Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.


My blogs can be viewed on-line or downloaded as a Word file or PDF at https://www.dropbox.com/sh/olxpifutwcgvg8j/AABU8YNr4ZxiXPXzvHrrirR8a?dl=0

We know that beginners' knowledge of the relationship between letters and sounds is highly predictive of their subsequent reading success.

“The strongest single predictor of first grade reading performance, among the measures administered in kindergarten, was letter identification (as measured by the letter identification subtest of the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test-Revised) (Woodcock, 1987).” (p.32)

Mazzocco, M., Denckla, M., Singer, H., Scanlon, D., Vellutino, F., & Reiss, A. (1997). Neurogenic and neurodevelopmental pathways to learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 8, 31-42.

“Letter knowledge among prekindergartners and kindergartners is one of the best predictors of reading and spelling acquisition later in school. This holds true in English, French, Dutch, Brazilian Portuguese, and Hebrew (e.g., Adams, 1990, Ball and Blachman, 1991, Bradley and Bryant, 1983, Bruck et al., 1997, Byrne and Fielding-Barnsley, 1989, de Jong and van der Leij, 1999 and Muter et al., 1998). Letter knowledge as a predictor not only surpasses IQ and vocabulary (e.g., Caravolas et al., 2001, Cardoso-Martins, 1995, McBride-Chang, 1999, Shatil et al., 2000 and Stuart and Coltheart, 1988) but at times also competes successfully with some tests of phonological awareness (e.g., Johnston, Anderson, & Holligan, 1996).” (p. 139)

Levin, I., Shatil-Carmon, S., & Asif-Rave, O. (2006). Learning of letter names and sounds and their contribution to word recognition. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 93(2), 139-165.

See also:

Adams, M.J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Ball, E.W., & Blachman, B.A. (1991). Does phoneme awareness training in kindergarten make a difference in early word recognition and developmental spelling? Reading Research Quarterly, 25, 49-66.

Bradley, L & Bryant, P. (1983). Categorizing sounds and learning to read: A causal connection. Nature, 301, 419-421.

Byrne, B & Fielding-Barnsley, R. (1989). Phonemic awareness and letter knowledge in the child’s acquisition of the alphabetic principle, Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 313-321.

Scarborough, H.S. (1998). Early identification of children at risk for reading disabilities: Phonological awareness and some other promising predictors. In B.K. Shaprio, P.J. Accardo & A.J. Capute (Eds.), Specific reading disability: A view of the spectrum (pp. 75-119), York Press, Timonium, MD.

Stuart, M, & Coltheart, M. (1988). Does reading develop in a sequence of stages? Cognition, 30(2), 139-181.

We also know that there is a causal relationship between this knowledge and reading success when it is combined with phonemic awareness; in particular, blending and segmenting:

“Training either on names or on sounds improved word recognition and explanation of printed words.” (p.139)

Levin, I., Shatil-Carmon, S., & Asif-Rave, O. (2006). Learning of letter names and sounds and their contribution to word recognition. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 93(2), 139-165.

“Such results suggest that direct instruction in sound spelling patterns in first and second grade classrooms can prevent reading difficulties in a population of children at-risk of reading failure” (p.68).

Foorman, B., Francis, D., Beeler, T., Winikates, D., & Fletcher, J. (1997). Early interventions for children with reading problems: Study designs and preliminary findings. Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 8, 63-71.

“Longitudinal research from the past two decades has identified alphabet knowledge as critical for the growth of literacy skills (e.g., Adams, 1990; NICHD, 2000; Scanlon & Vellutino, 1996; Scarborough, 1998). Alphabet knowledge helps young children learn to decode words (Ehri, 2005; Muter, Hulme, Snowling, & Stevenson, 2004; Roberts, 2003) and is an important precursor to the development of spelling (Caravolas, Hulme, & Snowling, 2001; Foulin, 2005).” (p.299)

Jones, C.D., & Reutzel, D.R. (2015). Write to read: Investigating the reading-writing relationship of code-level early literacy skills. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 31(4), 297-315.

“Teaching children about the alphabet (e.g., letter names or letter sounds) or simple phonics tasks (e.g., blending letter sounds to make words) seemed to enhance the effects of PA training” (p. x).

Lonigan, C.J., & Shanahan, T. (2008). Executive Summary. Developing Early Literacy: Report of the National Early Literacy Panel. Jessup, MD: National Institute for Literacy.

So, is it more beneficial to teach sounds first or letters first?

