Alphabet – Sounds or Letter Names?

//Alphabet – Sounds or Letter Names?

Alphabet – Sounds or Letter Names?

Learning the Alphabet is an essential piece of the learning to read puzzle and this is universally accepted.  

How to best teach the Alphabet, however is more contentious.

This is the 3rd post in a series of Teaching the Alphabet.  Check out the links below to access the previous info & tips.

Next up is a look at whether we should teach the alphabet letters by their names or their sounds.

Alphabet Letter Names or Sounds ?

The argument in favour of teaching the Sounds first.

We need to know the sounds the letters make.  Many would argue that this is far more of a priority than knowing the letter names as we use the sounds not the names in synthetic phonics

Children appear to more easily associate the sounds with letters (rather than letter names with letters)

Whilst training of many letter names tends to assist with knowledge of their associated sounds, the sounds tend to be ‘extended’ rather than phonemically correct

There is a push at present towards teaching letter sounds first

There is some evidence that kids learn letter sounds more easily when they are part of a picture support. e.g. the a as part of an apple.  Hence it is quite beneficial to use programs such as Ants in the Apple or Jolly Phonics or even placemats (or posters) or picture books that link a picture(s) with each letter.

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The argument in favour of teaching letter Names first.

Many children learn the alphabet song, and it is common for kids to then use this knowledge and transfer it to what the letters look like eg many kids sing the alphabet song as they put together an alphabet jigsaw puzzle.  Click here to go to our blog on how to help children learn the alphabet by singing it.

Knowing the letter names makes it easier to identify individual letters.

The names of letters are consistent…… “c” is a “c” every time.  The name never changes.  Whereas the sound a ‘c’ makes can vary from the hard ‘c’ as in ‘cat’, the soft ‘c’ as in ‘city’ and the ‘sh’ sound as in “chef’

Younger children tend to learn the names of letters easier and earlier than they do the letter sounds

Some letter names can be easily linked to the sound the letter makes eg the name of the letter  ‘k’  gives a hint to the sound it makes.

What does the NSW Department of Education Say?

The NSW DET released the following guide……NSW Department of Education and Training Learning and Development (2009) Literacy Teaching Guide: Phonics.  Common myths are debunked within this guide, and in respect to letter names and sounds the following was presented…..

Myth – Students should first learn all single letter sounds before they are taught the names of letters to avoid confusing letter names and sounds.

Students often learn letter names before they learn letter sounds.  Although it is sometimes advised to leave the teaching of letter names until after the sounds of letters have been learned, it makes sense to teach letter names early in the phonics program.  The difference between a letter name and a letter sound is easily understood by most students. (p8) Click here for a link to this guide.

What do we do at Starfish Education Centre?

There is no clear and definitive evidence in the research at the moment to distinctly argue one way is superior to the other

I prioritise letter names because of their consistency but map the most common sound each letter makes at the same time.  This is the letter ‘a’ and it makes the sound…   

I use the Ants in the Apple program

My view is whether you teach the letter names or the letter sounds first, it is important that kids learn one system consistently in it’s entirety

For us, here at our centre, it does depend on the age of the child (with younger pre-school age children, the focus is on letter names) and older kids (or kids further along in the learning to read process) we first assess what they already know and generally teach both letter names and sounds at the same time.  Most kids that come to our centre, know most of the letter names and need assistance with letter sounds especially the short vowel sounds.  Click here to go to our blog post on how to teach the sometimes tricky short vowel sounds.  

Check out the youtube clip below of me wording with little Oscar as he learns and practices his letter names.


I draw attention to the letter names Oscar was having difficulty with at the time (b, g) before we got started

I also provide a clue for Oscar with the letter g saying g for giant (as it helps give a cue for the name of the letter) but I also immediately provide the sound cue it says ‘g’ for goat.  Is it any wonder kids get confused when the letters sometimes don’t math their sounds, or indeed match the sound of another letter                 (e.g. g and j)

I provide extra prompts by forming the letter name with my lips as if i was just about to say the letter name myself.

Next up, check out the the youtube clip of the gorgeous Oscar this time learning and practicing his letter sounds.


I provide prompts by once again forming the beginning ore the sound with my mouth/lips.

when needed I provide the additional cue of reminding Oscar of the catchy sentence associated with each letter sound e.g. r – ‘rabbit reading r r r’ and y – ‘yabby yawning y y y’

We have loads of games and resources for kids to learn the alphabet – both letter names and sounds. 

Check them out here in our online shop.

Click here to go to out blog on the best resources for teaching the alphabet.


Levin et al (2006) Learning of Letter Names and Sounds and their Contribution to Word Recognition, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology Vol 93, Issue 2:139-165

Konza, D (2006) Teaching Children With Reading Difficulties, Cengage Learning

Piasta & Wagner (2010) Learning Letter Names and Sounds: Effects of Instruction, Letter Type & Phonoligical Process, Journal od Experimental Child Psychology Vol 105, Issue 4:324-344

By |2018-01-13T10:44:55+00:00June 30th, 2016|Language- literacy|0 Comments

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