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The Case Against Letter Names

When I was a young mother, I was at a restaurant with my toddler and my mom. I have a distinct memory of an encounter with another grandparent that has stuck with me almost 12 years later. For background, my eldest was early to talk (and late to walk) and tended to shock people with her skills. I think partly because she had a very round face and very little hair until she was almost 3 (well, her face is still quite round) but she was speaking in complete sentences that most strangers could understand by about 18 months - she never moved much (still doesn't) but boy could she talk (still does!)

Anyway, this grandparent approached me and my angelic child and said something to the effect of "She really can talk - does she know how to sing her ABCs?" This was, apparently, significant to the grandparent. "Yes, she does." I said, somewhat indifferent. "Well! My grandchild is almost (whatever age) and she still doesn't know her ABCs!" The grandma was clearly a little surprised, concerned, and dismayed at whatever this must have implicated in her mind. Was her grandchild "slow"? Were the parents neglecting to teach her the most important things in life? Who knows what was going through her head, but she was obviously bothered by it enough to approach a stranger and compare.

"Does the child know any songs? Like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star?" I asked, curious. "Well, I'm not sure. I think so." responded grandma. "I'm not sure how knowing the ABCs is of any significance to most toddlers over any song. It's just a song, isn't it?" I queried. I'm not sure how grandma felt about this response, but I think she sort of agreed (likely not with great enthusiasm) and left us to enjoy our meal.

In "worried grandma's" defense, we make a big deal out of knowing the "ABC's" in our society. Many "symptoms of dyslexia" will note that an early sign is having difficulty remembering letter names. Certainly, having difficulty remembering lyrics to a simple song or being able to name common items is going to have an impact on literacy, but how important is learning letter names to the skill of actually reading?

I have to cushion my forthcoming argument by saying I in NO way mean that we should never teach children letter names or the alphabet and that they are absolutely useless to know. They necessary for looking things up in a dictionary or an index and required when spelling something over the phone, or just a shortcut when telling someone how to spell a word, like your name, orally. I can't think of many more uses for them though, can you? Do they actually help a child with reading?

The "problem" with letter names - or rather "leading" with letter names (having that be the first thing you teach a young learner) is that they have almost no relationship to the sounds they represent. The letter "B" does not represent the sound /bee/, nor does it represent /buh/ it is a short, quick /b/. So it is the first SOUND in /bee/ but how is a child to know that. Then we have letter names like "U" ("you!") Well, often "u" represents /uh/ like in "cut - absolutely no connection to the name "YOU (U)." Then we have "y" which as a consonant represents /y/ as in YOU, but the name is "why" - which starts with the sound /w/.

Do you see how this may be confusing for a child? I have heard Nora Chahbazi, EBLI founder, give the analogy somewhat like this: If I introduce myself as "Erica Rae Klein" what is the important information in those names? - am I to be called "Erica?" "Erica Rae?" "Ms. Klein?" What if I pointed to my picture and said "This is Ms. Klein. She says, "Erica."

Does that help you to understand how to address me? Or if I said, "This is Erica. When you see Erica, you say 'Ms. Klein,'" you may know now what to call me, but you might wonder why I bothered telling you the "Erica" part at all. OR you may remember the unnecessary bit

of information (you know my name is "Erica" but can't remember what you were supposed to call me). Perhaps you remember both, but you forget which of those names you are supposed to say, and so sometimes you call me "Erica" and sometimes "Ms. Klein." Or perhaps you, like many children, would have tuned out, thinking you don't particularly care about this random woman, anyway. Then you'll just have to awkwardly pretend you know my name next time we meet, but you're hoping we will never meet again. This is how it can be for kids and letter names.

