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Teaching Letter-name and Letter-sound Associations

By Patricia G. Gildroy

Upon entering kindergarten, children from highly literate homes may already be able to identify and write some or all of the letters of the alphabet, and may know some of the sounds individual letters or letter combinations represent. Children from less-literate homes may have a sense that reading involves interpreting strings of symbols, but they may not know any letter names, shapes, or sounds. As part of a comprehensive beginning reading program for both types of students, teachers need to merge phonological awareness activities with explicit instruction in letter-sound associations. In order to develop strong letter-sound associations, students must learn three things: letter names, letter symbols, and the different letters or letter combinations that can represent individual phonemes.

This means that children need to learn to recognize and be able to name all 26 lower-case and upper-case printed letters for a total of 52 different symbols, not including different types of fonts or cursive letters. In addition, students need to learn the most common sound for each letter as well as the less common sounds that letters can represent. Although there are 26 letters and 39-44 phonemes, students need to learn about 70 letter-sound relationships to become successful readers and spellers. Learning the letter names, letter symbols, and letter-sound associations can be a daunting task for any child but especially for those who have little early literacy exposure or for those students who may be at-risk for reading disabilities.

The purpose of this article is to provide you with research-based information regarding instructional considerations that should be made for teaching letter-sound associations and to help you develop an understanding of how letter-sound knowledge relates to students' abilities to decode words.

Initial Instruction of Letter Names
By the time English speaking children enter kindergarten, most can sing the Alphabet Song and are able to identify a large percentage of letters (Adams, 1990). This familiarity with letters symbols and their names helps prepare students for further developing their phonological awareness, learning sound-symbol relationships, and learning how to sound out words.

For those children who do not have this knowledge, teaching the Alphabet Song in preschool or at the beginning of kindergarten is a good place to start (Adams, 1990). The rhythm and pattern of the Alphabet Song (sung to "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star") enables children to learn the names of the letters fairly easily, and also teaches children the alphabetic sequence or alphabetic order that they will use for the rest of their lives. Once students can give a fairly accurate rendition of the song, teachers can then begin to teach letter-name associations.

At the same time that teachers are working with students to develop their phonological awareness, teachers can begin introducing letter-symbols, letter names, and letter sounds. While some curriculum guides suggest teaching letter-sound associations prior to teaching letter-name associations, instructionally it is easier to be able to refer to specific letters by their names rather than by their sounds. The research does indicate that young students can be easily confused if the letter symbol, the letter name and the letter sound are introduced at the same time. Once a student is accurate in being able to identify and name a letter or to give its sound, then the other relationship can be introduced. Teachers can also reduce confusion by making sure they and their students use the correct terms when referring to either the letter name or the letter sound.

Teaching Letter-Name Associations
Conceptually, letters are difficult for young children to understand. Unlike other objects in their lives that remain the same regardless of their spatial orientation, letters do not remain the same. A cup remains a cup if it is upside right, upside down, or at any angle. Letters change their identities depending upon their spatial orientation. Although the letters 'p,' 'b,' 'd,' and 'q' are basically the same shape, by changing their spatial orientation, they become different letters.

Upon entering kindergarten, most children are generally more familiar with upper-case letters than lower-case letters. Upper-case letters are more distinctive and therefore somewhat easier to learn to identify than lower-case letters. However, as most words in beginning reading books are printed in lower-case letters; starting with lower case letters enables students to read words more quickly. Once they learn lower-case letters, upper-case letters can be introduced.

Teachers need to be explicit in teaching letter-name associations by showing the letter symbols and telling students the letter name. "The name of this letter is 'a'. What is the name of this letter?" Once students are accurate in being able to identify and name several letters, you can help them develop their fluency in being able to name letters quickly by using the Alternating Drill that you'll be learning about in this lesson. By being familiar with letter names, students can then began to associate different styles of the same letter with one letter name. For instance, although the letter 's' looks different in this sentence than it looks on a 'Stop' sign or on a Pepsi (tm) can, by being able label each of these symbols as the letter 's' enables students to begin to become familiar with all of the different ways a letter can be written.