“When synthetic phonics is taught explicitly, students will learn the associations between the letters and their sounds in a direct and usually systematic way, separately from text reading. This may comprise showing students the graphemes (letters or letter combinations) and teaching them the sounds that correspond to them, as in ‘this letter makes the sound ssss.’ Alternatively, some teachers prefer teaching students single sounds (phonemes) orally at first, and then later introducing the visual cue (the grapheme) for the sound, as in ‘You know the mmmm sound we’ve been practising, well here’s the letter used in writing that tells us to make that sound.’” (p. 11)

Hempenstall, K. (2016). Read about it: Scientific evidence for effective teaching of reading. CIS Research Report 11. Sydney: The Centre for Independent Studies. Retrieved from https://www.cis.org.au/app/uploads/woocommerce_uploads/2016/03/rr11.pdf

“There is still, within the educational world, controversy as to whether or not it is confusing for children to be taught both the names and sounds of letters. Those who believe it is confusing often advocate that letter sounds should be taught first, as these are of more direct use in reading. However, the research literature suggests that knowledge of letter names facilitates the learning of letter sounds”. (p. 19)

Stuart, M. (2006). Learning to read: Developing processes for recognising, understanding and pronouncing written words. London Review of Education, 4(1), 19-29.

“In our version of synthetic phonics children use magnetic letters to build up words and to help them understand how letter sounds can be blended together to pronounce the words. In order to read a word, the appropriate magnetic letters are set out; the children then blend the letter sounds together, smoothly co-articulating them, while pushing the letters together. The approach is also used for learning to spell (and to reinforce blending for reading). The children listen to a spoken word, select the letters for the sounds, and then push the letters together, sounding and blending them to pronounce the word. Consonant blends are not explicitly taught at all as they can be read by blending, although digraphs (i.e. a phoneme represented by two letters, such as ‘sh’, ‘th’, ‘ai’, ‘oa’) are taught.” (p. 3, 4)

Johnston, R.S., & Watson, J.E. (2003). Accelerating reading and spelling with synthetic phonics: A five year follow up. Research, Economic and Corporate Strategy (RECS) Unit, Edinburgh. Retrieved from http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/4938/1/nls_phonics0303rjohnston.pdf

“The most obvious skill the child needs is knowledge of the sounds that each letter makes. This fact suggests some preteaching in sound identification. DI does not initially teach letter names, because letter names play no direct role in reading words. The simplest way to demonstrate this fact is to say the letter names "em," "ay," and "tee" very fast and see if they add up to the word mat. They do not. They generate something like "emmaytee." It may not be a dirty word, but it certainly is not mat. Sounds are functional in reading. So we pre-teach the sounds before we present them in words. Before reading the word mat and other words composed of these letters, the child would learn to identify m as "mmm." The repeated letters do not mean that you say the sound again and again. They signal you to hold the sound. Take a deep breath and say "mmmmmm" for a couple of seconds. Not all sounds can be held for a long time. The sounds that can be held are called continuous sounds. They include f, s, n, l, z, w, and all the vowels. The sounds that cannot be held are noncontinuous. This group includes b, d, ch, g, h, p, j, and t. To say these sounds, you pronounce them very fast and add no "uh" sound to the end of them. The sound at the end of the word mat is unvoiced, which means that it is whispered. It is not "tuh." It is a whispered little "t." That is how it occurs in the word, and that is how it is pretaught. When the child has mastered the sounds that will occur in various words, the child has mastered the most obvious skill that is needed to read.” (p. 14)

Engelmann, S. Haddox, P., & Bruner, E. (1983). Teach Your Child To Read In 100 Easy Lessons. New York: Simon & Schuster.

“One interesting finding deserving of further examination and replication concerns the impact of letter name instruction on letter sound learning. Studies providing letter name instruction as the only alphabet component showed reliable, positive impacts on children’s letter sound learning. This result lends causal support to the argument for letter name-to-sound facilitation, discussed within the context of letter names that provide cues for learning letter sounds (Evans et al., 2006; McBride-Chang, 1999; Share, 2004; Treiman, Tincoff, & Richmond-Welty, 1996; Treiman et al., 1998).” (p.23)

Piasta, S.B., & Wagner, R.K. (2010). Developing early literacy skills: A meta-analysis of alphabet learning and instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 45(1), 8-38.

“This study investigated knowledge of letter names and letter sounds, their learning, and their contributions to word recognition. Of 123 preschoolers examined on letter knowledge, 65 underwent training on both letter names and letter sounds in a counterbalanced order. Prior to training, children were more advanced in associating letters with their names than with their sounds and could provide the sound of a letter only if they could name it. However, children learned more easily to associate letters with sounds than with names. Training just on names improved performance on sounds, but the sounds produced were extended (CV) rather than phonemic. Learning sounds facilitated later learning of the same letters’ names, but not vice versa. Training either on names or on sounds improved word recognition and explanation of printed words.” (p.139)

Levin, I., Shatil-Carmon, S., & Asif-Rave, O. (2006). Learning of letter names and sounds and their contribution to word recognition. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 93(2), 139-165.

So, both sounds and names should be addressed? How: Simultaneously or sequentially?

