Teaching the Alphabet First: Debunking a Myth
Teach the 72 Orton Phonograms First
We’re usually taught that learning English starts with the alphabet. Kids need to learn those 26 letters before they can make the language work for them, so we need to teach them the alphabet as early as possible. But while it’s obviously true that kids are going to need the alphabet to read, it’s not necessarily the case that they need to learn it first. In fact, in many cases it makes more sense to shelve the symbols of written English at first and start with the sounds instead.
The Pitfalls of Alphabet-First Reading
The problem with the English alphabet is that every letter points to so many different sounds. The letter “a” sounds completely different in the word “lake” than it does in the word “lack”, and knowing that that letter is called “a” is not going to help a child remember why it makes the sound it makes. And that’s only a single vowel. Think about all the conditional rules and all their exceptions that make up the English language. Silent vowels at the ends of words and silent consonants at the beginnings, the suffix “-tion” making the same sound as the word “shun”, the cluster “gh” sounding the same as the letter “f”, except when it’s silent—think of it like this and it starts to seem like a pretty daunting task for a 4-year-old.
And even when some kids get it, an article on Education World points out, there are others who won’t. Many children, especially children with analytic learning styles, need a more logical approach to reading instruction. They need to see the language assembled bit by bit, built up from its component parts, rather than seeing the whole picture and then breaking it up into its component parts post-facto. The alphabet, in other words, is exactly the opposite of what they need.
This conference paper is a good demonstration of the importance of phonics in early reading: when two groups of first graders were taught to read based either on phonics or on what’s called “whole-language” reading—a teaching style that relies heavily on contextual fluency and the alphabet—the phonics group improved more in reading fluency and spelling, and in fact the whole-language group actually lost ground in spelling. What this suggests is that when the time comes to learn the alphabet, kids with a solid grounding in phonics are actually better prepared than their counterparts.
While it’s obviously true that kids are going to need the alphabet to read, it’s not necessarily the case that they need to learn it first. Click to Tweet
How to Teach Reading with Phonograms
So how do you get away from relying on the alphabet? The solution is to ground your teaching in the basic sounds of the English language. English is made up of 72 sounds, and by the time a child is old enough to read, they already know those sounds, even if they don’t know they know them. Building out from that system of sounds to a more abstract system of letters is a more structured, more logical way to teach kids to read—it’s exactly the bit-by-bit assembly of the language that many kids require.
Teaching phonograms might not come naturally to everyone, especially people who were taught to read with whole-language methods. If anything, phonics sounds harder than the alphabet, not easier—after all, there are 72 sounds and not a simple 26 letters, and some of them come with built-in contextual rules. When you get into it, though, you’ll realize that explaining those sounds is a lot simpler than explaining the baked-in complexity of English letters. The process is a lot simpler and more intuitive than you’d expect from an intimidating number like 72.
We also have a lot of free resources at YesPhonics that are intended to expedite the process of teaching reading phonetically. Last year we published a three-part series on how to teach phonograms, which starts here. Those articles will give you a little background, walk you through the basics of the Orton-Spalding phonograms, and explain how you can use them at home or in the classroom. We also have a video over on YouTube that will walk you through our Mnemonic Phonic Technique, which is particularly helpful if you’re teaching or studying English as a second language.