In addition to being able to distinguish between and identify the different letters, students also need to learn to write the letters. Initially, it is sometimes helpful to have students use a guide to trace the letter. By showing students where to start the letter formation, they will have a better idea of how to independently write the letters when they no longer have a guide to trace or a model to copy.

Teaching Letter-Sound Associations
Once students are fluent in being able to identify and name a set of letter symbols, and are able to segment and blend words at the phoneme level, then you can begin to teach letter-sound associations. Again, you need to explicitly link the letter symbol with the letter sound. "This sound is |aaa|, what sound?" In signaling students to say the sound, have students hold continuous sounds for one to two seconds to prepare them for sounding out. Signal students to say stop sounds quickly (Carnine, Silbert & Kameenui, 1997). Once students are accurate in being able to produce the sounds for a set of letters, then you can use the Alternating Drill to help students develop fluency.

Instructional Considerations for Teaching Letter-sound Associations
Currently, several beginning reading curriculum guides suggest teaching letter-sound associations implicitly rather than explicitly. Rather than telling students the letter-name or the letter-sound directly, the curriculum guides suggest saying words that begin with the sound and having students determine what the new sound might be. This is not an effective method for students with little literacy experience or who may be at-risk for reading disabilities. These students need to be taught the letter names and letter sounds explicitly.

In order for students to develop understanding of the Alphabetic Principle, they need to experience the regularity of how letters represent phonemes. Therefore, students should be taught, and become fluent in giving the most common sounds for the letters prior to learning alternate sounds for the letter. Most CVC words contain consonants that represent their most common sound (see Appendix A). As vowels have the most variability in their sounds, depending upon the surrounding letters, it is best to begin teaching students what you have probably learned as the "short" vowel sounds. Some teachers distinguish these from "long" vowel sounds as those that say their sounds (short vowels) and those that say their names (long vowels). After students have mastered the vowels that say their sounds, they can be introduced to vowel pairs or vowels that say their names (Appendix A)

An effective method to teach letter sounds is to embed the letter in a picture of a common object that begins with the most common sound for that letter (Ehri, Deffner, & Wilce, 1984). For instance, the letter 'f' can be drawn as the stem of a flower. Students are told the sound of the letter and taught to isolate the first sound in the name of the object in the picture. Students are then taught to draw a simple version of the picture with the letter embedded in it. Students trace the letter in the picture and write the letter separately several times. On the following day, students practice saying the new sound and several previously learned sounds when they see the letters embedded in their respective picture as well as when they are in isolation. Teachers then can help students develop fluency with the Alternating Drill. When compared to learning letter sounds with pictures beside the letter, students who saw and worked with the embedded pictures learned the letter-sound associations faster.

Often teachers will create posters that show objects that begin with a specific letter. To reduce students' confusion, only those objects that begin with the most common sound should be displayed. For instance, even though the word 'eye' starts with the letter 'e', because the initial phoneme in the word 'eye' is |i|, this word would be inappropriate. Likewise, even though the word 'orange' starts with the letter 'o,' because the 'o' says its name instead of its sound, the word 'orange' would be inappropriate for teaching the most common sound of the letter 'o.'

Sequence of Letter-Sound Instruction
There are four guidelines for teaching letter-sound associations:
  1. Teach most of the common sounds before introducing any alternate sounds;
  2. Separate the teaching of letters that are visually similar (e.g., 'p' & 'b', 'm' & 'n', v & w) or auditorily similar (e.g., 'k' & 'g', 't' & 'd', 'e' & 'i', 'u' & 'o') making sure students have mastered the first before introducing the second;
  3. Teach letters that are used more frequently than letters that are used less frequently (e.g., the letters 'm,' 's,' 't,' 'r', 'a,' 'f,' are used more frequently than 'z,' 'v,' and 'q') (There are several recommended sequences in Appendix A);
  4. Use distributed practice which means instead of only focusing on one letter per day, make sure to review the other letters regularly so students have many opportunities to learn the letters and sounds to mastery.

