take more time to respond soon if someone doesn't beat me to it.
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          May 9 2013: I love your logical reasoning and I think you will soon see there much more logic behind this approach than the one you suggest. (I took a double dose of logic as an elementary education/ philosophy major in college and I love reason.)

          Sounds are not an effect. They are the cause, the reason the letter exists.
          “After many centuries people discovered that they could even turn their pictures into symbols that represented the sounds of their language… These ‘sound pictures’ are called letters, written symbols standing for the sounds that make up all of our words.” p. 6-7 Ox, House, Stick: The History of Our Alphabet by Don Robb

          -Sounds are needed for reading.
          -Letter names are needed for spelling out loud. They are print knowledge, needed to identify a written letter and that's really it.

          Which of the above, I ask, is more important for literacy, sounds or names?

          Sing the ABC song with the letter names. Just don't associate the letter with the symbols to start. Children will need dictionary skills. http://souns.org/SounsResources/sounsclassroomwall.jpg
          Once a child begins decoding a three letter word, consonant-vowel-consonant, the child is ready for letter names. Teach them, but give them the more meaningful information first.

          It is the paradigm of a culture of letter names that probably didn't exist before kindergarten or marketing. I'm not sure, but the McGuffey Reader is my best proof.

          If I didn't have every child I work with pointing me to this conclusion, I wouldn't be engaging in this "debate."

          I see debating as the path to a paradigm shift.

          I asked Brenda once, "How do we change a culture?"
          Her answer, "The same way you eat an elephant... One bite at a time."
    • May 6 2013: I think playing with the four operations with preschoolers is SO much fun. However, I believe the important bit is the value over the symbol. Putting together, taking apart, taking apart evenly, putting together evenly ... The hand feels the difference in the values and then the symbols are associated. Preschoolers love to move and gather and hand out.... Such an opportunity for concepts to be learned. As with Montessori, the experience comes before the language. I see this as true for both letters and numbers.