Putting on Your Underwear First: Why Instructional Sequence Doesn’t Always Matter

  • alphabet phonics
  • 14 March, 2016

Putting on Your Underwear First: Why Instructional Sequence Doesn’t Always Matter

Teacher’s Question:  

Is there a particular order in which teachers should teach the letter sounds? 

Shanahan’s response:

It makes sense to put your underwear on before you put on a skirt, shirt, blouse, or pants.

Unless you’re Madonna.

Then the usual ordering of things doesn’t necessarily get the job done. Madonna changed the sequence from bra/blouse to blouse/bra and became a star. (That she is wildly talented may have also had something to do with that).

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.

I find it hard to explain to them that there is no research-proven best sequence for teaching the ABCs or phonics. But that is the case.

Back when the National Reading Panel (2000) report came out, there was a similar hubbub in Congress. The Panel reported that phonics programs with a clear sequence of instruction – that’s what we meant by “systematic phonics” – were most successful. Consequently, Congress wanted to require that everyone teach phonics using that sequence.

The problem was that the Panel wasn’t touting a specific curricular sequence. No, it was just emphasizing the benefits of a planful and planned curriculum. About 18 different phonics curricula were examined in that collection of studies, and each had its own sequence for introducing letters and sounds.

And they all worked.

But programs that had planned sequences of instruction – any planned sequence – than those that promoted the idea of responsive phonics (the idea that teachers would teach the skills as the children seemed to need them). I wasn’t surprised by this finding, since 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, requiring too much managing on my part and too little learning for the kids.

That doesn’t mean the letter/sound orderings should be completely arbitrary.

For example, it makes good sense to offer earlier teaching of the most useful or frequent letters and sounds. Children learn such letters — including the ones in their own name — more quickly than the letters they don’t see as often (Dunn-Rankin, 1978). It is wise to teach letters like t, h, s, n, and the vowels, before taking on the much less frequent z, x, or k. Kids can successfully learn these letters in any sequence, but teaching the most frequent ones early, enables kids to read words sooner.

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. Our professors demonstrated that if you took all the vowels out of a message you could still read the text, so they claimed consonants were most useful and more worthy of early attention. Other authorities would argue back that are no words without vowels and vowels have higher frequencies. They thought vowels merited earlier instruction.

Common sense eventually won out.

Instead of making it an all or none proposition, teaching a combination of consonants and vowels allows kids to 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. Separate very similar letters.

At one time, psychologists flirted with the idea of teaching highly similar letters together since that would allow teachers to highlight the distinguishing features. But empirical studies found that it was better to separate those similar elements (Gibson & Levin, 1975). Don’t teach b and d together, or m and n, for instance. Letters that are visually or phonemically similar need to be kept apart.

Teach one of the confusables thoroughly, 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 told a young writer to sound out a w, only to get the response, “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).

But kids are more likely to come to school knowing their capitals (they are somewhat easier to teach because they are more distinctive, and because so many preschool alphabet toys include capitals rather than lower case letters). Teaching lower case and capitals together is fine, too -- especially for the many lower-case letters that are just miniature versions of the capital versions: c, k, m, o, p, s, v, w, x, y, z.

Beyond these very general guidelines, the “appropriate” sequences of instruction for letters and sounds are arbitrary and you have a wide range of choices in how to do it or in evaluating the sequences adopted in commercial programs.

However, I would not send my daughters to school with their underclothes on the outside, but then they aren’t Madonna.


Busch, R. F. (1980). Predicting first-grade reading achievement. Learning Disability Quarterly, 3, 38-48. 

Gibson, E. J., & Levin, H. (1975). Psychology of reading. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Anonymous Apr 09, 2017 06:49 PM

We were just discussing this at a workshop I attended last week. Can you expand on whether this holds true as we move into other phonetic teaching, such as long vowel teams, variant vowels, etc.?

I know that the more closely we can match our sequence to the text that we have it helps our readers, and that is what we try to do.

Thank you! 3/14/16

Timothy Shanahan Apr 09, 2017 06:49 PM

Yes, this is also true of those more advanced or complex phonics patterns or rules. There is no research-based sequence, so teaching the ones that are going to be used most often in your texts makes the greatest sense.


Harriet Apr 09, 2017 06:50 PM

Your article gives excellent advice, which was confirmed when I taught kindergarten last year. We do differ in one area, however, because I never taught or referred to letter names so never had the experience you describe: 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/”. Just focusing on the sounds saved me oodles of time in my half-day kindergarten class and helped prevent code confusion. In this quarter's Reading Research Quarterly there is a very interesting article about preschool predictors of early literacy acquisition, and the authors confirm the importance of letter knowledge. However--and this is important--they accepted as correct EITHER letter names or letter sounds when assessing the preschoolers, so there's no reason to teach names before sounds--and lots of reasons not to. I followed Linnea Ehri's recommendation to use letter-embedded picture mnemonics and used Zoophonics as a fast, fun way to practice all the sounds every day while focusing on a few in depth for blending and segmenting as you describe. Thank you for a very important discussion.