The rate of introducing letters and sounds depends upon your students' progress. When teaching the first five letters or sounds, students should be able to identify the letter or sound with near 100% accuracy before being introduced to another letter or sound (Carnine, Silbert, & Kameenui, 1997). Once students have mastered the first five letters or sounds, you can introduce a new sound or letter every two to three lessons. Do not however, introduce a letter or sound that is similar to one that students still have not mastered. For concise guidelines for teaching letter-sound associations, blending and segmenting words, please refer to the book Direct Instruction Reading (Carnine, Silbert, & Kameenui, 1997).

Helping Students Apply their Letter-Sound Knowledge
As soon as students know two or three letter-sound associations, they should be taught to sound out words. You will be learning how to do that in this lesson. Additionally, students should be introduced to reading sentences and short stories with words that they can decode. In addition to decodable words, students will need to learn some undecodable words (words that students have not yet learned all of the letter-sound relationships). At the end of this reading is a list of the 100 most frequently used words that students will need to become familiar with. In the module on Advanced Word Reading, procedures will be discussed on how to teach undecodable words as well as how to teach students to read connected texts.


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

Carnine, D. Silbert, J., & Kameenui, E. J. (1997). Direct instruction reading. Columbus, OH: Prentice Hall.

Ehri, L. C., Deffner, N. D., & Wilce, L. S. (1984). Pictoral mnemonics for phonics. Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 880-893.

Grossen, B. (1997). 30 years of research: What we now know about how children learn to read. Eugene, OR: The Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning.

Appendix A

Letter-Sound Instructional Sequence from Direct Instruction Reading
a, m, t, s, i, f, d, r, o, g, l, h, u, c, b, n, k, v, e, p, w, j, y, x, q, z

Letter-Sound Sequence from Open Court's Collections for Young Scholars
m, a, t, h, p, n, k, d, s, i,, b, r, f, g, o, x, are,, ck, u, z, l, e, ea, y, w, wh, er, ir, ur, sh, th, ch, tch, k, a-e

The 48 Most Regular Sound-Letter Relationships

a as in fat 		g as in goat		v
m			l			e
t			h			u-e as in use
s			u			p
i as in sit 		c as in cat		w "woo" as in well
f			b			j
a-e as in cake		n			i-e as in pipe
d			k			y "yee" as in yuk
r			o-e as in pole		z
ch as in chip		ou as in cloud		kn as in know
ea as in beat		oy toy			oa boat
ee	need		ph phone		oi boil
er fern			qu quick		ai maid
ay hay			sh shop			ar car
igh high		th thank		au haul
ew shrewd		ir first		aw lawn

The First Hundred Instant Words
These are the most common words in English, ranked in frequency order. The first 25 make up about a third of all printed material. The first 100 make up about half of all written material, and the first 300 make up about 65 percent of all written material.

1-25			26-50			51-75			76-100

the			or			will			number
of			one			up			no
and			had			other			way
a			by			about			could
to			word			out			people
in			but			many			my
is			not			then			than
you			what			them			first
that			all			these			water
it			were			so			been
he			we			some			call
was			when			her			who
for			your			would			oil
on			can			make			its
are			said			like			now
as			there			him			find
with			use			into			long
his			an			time			down
they			each			has			day
I			which			look			did
at			she			two			get
be			do			more			come
this			how			write			made
have			their			go			may
from			if			see			part

Common suffixes: -s, -ing, -ed, -er, -ly, -est

Fry, E. B., Kress, J. E., & Fountoukidis, D. L. (1993). The reading teachers' book of lists (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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