“In the United States, typically children are taught letter names first (Treiman, Pennington, Shriberg, & Boada, 2008), and U.S. studies typically report relationships between letter–name knowledge and reading ability (e.g., Bond & Dyjkstra, 1967). Conversely, in the United Kingdom and many other European countries, letter sounds are usually taught before letter names, and accordingly studies in these countries often report measures of letter–sound knowledge. Many studies do not distinguish between letter–name and letter–sound knowledge and report a composite measure of both skills (Lervåg et al., 2009; Muter et al., 2004). A small number of studies (e.g., Caravolas, Hulme, & Snowling, 2001; McBride-Chang, 1999) have reported separate measures of letter–name and letter–sound knowledge from the same children, and in those studies both measures (name and sound knowledge) are typically correlates of reading ability. Concurrent measures of letter–name and letter–sound knowledge typically correlate moderately with each other (.43–.80 at different time points in McBride-Chang, 1999, and Caravolas et al., 2001), and both measures typically correlate with reading ability, with letter–sound knowledge tending to show the stronger relationship (Caravolas et al., 2001; McBride-Chang, 1999)” (p.4).

Melby-Lervåg, M., Lyster, S-A H., & Hulme, C. (2012). Phonological skills and their role in learning to read: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 138(2), 322-352.

“Looking at 5- to 7-year-old children in the two countries, we found that U.S. children were better at providing the names of letters than English children. English children outperformed U.S. children on letter-sound tasks, and differences between children in the two countries declined with age. We further found that children use the first-learned set of labels to inform the learning of the second set. As a result, English and U.S. children made different types of errors in letter-name and letter-sound tasks. … In England, a government-mandated curriculum for literacy instruction emphasizes phonics and letter sounds (Department for Education and Skills, 2001). During the first year of compulsory schooling, which begins in the school year after a child’s fourth birthday and which is called reception year, children are taught to label letter shapes with the phonemes that they typically represent in words (followed by /ə/ in the case of stop consonants). This practice reflects the belief that sounds are more helpful than names in learning to read and spell (e.g., Johnston, Anderson & Holligan, 1996; Levin et al., 2006; Murray, Stahl, & Ivey, 1996; Thompson et al., 1999). The letter sounds are taught through drill and repetition, and letters are not referred to at first by their conventional names. Thus, a child who asks how to spell bus is told that it is /bə/ followed by /Λ/ and /s/. Phonics-oriented instruction in reading and spelling begins in reception year and continues during the next year of formal schooling, called year 1. In the school attended by the English children in the present study, the names of the letters are not formally taught until the end of year 1. Outside of school, too, English children are exposed to letter names less often than U.S. children. For example, parents and teachers in the region of England where the present study was undertaken report that the American version of the television program Sesame Street, which stresses the names of letters and their order in the alphabet, has not been broadcast over the air since 2001.

In most parts of the United States, kindergarten is the first year of compulsory schooling. In the area where the current study was carried out, children typically begin kindergarten in the school year that starts after their fifth birthday. Children who have not reached their fifth birthday by the start of this school year or who are not considered ready for kindergarten often attend preschool. U.S. preschools expose children informally to letters, and letters are generally labeled by their names. Children of this age are also exposed to letter names through such activities as singing the Alphabet Song and watching television programs such as Sesame Street. Exposure to letter names continues in kindergarten, and U.S. kindergartners are also taught about the sounds that the letters typically represent. Even when children become familiar with letters’ sounds, though, they and their teachers usually talk about letters by their names. For example, U.S. children are told that bus is spelled /bi/, /ju/, and /εs/. The stress on letter names reflects, in part, an assumption that letter names are easier for children to learn than letter sounds. For example, McBride-Chang (1999) suggested that letter names are easier to learn because they are more similar to other words of English and easier to discriminate from one another than letter sounds are. Traditionally, formal reading instruction began in the first grade in the U.S. In many kindergartens, however, including the ones studied here, children are expected to read and spell simple words by the end of the school year. More intensive instruction in reading and spelling takes place in first grade. The U.S. has no nationally mandated literacy curriculum, but schools often include a mix of phonics and whole-word instruction.” (p. 323, 325)

Ellefson, M.R., Treiman, R., & Kessler, B. (2009). Learning to label letters by sounds or names: A comparison of England and the United States. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 102(3), 323–341. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2671388/

“Preschool-aged children (n = 58) were randomly assigned to receive small group instruction in letter names and/or sounds or numbers (treated control). Alphabet instruction followed one of two approaches currently utilized in early childhood classrooms: combined letter name and sound instruction or letter sound only instruction. Thirty-four 15 minute lessons were provided, with children pre and post-tested on alphabet, phonological awareness, letter–word identification, emergent reading, and developmental spelling measures. Results suggest benefits of combined letter name and sound instruction in promoting children’s letter sound acquisition.” (p.607).

 Piasta, S.B., Purpura, D.J., & Wagner, R.K. (2010). Fostering alphabet knowledge development: A comparison of two instructional approaches. Reading and Writing, 23, 607–626.

