Knowing the alphabet is a cornerstone of learning to read.

Learning the names of the letters of the alphabet AND their corresponding sounds is vital to learning to read.

There are varied opinions on how the alphabet should be taught.  Whether we should teach letter names or letter sounds first, whether they should be upper case or lower case letters and what order the letters (and sounds) should be taught.

There are a few options for the order in which we teach the alphabet.

Alphabetic Order.

We could teach the alphabet in sequential order from ‘a’ through to ‘z’.

There is research to indicate that many children learn the initial letters of the alphabet early on, purely because of the frequency of exposure eg kids see and hear ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’ more often that ‘v’, ‘w’ and ‘x’.

Also, many resources, games, jigsaws, books, posters and even the almost universally known ‘alphabet song’ present the alphabet in alphabetical order.  So, there are some advantages of teaching the alphabet in this way.

The Carnine Order

The Carnine Order of teaching the alphabet was devised by Carnine et al.  They came up with a suggested order that differs from the traditional alphabetical order and was based on their research. Some of the strengths of this approach are:

  • it separates letters that are often confused visually (eg ‘b’ and ‘d’)
  • it separates letters that sound similar  (eg ‘a’ and ‘u’)
  • it separates letters that are produced (vocalised) similarly (eg ‘f’ and ‘v’)
  • the frequently occurring letters (often the most needed letters) are taught first
  • it introduces particular letter sound groups early so children can start blending and segmenting as soon as possible (eg ‘a’, ‘m’, ‘s’ and ‘t’ – mat, sat, sam)
  • it teaches both lower and upper case letters.  The upper & lower case letters that look similar  are taught at the same time.  Upper case letters that do not look the same as their lower case counterpart are taught after most lower case letters have been introduced
  • many educators and literacy programs follow the Carnine Order of teaching the alphabet.  For example:  Ants in the Apple
  • the NSW Department of Education suggests teaching the letters of the alphabet in small groups “of quick succession…so students can begin blending and segmenting as soon as possible” (NSW DEET, 2009 p.17 ) and these groupings follow the Carnine order (eg ‘a’, ‘m’, ‘t’, ‘s’, ‘i’, ‘f’, ‘d’).

 

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 Teaching letters by familiarity and importance

In preschool, children are more likely to ‘pick up’ knowledge of letters of the alphabet based on which letters are in their name, and in other words that are important to them (such as “Mum”, “Dad”, siblings names or even pet names) and in environmental print (eg “M” in McDonalds).

It makes sense to use this knowledge to their benefit – so teach the letters of their name, even if that means ‘jumping’ ahead of the “carnine order”.

Teaching letters by Letter-Name Structure

Some letters are more easily learned if the name of the letter corresponds with its most common sound (eg the name of letter “b” actually contains its sound /b/ as does the name of the letter ‘m’ contain the sound  /m/).  However, letters such as ‘g’ are not easily associated with their sounds.  This is true for both sound and pronunciation.

It makes sense to teach the letters more easily learned first (that have a sound similar to its name).

Teaching letters based on appearances

Some letters can be very similar looking such as ‘m’ and ‘n’.  Whereas, other letters such as ‘x’ are quite distinct and unique.

There is research to support that younger children more easily learn lower case letters that are distinct (Piasta, 2014).

Children also learn lower case letters more quickly if they are the same (or similar) to their upper case counterpart.  This fits in with the Carnine order, also.

Teaching letters based on the “typical order”  in which letter names and sounds are learned

Piasta has published some interesting research on the typical order of letter names and sounds are learnt. I must say I find it fascinating because it differs from the Carnine order, and challenges what we educators think is accepted practice.  Food for thought.  It demonstrates there is always more to learn or consider.

What do we do at Starfish Education Centre?

I like the Carnine order in principle because it makes sense to avoid teaching letters that are often confused, close together.  And, I like to focus on the letters that are commonly occurring and easily & immediately used in reading/spelling, as recommended by the NSW DEET.  Click here for link to NSW DEET  (2009)  Literacy teaching guide: Phonics.

I like to make use of the “natural advantage” of the letters that are important, useful and meaningful to a child (such as the letters in a child’s name).

When children come to us for tutoring, they do often already know some letters and their sounds.  Because we use a strength based teaching approach, we also ways start with what they know – whether it sticks to the Carnine order or not.

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Click here to check out our online shop and what “alphabet” resources we have available.

I make sure I pay additional attention to the letters that I know are typically more difficult such as the short vowels and the letter ‘b’.  It is vital that kids learn these to automaticity.  Click here to go to our blog on teaching the short vowels.

To see how we teach the alphabet sounds at Starfish click here.

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In the footage below of the gorgeous Oscar, you can see he and I practicing his letter sounds using the Ants in the Apple cards.  Oscar knows most of the letters, which is why I’m using the whole deck, random.

When he first started, we had the yellow 3minute timer going but these days we use the green 1 minute timer to race against.  You might also notice that I have an extra ‘b’ card included in the pack – that’s because Oscar has a bit of trouble with the letter ‘b’ so I’ve put it in a couple of times – for extra practice.

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Kirstie xx

References:

Carnine et al (2006) Teaching Struggling and At Risk Readers: A Direct Instruction Approach.  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Piasta, S (2014) Moving to Assessment guided differentiated instruction tom support young children’s alphabet knowledge. The Reading Teacher: A Journal of Research Based Classroom Practice, Nov: 202-211)