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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 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
      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....
        • 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.

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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.

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