New Insights About Letter Learning

A few key points from: New Insights About Letter Learning by Katherine A. Dougherty Stahl, published in The Reading Teacher. (2014). Vol.68.4., pp.261-265.

Alphabet knowledge in Kindergarten and first grade is a strong predictor of later literacy achievement.

The article describes the Alphabetic Principle as an understanding that language is made up of discrete sounds and that letters represent those sounds in a systematic way. The developmental boundary between the emergent reader (who pretend reads) and the novice reader (who is bound to the print), is that the novice knows that the each print word on the page represents (a) discrete sound(s).

Alphabet knowledge includes the ability to identify and know:

  • letter names (LN)
  • letter sounds (LS)
  • letter sound association LN-LS (matching a letter to a sound)
  • forming letters


Research has concluded that:

  • Alphabetic instruction in school is more effective.  Systematic, explicit and strategic instruction of combined letter name (LN) and letter sound (LS) in school is more effective than parental efforts in children’s acquisition of alphabet knowledge
  • Explicit and strategic daily instruction is more effective.  Systematic  instruction of combined LN-LS, approximately 10 to 12 minutes per day, has been found to be more effective  than relying wholly on embedded literacy instruction/ activities
  • Explicit instruction in tandem with connected and contextual literacy activities is more effective. Instead of a steady diet of isolated alphabet instruction, however, LN-LS instruction needs to be in tandem with connected and contextual literacy activities, such as opportunities to  manipulate sounds (blending, segmenting, deleting) interactive read-alouds, shared reading and writing, etc.
  •  Teachers need to assess students’ existing knowledge. Children enter kindergarten with varying degrees of knowledge. Therefore, teachers need to assess and differentiate instruction and provide more strategic instruction and support where it is needed.
  • Introducing one letter per day in multiple repeated cycles is more effective than teaching one letter per week . Teachers need to spend more instructional time on complex LN-LS that are difficult for children to learn, instead of giving equal instructional time to each letter. They need to spend less time/focus on LN-LS that are easy to master



Early Language experts conclude that the current practice of alphabet instruction, which generally treats each letter equally, is a waste of valuable instructional time. Given that some LN and LS are much easier for children to learn,  less instructional time and focus needs to be spent on what kids already know and more intense instructional effort needs to be devoted to what they don’t know or LN-LS that are complex, ambiguous and hard to learn


Uppercase letters are  recognized before lowercase. Researchers conclude that uppercase A, B, X and O are known by the greatest percentage of 4 year olds and onomatopoeic sounds such as /s/(hiss), /z/ (buzz) and /m/ mmm are among the easiest and earliest sound associations learned by children at home. Therefore, teachers need to “adjust instruction”  and devote more time to the most difficult LN-LS relationships. Teachers should expect to spend  less time teaching LN-LS relationships for letters that have VC or CV structures and more time teaching ambiguous sounds.



According to the article,  the most difficult LN-LS are:

  • y,  w,  c              (consonants )
  • i,  o,  e               (vowels) 
  • u,  y ,  i              (latest developmentally)
  •  h,  w,  y,  c,  g   (ambiguous sounds)
  •  q,  x                    (complex sounds)

Instead of the one letter per week approach, with equal time given to each letter, the article describes one approach to LN-LS instruction, which has been successful, Enhanced Alphabet Knowledge (EAK). This  a protocol that introduces a new letter or set of letters each day, in multiple cycles of repeated practice. All letters are taught explicitly at least once, but with the EAK protocol, as the easier LN-LS are mastered, less instructional time is devoted to those letters and increased on letters that are complex and hardest to learn.

As students master the LN-LS relationships, more instructional time is also devoted to discriminating between critical features of letters (e.g. b, d, p, q)and other troublesome letters.

Dougherty Stahl concludes this article by stating: Teaching these skills effectively and efficiently has powerful implications for the long-term literacy success of our students.

  1. Getting started with tricky letter Y & W
  2. Getting started with tricky letter Q

 (Cartoons from cartoon stock) 


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