It is common practice for daycare centres, kindergartens, and other early childhood services to introduce formal literacy concepts. The intention is an admirable one; to provide children with some early literacy skills. However, the negative side of presenting formal literacy concepts without attention to their pre-requisite skills is that it will often produce complications for a significant number of children.
There is a developmental time for the introduction of the alphabet. This “ideal” time for teaching such skills is not determined by a child’s age but rather their acquisition of other base prerequisite skills. The presence of prerequisite skills determines a child’s ‘readiness’ for the introduction of formal literacy concepts. Here are PLD’s 5 top tips for learning the alphabet.
TIP 1: Children require an awareness of individual sounds (or phonemes) at the beginning of words in order to begin to learn the alphabet sounds.
PLD refers to this skill as initial phoneme awareness. Other programs may refer to the skill as alliteration. PLD’s Whole School Literacy Strategy outlines (on page 5) when initial sound awareness should be ideally instructed. The short response is the term before an alphabet sound program is introduced. For an overview of Early Years requirements, download the PLD Early Years scope and sequence along with assessment schedule. PLD recommends that you screen your students in Week 6/7 of Term 1 to establish their readiness for the alphabet sound program. The screen is available to download HERE, Subtest 2: Verbalisation of Initial Phoneme (A precursor to alphabet sounds).
- When children can ‘hear’, ‘say’ and ‘think about’ the initial sounds in words only then does the alphabet sound system make sense. This does seem logical, as the alphabet symbols represent sounds and if children are not clearly aware of them, then learning the alphabet is inevitably going to be more complicated. For example: When a child can identify that ‘sun’ starts with a ‘sssss’ and ‘tap’ starts with a ‘t’ it is then ideal to introduce the alphabet symbols that correspond with the sounds that the child is aware of.
Too often the alphabet is introduced without prior explicit attention to initial sound awareness. As a result of this approach:
- A proportion of children will make the connection that the alphabet represents the sounds they can ‘hear’ in words.
- A proportion of children will struggle to acquire the alphabet sounds (or will acquire a letter naming dominance). In addition, the skill of blending is even more difficult to acquire, and hence the transition to reading is inevitably a challenge.
PLD produces a program, devised by speech pathologists, aiming to prepare ALL students for alphabet success along with being used for remediation with older students who are already experiencing difficulties learning the alphabet. Preparing for the Alphabet targets initial sound awareness – a child’s ability to “hear, say and think about” sounds at the beginning of words. The program develops a ‘readiness to learn the alphabet’ and targets two steps:
- The continuant sounds – ssssssss, mmmmmmm, nnnnnnnn, rrrrrrrr, zzzzzzzz etc. These sounds are “long” sounds and many of which are quite ‘noisy’ sounds. These are identified by the blue borders on the cards.
- The stop sounds – b, p, t, k, r, j etc. These sounds, in contrast, are typically short and soft. These are identified by the red borders on the cards.
You will notice that not every alphabet sound is represented in the pack. The reason being that once you have targeted or presented sufficient initial continuant sound activities, which of course differs for each child, children can typically hear all initial continuant sounds.
The same process is true for initial stop sounds. Once sufficient activities have been presented children can generally ‘hear, say and think about’ all initial stop sounds.
Preparing for the Alphabet does not include vowels, as vowels primarily occur in medial positions. Of course, some words do commence with a short vowel, but typically you will find vowels in medial positions of CVC (consonant, vowel, consonant words). Hence in the next two resources in the range: Preparing for Reading and Preparing for Spelling, vowels are emphasized as students are required to focus not just on an initial sound, but on initial, medial (hence the vowel) and a final sound. The product support video that is on this resource page Preparing for the Alphabet may also assist greatly in understanding this set.
TIP 2: Use quick assessments to determine if a child is ready to start using the alphabet or to understand why a child may be experiencing difficulties.
The Early Years Pre-Literacy Screen Subtest 2: Verbalisation of Initial Phoneme (A precursor to alphabet sounds) is a 1 minute progress check that can be used to determine if this essential skill of initial sound awareness has been adequately developed for the next area of instruction, the alphabet sounds and blending. In a preventative sense, the screen will determine those students who are ready to start learning the alphabet and those who require the prerequisite to be further developed. For older students who are already being presented with an alphabet program but for whom they are already experiencing difficulties, the Difficulty Acquiring the Alphabet Sounds screen typically explains where a difficulty has occurred.
TIP 3: Teach the alphabet sounds rather than the letter names.
The evidence tells us that the fastest pathway into literacy is knowledge of alphabet and phonic sounds. Students require alphabet knowledge to embark on the process of learning to read and spell. However, rather than letter naming ability, letter sound knowledge is the more important skill for entry into formalized literacy learning. For further information on why alphabet sounds are important and how to teach them, read our blog: Are the alphabet sounds important for literacy.
TIP 4: Teach the alphabet sounds using a Structured Synthetic Phonics (SSP) approach.
Structured Synthetic Phonics (SSP) is the gold standard approach to teaching literacy, of which PLD is one of the recommended evidence-based programs recognised by AUSPELD. PLD integrates within this approach a multi sensory component to teaching the alphabet (see Alphabet the Multisensory Way), particularly for young literacy learners and children who are older and are having difficulty learning the alphabet sounds. Attention to the mouth movements involved in producing the sounds of letters heightens children’s attention to the sound structure and supports the organization of the letter symbols in spelling and the decoding of the symbols in reading. The combination of attention to the oral, auditory and visual aspects of the alphabetic letter symbols significantly accelerates the acquisition of the earliest reading and spelling steps.
TIP 5: Combine instruction of the alphabet with a focus on blending and letter formation.
The PLD Early Year process, outlined on pages 5-8 of the Whole School Literacy Plan, follows a developmental sequence.
- Term 2 – the instruction and development of initial sound awareness which is screened the presentation of Exercise 2 Verbalisation of Initial Phoneme in the Early Years Pre-Literacy Screen
- Term 3 – students are then ready to commence the instruction of alphabet sound which is screened through the presentation of Exercise 4a Alphabet Sound Recognition in the Early Years Pre-Literacy Screen. Students simultaneously begin the instruction of onset and rime blending which is screened through the presentation of Exercise 3a Onset and Rime Level Blending in the Early Years Pre-Literacy Screen.
- Term 4 – the alphabet sound instruction continues with students progressing onto 4b and 4c Alphabet Sound Recognition assessments. A number of students will also be ready and capable of acquiring and being assessed blending three phonemes(sounds) through the presentation of Exercise 3b CVC Phonemic Level Blending in the Early Years Pre-Literacy Screen.
The other alternative proposed by PLD is the less efficient route. For the students in the Foundation school year or Year 1 students entering with extremely low literacy levels, the assessment ‘Difficulty Learning the Alphabet’ will again likely highlight the absence of the prerequisite skills, initial sound awareness.
While the later offers direction when students are showing the early signs of falling behind their peers, PLD will always recommend preventative efforts. PLD has always known this, as originally the letters in PLD’s name stood for ‘Preventing Literacy Difficulties’.
Research has repeatedly reported, that students who fall behind in reading, rarely catch up, even with the provision of extra funding and special programs. It is imperative that early childhood educators recognise the role initial sound awareness skill development, teaching and skill development tracking plays in preparing our students for alphabet and blending success.
We hope you enjoyed this blog. At PLD we are always available to help you achieve the best possible literacy outcomes for your students. If you have any questions about teaching the alphabet sounds or anything else we do here at PLD get in touch with us through our chat icon in the bottom right of the screen or to [email protected].