“A growing body of research demonstrates reciprocal relations between letter name and sound knowledge and suggests that instruction in letter names may facilitate letter sound learning for those letters whose names also include their sounds (e.g., the /b/ at the beginning of the letter name B or the /f/ at the end of the letter name F), with children using the information contained in the letter names to derive or cue corresponding sounds (e.g., Evans, Bell, Shaw, Moretti, & Page, 2006; Levin, Shatil-Carmon, & Asif-Rave, 2006; McBride-Chang, 1999; Share, 2004; Treiman, Tincoff, Rodriguez, Mouzaki, & Francis, 1998; Treiman, Weatherston, & Berch, 1994). Considerable evidence also suggests reciprocal relations between phonological skills and alphabet knowledge development (Burgess & Lonigan, 1998; Lonigan, Burgess, & Anthony, 2000; McBride-Chang, 1999; Wagner et al., 1994), including potential benefits of phonological training on alphabet skills (Ball & Blachman, 1991)” (p.9).

Piasta, S.B., & Wagner, R. K. (2010). Developing early literacy skills: A meta-analysis of alphabet learning and instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 45(1), 8-38. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/212123502?accountid=13552

“The practice of referring to letters by their sounds was motivated by the idea that letter sounds are more useful than letter names in learning to read and spell (e.g., Feitelson, 1988). However, letter names may be worth learning because most of them, in English as in other languages, contain a phoneme that the letter symbolizes (Treiman & Kessler, 2003). Children who are familiar with the names of letters take advantage of this fact (Ellefson et al., 2009; McBride-Chang, 1999; Treiman et al., 1998). A further benefit of conventional letter names is that they follow the same phonological patterns as other words of the language. Some sound-based labels, such as /æ/ for a, do not; normal English words never end with short vowels. Informal and formal instruction that stresses letter names as opposed to sounds leads to different patterns of performance and different types of errors for young learners of English. However, one set of practices does not make mastering this complex writing system markedly easier than the other.” (p.485-486)

Treiman, R., Stothard, S.E., & Snowling, M.J. (2013). Instruction matters: Spelling of vowels by children in England and the US. Reading and Writing, 26(3), 473-487.

“The results from the present study confirm that letter names in English do not just provide verbal labels to refer to letters, but provide crucial clues about the sound(s) each letter contains (Treiman & Kessler, 2003). These results indicate that students take advantage of letter names in inducing letter-sound information (Adams, 1990; Evans et al., 2006; Foulin, 2005), and lettername knowledge has a large impact on letter-sound knowledge. The probability of knowing letter sounds, on average, increased drastically from 4% when students did not know letter names to 63% when student knew letter names. Although previous studies have shown strong correlations between letter-name knowledge and letter-sound knowledge, the present study adds to researchers’ understanding of the impact of letter-name knowledge on lettersound knowledge with predicted probability estimates. PA also made a significant contribution to letter-sound knowledge, supporting the previous hypothesis that PA does facilitate the abstraction of letter sounds from letter names (Foy & Mann, 2006; Jorm & Share, 1983; Share, 2004; Treiman et al., 1998; Wagner & Torgesen, 1987)” (p.320).

Kim, Y-S, Petscher, Y., Foorman, B.R., & Zhou, C. (2010). The contributions of phonological awareness and letter-name knowledge to letter-sound acquisition—a cross-classified multilevel model approach. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(2), 313-326.

“We agree with Treiman and Kessler (2003); letter names that share a common phonological structure (such as b and g) may be more difficult to differentiate from one another, and thus more difficult to learn. Indeed, Treiman and Kessler (2003) showed that phonological similarity was inversely related to letter naming accuracy. This common phonological structure may also make the letter sound associations for letters that share the same phonological structure relatively easy for children to learn compared to other letter sound associations (also see McBride-Chang, 1999; Treiman et al., 1997, 1998; Treiman & Kessler, 2003) by virtue of the fact that the onsets of the letter sounds are contained within the onset of their associated letter names. Letter name knowledge typically precedes letter sound knowledge in our literacy culture and our data suggest that when it is combined with the ability to judge, substitute, delete and otherwise manipulate phonemic structure, letter sound knowledge may more readily ensue.” (p. 153)

Foy, J.G., & Mann, V. (2006). Changes in letter sound knowledge are associated with development of phonological awareness in pre-school children. Journal of Research in Reading, 29(2), 143–161.

“Currently, many researchers and educators believe that letter knowledge should be enhanced in prekindergarten, or at the latest in kindergarten, prior to entry into school where children are formally taught to read and spell. However, no agreement exists about how this enhancement should be accomplished in terms of timing and sequencing. Reviews of curricula for kindergartners in North America (e.g., California State Board of Education, n.d. and Ontario Ministry of Education, 1998) have indicated that children are expected to recognize letters, name all or most of them, and become familiar with the sounds of some of them prior to school entry. In the United Kingdom, teaching about letters starts in prekindergarten with their sounds. Letter names are not formally introduced prior to first grade (Caravolas et al., 2001; R.S. Johnston, personal communication). In Israel, the opposite situation prevails; kindergartners are taught only letter names, whereas the sounds are left to be taught in school along with learning to read and write. Curriculum developers who aim to design evidence-supported pedagogical methods must learn more about the developmental relations between naming letters and knowing their sounds and about how this knowledge affects reading and spelling acquisition.” (p. 140)

