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Letter names or letter sounds?

Updated: Feb 22, 2020


Is it 'w' for Will or 'W ("double you") for Will? Should we sing the alphabet song yet?


I'm often asked by parents if they should teach the letter names or letter sounds when their child shows an interest in print or letter shapes. Many parents choose to refer to letter names like D ("Dee for dog") where others may use the sounds. Phonics teaching has certainly changed since I was at school but in most cases, children will be taught letter sounds, using a particular scheme, when they start their reception year at school. Be it Jolly Phonics, Read Write Inc, Letterland, Letters and Sounds, TES, Oxford Reading Tree, or a bespoke scheme written by the school, whichever phonics programme is used in your child's class, the speech sounds are the same. There are more sounds to learn than letters of the alphabet; more than 44, in fact!.


A good place to start is your child's name. If the sounds are straight forward, you may have a 'ssss' for Sam or a 'ffff' for Fern. You may have a 'ch' for Charlie (rather than 'c' for Charlie), or a 'sh' for Sean, (rather than 's' for Sean). It's more tricky to decide which sound or letter to use when the initial letter doesn't usually make the sound it makes in your child's name. An example here is with the name Wren. Is it 'w' for Wren, or 'rrrr' for Wren? If we are concentrating on the sounds, it's really 'rrrr' for Wren, but when recognising letters, it's 'W." In this case, I'd refer to the speech sounds first, so 'rrrr' for Wren, but when looking at the actual letters, see them as symbols and point out the shape of the word as a whole. I might say, "Here's your special letter. It's a W (double you)."


Before children start school, it's important to encourage speech first. Tuning into sounds and developing careful listening are two of the pre-phonics skills we need our little people to develop. They learn a lot by watching adults and older children talking. If they can watch an adult making individual sounds really clearly, this helps them coordinate their own muscles to make the same sounds. Exaggerating the movements we use to make sounds with our mouths, helps children to copy. Sitting side by side and making sounds whilst looking into the mirror can be helpful but sitting face to face is one of the best positions for modelling sounds. Forward facing pushchairs help children to see the world where parent facing pushchairs help them to develop interactions to go with it.


Armed with an alphabet book, with a page of images per letter, point to the objects and say the sound and the word, "a for apple." Repeating or elongating the sounds helps with the production of them in the mouth, and allows your child to watch how to make them: "b b b for ball," and "lllll for lolly." Some sounds are bouncy (you can repeat these, like g g g g) and some are stretchy (you can say them in one long go until you lose your breath, like ssssss).


Letter names do have a place, and learning the alphabet song is useful, but not essential, before school. Lots of other nursery rhymes and songs help children to learn about rhythm, rhyme and alliteration. In the fairly usual alphabet song (ABCDEFG, HIJK, LMNOP...) children often blur 'LMNOP' into one word so the British Council Alphabet Song with the monkeys singing, "A B C D E, I'm in the jungle in a coconut tree" is a good one to try.

https://learnenglishkids.britishcouncil.org/songs/the-alphabet-song


The important thing in the pre-school years is not to 'teach' letters by name or sound, but to experience them. In the bath, look for 'g' for 'Grannie' and 'm' for Mummy and introduce the shapes of the letters in a fun and meaningful way. Have fun reading a range of stories with rhyme and alliteration, talk in syllables or sounds, like a robot, to break words down and build them back up again, sing rhymes and songs, play musical instruments and have conversations. These all make for easy reading when children start school.


Send me a message if you'd like any more information or visit the Wilbur and Flops Facebook page. This video will help with pronunciation of the letter sounds, and explains some of the terminology your child will learn in reception at school: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=97&v=UCI2mu7URBc&feature=emb_logo

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