Mary Apr 09, 2017 06:50 PM

Letter–sound correspondences are most easily learned when the sound of the letter is in the onset of the letter’s name, such as /k/(ka) or /v/ (v e). It’s more difficult when the sound of the letter is in the final position of the letter’s name, such as l (el) or f (ef ). Letter sounds with no connection with their name, such as the sound for h, are the most difficult (McBride-Chang, 1999 ).
In our book on teaching reading to at risk students, we compared the sequence of letter-sound instruction for Lindamood LiPS & Reading Mastery Direct Instruction. When students have difficulty learning to read (50% or more of students in poverty schools) the order in which they are introduced can have a big impact on how easily they are learned.
1. Direct Instruction Letter-Sound Introduction:
Reduce confusion teaching letters with similar sounds or appearance. Letters with similar sounds or similar iappearance should not be introduced to students at the same time. Introduce at least 3 letters between them. Letters with both a similar sound & similar appearance should be separated by at least 6 letters. When introducing vowels, teachers should separate them by at least 3 letters and short i and e separated by 6 letters.
Kids move into story reading earlier by teaching high-frequency lsounds so teach more-useful letter sounds (consonant sounds /m/ /n//s//t/ & all of the vowel sounds) before less-useful sounds (/x//z//q/).
Teach lowercase letters before uppercase letters. Most uppercase letters are not identical to their lowercase ones & learning both at the same time places an undue burden on students who are at risk. Because beginning reading passages contain mostly lowercase letters, teach them first.
The program sequence relies on the following information:
Letters with Similar Sounds: b and d; b and p; m and n; short i and short e; k and g; t and d; short o and short u Letters with Similar Appearance: b and d; b and p; m and n; q and p; h and n; v and w; n and r Letters with Similar Sounds and Appearance: b and d; m and n: b and p

2. Lindamood: LiPS Letter –Sound Introduction Rationale
Depending on the needs of the students, teachers choose Path 1 or Path 2. In Path 1 all consonant sounds are taught before vowel sounds. These sounds are then used to manipulate phonemes, spell, and read. Path 1 is used for older students. In Path 2, three consonant pairs (6 sounds) and three vowel sounds are taught & then used to manipulate phonemes, spell & read. When students are at mastery with those sounds in reading&spelling, then the next set are taught. Path 2 is more appropriate for younger students&remedial students who have experienced consistent failure. The program also considers the following in their sequence: Teach the “Brothers” Teach consonant pairs called brothers. Each consonant pair consists of a voiced and an unvoiced consonant formed with the same mouth movements. Examples of consonant pairs are: /p/ and /b/ ; /t/ and /d/; /k/ and /g/ Teach the “Cousins” After students know the brothers, teach the groups of consonants called the cousins. Nose sounds (/m/, /n/, /ng/), wind sounds (/w/, /wh/, /h/), and lifters (/l/, /r/) fall in this category. Teach the “Borrowers” Next, teach the borrowers because they borrow the sounds of other letters (/c/, /x/, /qu/, /y/). Teach the “Vowel Circle” 15 long & short vowels are divided into four groups according to the way they are formed by the mouth and tongue. Students learn where the vowel sounds are articulated, using sensory information to organize them into the following categories: round, smile, sliders, and open. Students learn to organize the vowels into the linguistic vowel circle (you can Google to find one) organized by tongue placement and shape of the mouth for each vowel.


Courtney Goddard Apr 09, 2017 06:51 PM

Hi, Dr. Shanahanon! I recently posted on one of your other blog posts, but stumbled across this one today, as well. I thought your blog post title was extra catchy! (Haha!) Anyway, I was just talking to some of the teachers I work with about how our school teaches letters to our students. We currently use the StoryTown series as a guide for introducing two letters each week, along with three sight words. When my daughter first went to school, I was still in college getting my teaching degree, so she was my guinea pig for many of the strategies I was taught! When she was in kindergarten, I expected they would start with Aa and just move through the alphabet, but that wasn’t the case! (I was only in my junior year of college, so I still had a lot to learn!!) Anyway, when I would practice the letters of the week and sight words with her, she picked it up so easily (thank God). I definitely agree with the professionals in teaching letters out of order! Many of the students I teach now struggle with letter identification. I found early on, going in order did not make it any easier for them! I find teaching students the letters with straight lines (A, E, F, H, I, K, L, etc.) are much easier for the beginner student. I wonder if it is because it is easier to form the letters in wring them?! Either way, thanks for your confirmation blog post that reiterates what I have personally found to be true! Thanks for sharing!


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Putting on Your Underwear First: Why Instructional Sequence Doesn’t Always Matter


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