Summary of name and sound training effects

The analyses regarding the training phases as a whole yielded four main conclusions. First, in contrast to expectations, letter names were not easier to learn than letter sounds. To the contrary, training on sounds improved performance on sounds to a greater extent than training on names improved performance on names. Performance on names was lower than that on phonemic sounds by approximately 10%. This finding can be explained by greater interference in name learning that was exhibited in more frequent replacement errors. Second, name-to-sound transfer emerged only for extended sounds, not for phonemic sounds. That is, children trained on names and tested on the sounds for which these letters stand were able to understand that the sounds were related to the names but were shorter. They often inferred that the required sounds were the initial CVs of the letters’ names, so much so that performance on extended sounds was very close to that on names following the mere training on names of these letters. In contrast, sound-to-name transfer was not significant. Third, in contrast to expectations, no facilitation occurred from name to sound, but facilitation did occur from sound to name. Children who had already learned letters’ phonemic sounds showed an advantage in learning the names of these letters. This finding makes sense because the names of letters in Hebrew start with the sounds they represent; hence, sounds can serve as mnemonic devices for names. However, children who had already learned letters’ names did not show such an advantage in learning the letters’ phonemic sounds. This result is puzzling given that the names start with the sounds that the letters mark. Fourth, the sequence of learning names and sounds of letters—names prior to sounds or vice versa—had no impact on the final achievements for either skill.” (p. 160)

Levin, I., Shatil-Carmon, S., & Asif-Rave, O. (2006). Learning of letter names and sounds and their contribution to word recognition. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 93(2), 139-165.

“Importantly, the advantage of combined letter name and sound instruction over letter sound only instruction cannot be attributed simply to greater print exposure, instructional time, or instructional intensity, given the design of the study. Rather, the advantage must be attributed to the fact that both letter names and sounds were taught.” (p.620)

Piasta, S.B., Purpura, D.J., & Wagner, R.K. (2010). Fostering alphabet knowledge development: A comparison of two instructional approaches. Reading and Writing, 23, 607–626.

So, what’s the conclusion?

Since each has been shown to be important, it would be wise to include the teaching of both rather than hoping that teaching, say, letter names only will necessarily result in transfer to letter sounds. It appears from research that there is at least some transfer to the other, whichever is taught first. The USA and England differ in which approach is first prioritised, yet the longer term outcomes are similar. Hence, one might infer that it doesn’t matter in the long run which is first taught. Of course it’s possible that the outcomes of the decision may vary given the wide range of student readiness. For some students the decision may not matter, while for others, such as at-risk students, it may be quite important. Additionally, the manner in which the correspondences are taught, their order of presentation, and the way in which they are integrated with phonemic awareness (blending and segmenting, in particular) are also significant influences on reading success. In either letter-sound first or letter-name first approaches, unnecessary confusion is sure to occur if too much information is introduced at the same time, such as teaching simultaneously both upper and lower case letters, and both letter names and sounds. This is more likely with at-risk young readers.

The research so far suggests the need for additional research before the what’s first question can be answered with confidence, if indeed it is crucial. Perhaps the more critical element will be shown to be how well the program is designed and implemented.

Next question: Teach the sounds/letters in the order of the alphabet or in a modified order?

In the DI beginning reading program Teach Your Child To Read In 100 Easy Lessons the correspondences between the introduced sounds and their letters are presented in a sequence different to that in the alphabet to reduce the ambiguity associated with similar shapes or sounds being introduced at nearly the same time. For example, /d/ is introduced in Lesson 9, whereas /b/ is taught in Lesson 61. An additional distinguishing prompt sees the "ball" on the /d/ assigned a stretched (almost elliptical) shape (until Lesson 74) to separate it further from its mirror image /b/. This pair of letters often presents problems of interference (reversals) to young or naïve readers, who are sometimes accused of neurological deficits to account for a largely instructional problem. Another rationale for the atypical sequence of letter introduction is to enlarge the range of words which can be created from the earliest stages of the program.

It should be remembered that until reading a written code is presented as a task for children, they have probably never been confronted with an object that changes its name when its orientation alters. A chair remains a chair no matter how it is rotated around its axes. Interestingly, when students prone to reversals are asked to copy a letter shape from a model (e.g., from the blackboard), they do not usually confuse the orientation, that is they do not produce a reversal. So reversals may be a signal for careful teacher monitoring, but it is best treated as an instructional problem rather than as some sort of neurological marker.

There is some evidence suggestive of why beginners and low progress readers may have difficulty with mirror image letters, such as b and d. It also provides a rationale for separating in time the teaching of such mirror image letters.

“Mirror invariance means recognizing a mirror image as the same object. It makes good sense for visual recognition to be set up this way. If I recognize a dog facing to my left, I ought to recognize the same dog facing to my right as the same object. But mirror invariance is a problem when children are learning to read, because for that task one must NOT treat mirror-reversed objects as identical: b and d must be treated differently. Anyone who has observed children learning to read and write cannot help but notice that they initially make a lot of mirror reversal errors. The errors disappear with practice.

