A while ago, I received this email about teaching the alphabet letter names:
My child is in a Montessori school. Her teacher told us not to teach her the names of the letters. Why not? What can it hurt to know the names of the letters? That is what my mother taught me and I learned to read just fine. If that is not the right thing to do, what should we be doing at home?
A Confused Mom
This is a common question for me. So many children grow up learning the names of the letters first (think the alphabet song) before they learn the letter sounds, if ever. And while this isn’t wrong, it certainly isn’t the easiest way to learn to read.
In a Montessori school, children are taught the sounds of the letters before the names. This is because sounds of letters slide together to read words and the names of letters do not. Let’s think about the word “ram.” The sounds of the letters are “rrrrrr, aaaaa and mmmmm.” If a child looks at each letter and produces the sound of the letter, all he has to do is blend the sounds to read the word. “rrraaammm, ram!”
If, upon seeing a word, he says the names of the letters, reading the word has more unnecessary steps. If he looks at the word and says “are, aye, em,” he is unable to blend the names of the letters to unlock the word. He has to disregard the name of each letter and access the sound from within his mind. “Are, no, rrrrr, aye, no aaaaaa etc. It is much more efficient to blend sounds alone.
Children do need to know the names of the letters but not until they are ready to learn their long vowel sounds or to spell words by saying the names of the letters. Interestingly, most Montessori schools find that children naturally know the names of the letters after they have begun to read words.
Concentrating on just the letter sounds is the most efficient way to help your child unlock the mystery of reading most efficiently.
What are the Letter Sounds?
In a Montessori classroom, we introduce letter sounds first in sound games and later with the sandpaper letters. For maximum efficiency and success in the beginning stages of reading and writing, we use the short vowel sounds and the hard consonant sounds. Here’s an example for each letter to help you remember:
Note: Do not add an “uh” to the end of these sounds! “C” is not “cuh”, it’s a crisp “c”
Q: queen (kw)
X: fox (kss)
How do I teach these sounds at home?
Unless you are homeschooling your child, there is no need to directly teach letter sounds at home. However, you can play simple games that will support this learning in the classroom. Here are four of my favorites:
Can You Hear the Sound?
Practice saying a word and isolating the first sound in the word. fan, ffffff, listen for the first sound in words. If this is difficult for your child emphasize the sound a bit until he is stronger with this skill. Next, listen for the last sound in words. What sound does “room” end with? First practice hearing the last sound and then generating words that end with a specific sound. “What words end with “mmmm?” An even more difficult skill is to listen for the middle sound in words, “Let’s think of words with “aaa” in the middle.
Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down
Say two words to your child. If they start with the same sound, the child puts their thumbs up and if they start with different letters the child puts their thumbs down. At the beginning you can elongate the initial sounds to make them easier to hear but gradually say them as normally as possible to make this game a bit more challenging. Later move to ending sounds and finally medial vowel sounds.
This is a game where the adult (or a child) chooses a sound and everyone thinks of words that begin with that sound. It is a lot of fun to plan in the car or in school waiting in line or waiting for a turn to wash hands for lunch etc.
This is a little more challenging. The first person says a word and the next person has to listen for the ending sound of that word and think of a word that starts with that sound. I say “cat.” The next person has to hear the ending sound “t’ and start their word with that sound “t.’ They may say the word “toe.” The next person hears the ending sound: “o” in gorilla and thinks of the word “open.” The next person hears the ending sound “nnn” and says the word nice.
Cathie Perolman, M.Ed
Cathie Perolman is a reading specialist, elementary educator, author, consultant, and creator of educational materials for primary and elementary students.
You can see all her original materials for sale in our shop, and read more about her and her life’s work here.