We have another confusing habit around letter names, and this was another huge mindset-shifts (really, language shift) I've made as I've transitioned from a Print to Speech (OG) approach to reading/spelling to a Speech to Print (Linguistic Phonics) approach. It is the sentence, "this letter says (whatever letter sound)." Well, the letters don't say anything at all, do they? People do. At first, I thought "This is irritatingly nit-picky. I say, "it" says it, whatever! Who cares!?" However, when you look at the analogy of "This is a picture of Erica. Erica says 'Ms. Klein'" it becomes a bit more clear why this may be confusing for some kids. Or, if that sees to simple because humans CAN talk, lets switch it to "This is a picture of a DOG. This DOG says "George." Well, George is my dog's name, and that is what I call him when I see him. The fact is, he never has and never will say George, any more than the symbol "M" has ever said /mmm/. And while George DOES say "WOOF," he will not say "George" or "dog" or Australian labradoodle." So we can eliminate some of the confusion by making it clear what ACTUALLY happens - when you see my dog, you can call him "George!" If he's lost, that's what he will respond to (hopefully). You may need to know he's a dog and an Australian Labradoodle, but that isn't necessary if you just want to call him away from the window to stop him barking at the neighbours. When I see the symbol "m," I say /mmm/. And knowing the name of the letter for "M" ("EM") doesn't even enter my head when I read the word "man" or "mathematics" or "microorganism." I need a connection between the sound I say and the symbol that represents that sound.

"My kid knows all their letter names and can read just fine" I hear you shouting in protest. ("Good for them! I'm so glad they are not confused!" I reply.) "How will they ever learn to spell if I don't tell them that "SEE - AY - TEE" spells "cat"? "Could somebody please tell us what TO DO instead of a long list of what NOT TO DO!?" Well, I can help you with that one...

We can teach kids to spell in read in the context of words, because that is relevant and interesting and motivating. We don't need a flashcard with the symbol "m" and to tell them "This is "EM" say "em says /mmm/." We can get straight to simple words! Perhaps letters on

cards and I pull down the letter "m" and say /m/ then pull down the "a" and say /a/ then pull down the "p" and say /p/. I can demonstrate pushing those sounds together and saying each sound, then saying them faster to get "mop." I've just demonstrated reading and blending! I can show them the word "sun" already together and touch each letter, seperating it while saying the SOUNDS /s/ /u/, /n/ and demonstrate that that word, "sun" is just made up of 3 symbols representing the sounds /s/ /u/ /n/ and we can pull it apart into those sounds, then put it back together to make the word "sun." I segmented and blended! None of it requires that they hear or know the names "EM" "AY" and "PEE" or "ESS" "YOU" "EN." That is unnecessary and, for some kids, extremely confusing extra information that IMPEDES reading rather than helps it. If we have to choose the most pressing need for the child, knowing that "aich" is the name of the symbol "H" is irrelevant to when they need to or spell the word "hot, hop, how." What they NEED to know is that this symbol: "h" is a "code" for that breathy sound you make when fogging up your glasses: /hhhh/.

The other question I had with this new approach was - how do I correct spelling? We know that spelling absolutely can and should be corrected, immediately when possible. With a speech to print approach, I've begun to notice how often the students have a lot of the spelling correct. Once they build some phonemic awareness and the ability to segment and organize the sounds in words (which we do a lot of training with) they aren't missing syllables or sounds, they've just made the incorrect symbol choice for a particular sound. For example, in the word "treat" they may try "tret." They have 3 of the sounds spelled correctly, they just need to know that "ea" is the symbol for /ee/ in treat. So, I simply point to the incorrectly spelled sound (the "e") and then WRITE "ea" (this is where our use of whiteboards comes in really handy) and say "This is the /ee/ spellingwe need in 'treat.'" Once kids are used to hearing individual sounds and spelling words by SOUNDS, they will have no issues understanding what they need to fix. They don't need to erase the whole word of memorize a whole string of letters, they just need to rememebr how to spell that one sound. It takes time (as improving spelling inevitably will) but it is so much less to remember than endless strings of letter names representing thousands of words.

So my suggestion is hold off on letter names. Don't worry about flashcard drills with letters. If anything, point to letters and tell the child the SOUNDS they represent. "Look!" we have some /m / i / l / k/ - milk!" Help them to build phonemic awareness and the connection between the sounds of our language and the spellings. This is what they need to be successful readers and spellers.

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