In a recent study Felipe Pegado and colleagues (2013) set out to investigate whether literacy changes mirror invariance not just for letters of the alphabet, but for other visual stimuli as well. Does the process of learning to read actually change this aspect of vision? … A straightforward interpretation is that lots of practice with visual stimuli that are not mirror-reversible—that is, learning to read—changes the visual system. The natural state of the visual system is that mirror-reversed objects are treated as equivalent.”

Willingham, D. (2013). Reading and brain change. Retrieved from http://www.danielwillingham.com/1/post/2013/11/reading-and-brain-change.html#comments


“Finally, our findings support the hypothesis that if a letter is visually confusable, students may have a more difficult time identifying the LC letter correctly. Our findings control for other important predictors (i.e., all other ps < .01) and are in Applied Psycholinguistics 35:6 960 Huang & Invernizzi: Lowercase alphabet naming line with prior research, which suggests that the visual confusability of the letter is also a major determinant of successful LC letter recognition (Levin et al., 2008; Treiman & Kessler, 2003; Treiman et al., 2006). A probable explanation is that LC letters are subject to more confusion (Popp, 1964) compared to UC letters that are more visually distinct (Cohn & Stricker, 1979; Ehri & Roberts, 2006). For example, the UC letters B, D, P, and Q are much more visually distinct from each other compared to LC letters such as b, d, p, and q.” (p.959-60)

Huang, F.L., & Invernernizzi, M.A. (2014). Factors associated with lowercase alphabet naming in kindergarteners. Applied Psycholinguistics 35(6), 943–968.

Should we initially teach upper case or lower case letters?

“An important step in letter name mastery is knowing both the UC and the LC forms by name (Treiman & Kessler, 2003), and the lack of knowledge of both forms can impede reading growth which requires the symbolic knowledge of letters (Bialystok, 1991). In the United States, parents and teachers typically do not teach children to recognize and differentiate the visual shapes of alphabetic letters until after they have already been exposed to letter names through the commonly known alphabet song (Smith, 2000). … While learning UC letters is important, the ability to recognize LC letters is critical for reading (Adams, 1990) because a majority of text comprises LC letters (Worden & Boettcher, 1990). Using Jones and Mewhort’s (2004) data set on the frequency of UC and LC characters, we estimate that LC letters appear approximately 17 times more often than UC letters. … Although alphabet knowledge plays a foundational role in literacy development (Treiman et al., 2006), only a few studies actually simultaneously test various hypotheses on the factors related to letter naming ability (e.g., Justice et al., 2006; Turnbull et al., 2010). The more the education community understands what factors contribute to learning both UC and LC letter names, the better instructional practices can be informed. … All letters are not of equal difficulty (Arciuli & Simpson, 2011), and letter specific attributes may influence the probability of a letter being correctly named (Evans et al., 2006). From an efficiency point of view, some more easily recognized letters pairs may require less time to learn (e.g., Oo, Xx) while others may require more attention (e.g., Bb, Dd). In addition, the set of letters that are easy or difficult tend to be the same for children as they grow older (Worden & Boettcher, 1990). Teaching and learning letter names may be made more efficient by allocating time based on the differential difficulty of the letters (Piasta & Wagner, 2010b).” (p.943-5)

Huang, F.L., & Invernernizzi, M.A. (2014). Factors associated with lowercase alphabet naming in kindergarteners. Applied Psycholinguistics 35(6), 943–968.

How might you initially screen and then monitor progress in these important letter-sound associations?

There are numerous formal tests for letter-sounds and letter names, such as the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test-Revised, and the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability (Revised). For monitoring, there are curriculum-based measures such as The Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) that include both Letter Naming Fluency and Letter Sound Fluency subtests. Note that these tests are timed, so they add a component of speed along with power – efficiency along with knowledge. Employing fluency in the measurement of subword skills (e.g., letter names/sounds) has become of increasing interest (Speece, Mills, Ritchey, & Hillman, 2003) because of the significance of automaticity as a quality beyond mastery.


The DIBELS measures are also very brief, and easy to administer. For example, Letter Naming Fluency involves a sheet with upper and lower-case letters, and students name as many letters as possible in 1 min. Fewer than 2 letters in 1 min at preschool or early first year at school is considered at-risk, between 2 and 7 constitute some risk, and 8 or more is classed as low risk.

“Although the need for early identification is not controversial, identifying valid measures that can be used with pre-readers has yet to be accomplished. One promising approach is the use of fluency tasks that measure subword skills (e.g., letter names and letter sounds; Kame'enui & Simmons, 2001; Kaminski & Good, 1996; Olson, Wise, Johnson, & Ring, 1997). By fluency, we mean the speed and accuracy with which multiple exemplars can be produced orally. From this perspective, fluency tasks are distinguished from Rapid Automatized Naming tasks (RAN; Denckla & Rudel, 1976; Wolf & Bowers, 1999) in that the latter use only a few presumably known stimuli (e.g., five letters), whereas fluency measures use many exemplars (e.g., all or most letters of the alphabet).”

