Teacher Question: Is there a particular order in which teachers should teach the letter sounds?
It makes sense to put your underwear on before you put on a skirt, shirt, blouse, or pant.
Unless you’re Madonna.
Then the usual ordering of things doesn’t necessarily get the job done. She changed the sequence from bra/blouse to blouse/bra and became a star. (It helped that she was wildly talented)
Many teachers, principals, parents, and policymakers expect the proper ordering of letters and letter sounds in a curriculum to be more than a matter of convention or style, however. This question comes up often.
It is hard explaining to them that there is no research-proven best sequence for teaching the ABCs or phonics. But that actually is the case.
Back when the National Reading Panel report came out (2000), there was a similar hubbub in Congress. The Panel had found that phonics programs that had a clear sequence of instruction (‘systematic phonics”) were most successful. Consequently, officials wanted to require that everyone teach that sequence.
The problem was that the Panel wasn’t touting a specific curricular ordering, just a planned curriculum. About 18 different phonics programs were examined in those studies, and they each had their own sequence of introducing letters and sounds. And they all worked.
When it comes to teaching something like phonics, it makes sense to have a clear sequential system to follow. That way all the important patterns and elements get taught. As a classroom teacher, I tried to teach phonics in a more individual, diagnostic matter, keeping track of what I had covered with each child. It was an unholy nightmare; too much managing and less learning for the kids.
That doesn’t mean the letter/sound orderings are completely arbitrary.
For example, it makes good sense to offer earlier teaching of the letters and sounds that are used most often. Children seem to learn such letters—including the ones in their names—more quickly than the letters they don’t see much (Dunn-Rankin, 1978). That means one would be wise to teach letters like t, h, s, n, and the vowels, before taking on z, x, or k. One could learn these letters in any sequence, of course, but by teaching the most frequent ones early in the process, the teacher enables kids to read more words sooner—not a bad deal for them.
When I was a becoming a teacher there was a controversy over whether to teach consonants or vowels first. Lots of argument, but not much data: Professors showed us that if you took all the vowels out of a message you could still read the text, so consonants were most useful; their argument for consonants. And others would argue back that no words are without vowels, so vowels clearly have higher frequencies.
Common sense eventually won out. Instead of making it an all or none proposition, we figured out that by teaching a combination of consonants and vowels kids could read and write words earlier.
Still another general guideline has to do with ambiguity. We should try to minimize confusion to make early reading easier. Whatever sequence is used should separate very similar letters. At one time, psychologists flirted with the idea of teaching highly similar letters together, so teachers could point out the differences, but studies found that it was better to go the separate route (Fang & Invernizzi, 2014). Don’t teach b and d together, or m and n. Letters that are visually or phonemically similar just need to be kept apart.
Teach one of the confusables very well before introducing its partners. A student who already has strong purchase on either the /p/ or /b/ sounds, will have less trouble mastering the other. (Ws are confusing, not because of their great similarities with other letters, but because of the pronunciation of their names: I wish I had a nickel for every time I have told a young writer to sound out a w and he has said, “ Doooubbbblle-uuu…/d/”.)
A related question has to do with capitals and lower case letters. Which of those do we teach first? Basically, lower case letters have greater value in reading. You simply see more of them, so the knowledge of such letters is more predictive of eventual reading achievement (Busch, 1980).
Nevertheless, kids are more likely to come to school knowing their capitals (they are somewhat easier to teach because they are more distinctive, and so many preschool alphabet toys include capitals rather than lower case). And teaching them together is not a big deal (especially for the many that are miniature versions of the capital letters: c, k, m, o, p, s, v, w, x, y, z, for example).
I guess what I’m saying is that the sequences of instruction for these elements are pretty arbitrary and you have a wide range of choices in how you do it. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t commonsense guidelines that should shape these choices a bit. I definitely would not send my daughters to school with their underclothes on the outside, but then they aren’t Madonna.