Speece, D.L., Mills, C., Ritchey, K.D., & Hillman, E. (2003). Initial evidence that letter fluency tasks are valid indicators of early reading skill. Journal of Special Education, 36, 223-233.

What’s the role of hand writing in establishing the letter-sound relationship?

Ensuring students are taught and practise handwriting helps cement the letter shapes in memory.

“Writing helps in many ways. First the physical act of forming the letters forces the child to look closely at the features that make one letter different from another. Second, writing letters (left to right) trains the ability to read left to right. Third, saying each sound as the letter is written helps anchor the sound-to-letter connection in the memory” (p.239).

McGuinness, D. (2004). Growing a reader from birth: Your child's path from language to literacy. New York: W.W. Norton and Co.

“Results of this study revealed a transfer of code-related early literacy skills from writing instructional methods to reading outcomes, lending empirical support to the influence of writing instruction on enhancing the development of young students’ phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, and word decoding in reading. However, the transfer of code-related skills is highly dependent on the method of writing instruction.” (p. 310)

Jones, C.D., & Reutzel, D.R. (2015). Write to read: Investigating the reading-writing relationship of code-level early literacy skills. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 31(4), 297-315.

“Writing is an immensely important and equally complex and sophisticated human skill commonly ascribed a fundamental role in children’s cognitive and language development, and a milestone on the path to literacy. Nevertheless, compared to the vast field of reading research, there has been less scientific attention devoted to the act and skill of writing. … A large body of research in neuroscience, biopsychology and evolutionary biology demonstrates that our use of hands for purposive manipulation of tools plays a constitutive role in learning and cognitive development, and may even be a significant building block in language development. Furthermore, brain imaging studies (using fMRI, i.e., functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) show that the specific hand movements involved in handwriting support the visual recognition of letters. Considering the fact that children today or in the near future may learn to write on the computer before they master the skill of handwriting, such findings are increasingly important. In this article we present evidence from experiments in neuroscience and experimental psychology that show how the bodily, sensorimotor – e.g., haptic – dimension might be a defining feature of not only the skill of writing but may in fact be an intrinsic factor contributing to low-level reading skills (e.g., letter recognition) as well, and we discuss what a shift from handwriting to keyboard writing might entail in this regard. …  writing is a process that requires the integration of visual, proprioceptive (haptic/kinaesthetic), and tactile information in order to be accomplished (Fogassi & Gallese, 2004). In other words, the acquisition of writing skills involves a perceptual component (learning the shape of the letter) and a graphomotor component (learning the trajectory producing the letter’s shape) (van Galen, 1991). Research has shown that sensory modalities involved in handwriting, e.g., vision and proprioception, are so intimately entwined that strong neural connections have been revealed between perceiving, reading, and writing letters in different languages and symbol/writing systems. (James & Gauthier, 2006; Kato et al., 1999; Longcamp, Anton, Roth, & Velay, 2003, 2005a; Matsuo et al., 2003; Vinter & Chartrel, 2008; Wolf, 2007).

Thus, replacing handwriting by typing during learning might have an impact on the cerebral representation of letters and thus on letter memorization. In two behavioral studies, Longcamp et al. investigated the handwriting/typing distinction, one in pre-readers (Longcamp, Zerbato-Poudou et al., 2005b) and one in adults (Longcamp, Boucard, Gilhodes, & Velay, 2006). Both studies confirmed that letters or characters learned through typing were subsequently recognized less accurately than letters or characters written by hand. In a subsequent study (Longcamp et al., 2008), fMRI data showed that processing the orientation of handwritten and typed characters did not rely on the same brain areas. Greater activity related to handwriting learning was observed in several brain regions known to be involved in the execution, imagery, and observation of actions, in particular, the left Broca’s area and bilateral inferior parietal lobules. Writing movements may thus contribute to memorizing the shape and/or orientation of characters. However, this advantage of learning by handwriting versus typewriting was not always observed when words were considered instead of letters. In one study (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1990), children spelled words which were learned by writing them by hand better than those learned by typing them on a computer. … Current brain imaging techniques show how neural pathways can be differentially activated from handling different writing systems: logographic writing systems seem to activate very distinctive parts of the frontal and temporal areas of the brain, particularly regions involved in what is called motor perception. For instance, experiments using fMRI have revealed how Japanese readers use different pathways – when reading kana (an efficient syllabary used mainly for foreign and/or newer words, and for names of cities and persons), the activated pathways are similar to those used by English readers. In contrast, when reading kanji – an older logographic script influenced by Chinese – Japanese readers use pathways that come close to those used by the Chinese (Wolf, 2007)” (p.386, 9).

Mangen, A., & Velay, J-L. (2010). Digitizing literacy: Reflections on the haptics of writing, Advances in haptics, In Mehrdad Hosseini Zadeh (Ed.), InTech. DOI: 10.5772/8710. Retrieved from: http://www.intechopen.com/books/advances-in-haptics/digitizing-literacy-reflections-on-the-haptics-of-writing

“A large body of data supports the view that movement plays a crucial role in letter representation and suggests that handwriting contributes to the visual recognition of letters. If so, changing the motor conditions while children are learning to write by using a method based on typing instead of handwriting should affect their subsequent letter recognition performances. In order to test this hypothesis, we trained two groups of 38 children (aged 3–5 years) to copy letters of the alphabet either by hand or by typing them. After three weeks of learning, we ran two recognition tests, one week apart, to compare the letter recognition performances of the two groups. The results showed that in the older children, the handwriting training gave rise to a better letter recognition than the typing training. … After training, we found stronger and longer lasting (several weeks) facilitation in recognizing the orientation of characters that had been written by hand compared to those typed. Functional magnetic resonance imaging recordings indicated that the response mode during learning is associated with distinct pathways during recognition of graphic shapes. Greater activity related to handwriting learning and normal letter identification was observed in several brain regions known to be involved in the execution, imagery, and observation of actions, in particular, the left Broca's area and bilateral inferior parietal lobules. Taken together, these results provide strong arguments in favour of the view that the specific movements memorized when learning how to write participate in the visual recognition of graphic shapes and letters.. … In fact, it has been reported that learning by handwriting facilitated subjects’ memorization of graphic forms (Naka & Naoi, 1995). Visual recognition was also studied by Hulme (1979), who compared children’s learning of a series of abstract graphic forms, depending on whether they simply looked at the forms or looked at them as well as traced the forms with their index finger. The tracing movements seemed to improve the children’s memorization of the graphic items. Thus, it was suggested that the visual and motor information might undergo a common representation process. Various data converge to indicate that the cerebral representation of letters might not be strictly visual, but might be based on a complex neural network including a sensorimotor component acquired while learning concomitantly to read and write (James & Gauthier, 2006; Kato et al., 1999; Longcamp et al., 2003; 2005a; Matsuo et al., 2003). Close functional relationships between the reading and writing processes might hence occur at a basic sensorimotor level, in addition to the interactions that have been described at a more cognitive level (e.g., Fitzgerald & Shanahan, 2000).” (p. 67).

“In this debate about the importance of motor conditions when learning to read and write, the results of the present study are in agreement with those showing that writing letters facilitates their memorization and their subsequent recognition (Hulme, 1979; Naka and Naoi, 1995)” (p. 75).

Longcamp, M., Zerbato-Poudou, M.T., & Velay, J.L. (2005). The influence of writing practice on letter recognition in preschool children: A comparison between handwriting and typing. Acta Psychologia, 119, 67-79.

“Unlike some European countries such as Italy and France that teach cursive writing from the beginning of formal schooling, in the United States manuscript writing (printing) is taught from kindergarten to second grade, and cursive is not introduced until third grade; and typically cursive writing is not taught after fourth grade. Thereafter, most children use only manuscript printing or a mix of manuscript and cursive (Graham, Berninger, & Weintraub, 1998)” (p.495).

“Alphabetic languages with grapheme-phoneme correspondences may have been invented because writers discovered that written symbols associated with speech sounds require less brain resources and can be produced more efficiently (i.e., requiring activation of fewer brain regions and needing less energy to function). This link between letter writing and phonological access may explain why children improved in reading real words and orthographic coding when taught word decoding and letter writing in tandem compared to when taught decoding alone without letter writing instruction (Berninger, Dunn, Lin, & Shimada, 2004; Dunn & Miller, 2009). Automatic letter writing, with its automatic access to phonology (lexical names and sublexical phonemes) may also facilitate learning of word spelling. … Understanding writing development is complex because writing brains are dynamically constructed as brains interact with the environment (Berninger & Richards, 2002; James & Gauthier, 2006). In addition, writing involves many other cognitive processes besides transcription (Alamargot & Chanquoy, 2001; Fayol, 1994, 1999, 2008; Fayol, Jisa, & Mazur-Palandre, 2008; Hayes, 2009; Hayes & Chenoweth, 2006; Hayes & Flower, 1980). However, transcription, including handwriting, is necessary for translating higher-order cognitive processes to spell words and create written text. The brain is a mediating variable during handwriting, spelling, and composing, but other child variables (e.g., interest and motivation) and environmental variables (e.g., instruction) also matter in writing acquisition (Berninger & Richards, 2009). Explicit instruction in letter writing helps developing writers learn to spell words, which are used to communicate ideas and construct the written text to express and elaborate upon ideas (Berninger & Fayol, 2008; Berninger et al., 2009b, c; Hayes, 2009; Hayes & Berninger, 2009). Handwriting is not merely a mechanical, motor skill, but rather a brain-based skill that facilitates meaning-making as writers externalize their cognitions through letter forms, the building blocks of written words and text” (p.511-512).

Richards, T., Berninger, V., Stock, P., Altemeier, L., Trivedi, P., & Maravilla, K. (2011). Differences between good and poor child writers on fMRI contrasts for writing newly taught and highly practiced letter forms. Reading and Writing, 24(5), 493-516.

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