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

  • alphabet sequence of instruction
  • 16 December, 2023

Blast from the Past: This entry first posted on March 14, 2016, and was reposted on December 16, 2023. The original entry had 5 comments which you can see if you click on this link. This question about what would be the best instructional sequence continues to come up regarding teaching the alphabet or teaching phonics. As this blog makes clear (I hope), sequences of these skills are more determined by some rather general, commonsensical guidelines that have emerged from empirical study, but there is no “science of reading” approved sequence that is most beneficial for learning.

Teacher’s Question:  

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

RELATED: Why Main Idea is Not the Main Idea – Or, How Best to Teach Reading Comprehension

Shanahan’s response:

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

That is, unless you’re Madonna.

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

However, when it comes to curriculum, teachers, principals, parents, and policymakers expect the ordering of lessons to be more than a matter of convention or style.

Not surprisingly, this teacher’s 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 to Congress came out, there was a similar hubbub among our legislators. The Panel had reported that phonics programs with a clear sequence of instruction – “systematic phonics” – were most successful. Consequently, they wanted to require that all teachers teach phonics using that best sequence.

The problem was that the Panel wasn’t touting any 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 of them had its own sequence for introducing letters and sounds.

And they all worked. That is, those phonics programs were successful in conferring a learning advantage on the children who were taught them.

Programs that had planned sequences of instruction – any planned sequence – did better than approaches that promoted the idea of responsive phonics -- the notion that teachers should teach skills as the children seemed to need them.

Personally, I wasn’t surprised by this finding, since as a classroom teacher I had tried to teach phonics in such an individual, diagnostic way, keeping track of what I had covered with each child. It was an unholy nightmare. It required way too much managing on my part and way too little learning for the kids.

Teaching in a sequence is important because it ensures that all of the skills get taught – and taught thoroughly. But no sequence has proven to be superior to any other.

That doesn’t mean that letter or sound orderings should be completely arbitrary in a curriculum, just that many variations are going to be effective.

It makes sense, for example, to start out teaching some of the most useful or frequently appearing 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 the vowels along with letters like t, h, s, n, before taking on the much less frequent ones z, q, x, or k. Kids can successfully learn these letters in any sequence, but teaching the most frequent ones early, enables them to read words sooner.

When I was a becoming a teacher there was a controversy over whether it was best to introduce 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 therefore more worthy of early attention. Other authorities argued back that there are no words without vowels and vowels have some of the highest frequencies. Accordingly, 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 makes the greatest sense since it allows kids to read and write words earlier. Teach a few consonants along with a single vowel, and kids will be able to read and write several three letter words (CVCs). Then teach a few more consonants and another vowel and this number of words multiplies.

Another valuable sequencing criterion has to do with avoiding ambiguity. We should try to minimize confusion to make early reading easier. That means we need to separate the introduction of very similar letters and sounds.

At one time, psychologists flirted with the notion of teaching highly similar letters together since that would allow teachers to highlight the features that distinguished those letters from each other. But empirical studies found that it was much better to separate similar elements (Gibson & Levin, 1975). Teaching them together turned out to be confusing.

Don’t teach b and d together, or m and n, for instance. Letters that are visually or phonemically similar need to be kept separated in their introduction.

Teach one item of the confusable pairs thoroughly, before introducing its partner. A student who already has strong purchase on either the /p/ or /b/ sounds, will have less trouble mastering the other. The same can be said about learning the letters b and d. If students are taught one of these well prior to taking on the other, they will master them. But teach them together and they are likely to be unsure of which is which.

Another sequencing issues has to do with capitals and lower-case letters. Which of these do we teach first?

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 (these are somewhat easier to teach because they tend to be a bit more distinctive visually, and because so many preschool alphabet toys emphasize capitals).

Since we want children to see capitals and lower-case forms to be functionally identical in reading (a G and a g will represent the same phonemes), I prefer to teach these together. This is especially useful many lower-case letters that are miniature versions of the capitals: c, k, m, o, p, s, v, w, x, y, z.

Beyond these very general guidelines (usefulness, avoid ambiguity, consonants and vowels, upper and lower case), the “appropriate” sequences of instruction for letters and sounds are arbitrary and you have a wide range of choices in the order that you intend to introduce them. Likewise, beyond these general guidelines, sequence of instruction is not a useful distinguisher among commercial programs you might be considering.

Basically, when it comes to teaching phonics and the alphabet, sequence doesn’t matter very much.

That said, I’m still not letting my daughters to school with their underwear 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.

LISTEN TO MORE: Shanahan On Literacy Podcast


See what others have to say about this topic.

Sarah Dec 16, 2023 03:04 PM

By daughters?

Or my daughters

Jill Dec 16, 2023 08:20 PM

Thanks for this, Tim.
I have a question regarding avoiding ambiguity. What do you think about teaching letters and giving examples/non-examples that differ by voiced vs. unvoiced elements together? For example, the reading program our district uses teaches words that start with /f/ by comparing it to words that start with /v/. Words that start with /b/ are compared to words that start with /p/, etc. The letters f and v or b and p aren't taught together, but the letter f is taught by showing pictures of words that either start with /f/ or /v/ and having children identify which picture starts with the letter f.

Timothy Shanahan Dec 16, 2023 08:32 PM


The problem of confusion comes when we try to teach identification. Your examples are about discrimination -- your program isn't trying to teach the /v/ and /f/ together or the b /b/ - p /p/ together, you are just making certain that in learning one element the student can discriminate from other (possibly) unknown elements. That is a sound practice. Part of learning to identify a letter or phoneme is being able to distinguish it from items that are similar. But try teaching identification with those pairs of elements that you note and you'll have a bunch of 5-year-olds wondering is the /b/ represented by b or p????


Charmaine Dec 17, 2023 01:59 AM

Hi Tim,
Thanks for your thoughts on teaching the sequence of sounds. I have a question regarding the sequence of writing . I was a migrant teacher from India but I’m now teaching in Australia for the last 14 years.
As a teacher, I was taught to teach the names of the alphabet and sounds together and I agree the sequence doesn’t matter as long as it is taught intentionally and frequently reviewed.
However , for years I have seen students come into kindy and made to write their names with a capital letter and then lower case letters. Eg. Charmaine .
I personally am of the opinion that students should learn how to write the upper case letters first ,as their fine motor skills aren’t fully developed and holding the pencil to make straight lines helps develop those muscles. We taught students pattern writing , standing lines , sleeping lines , up down pattern , like mountains and bumpity bumps like semi circles , then we taught the standing letters like I, L T H T, in clusters - AMVW , etc .. and then did the same for lowercase letters. This significantly helped reinforce the sounds as well as develop strong fine motor skills. And the students wrote beautifully ! I don’t find that in Australia. Students come to year three ( which I am teaching ) and they don’t have proper handwriting skills which has an impact on their writing. What is your expert opinion in this regard? Should students learn how to write letters along side learning the particular sounds they are learning as per the sequence their country/ schools has chosen( lowercase first ) or should handwriting be taught based on their development and fine motor skill ability as I taught when I was in India ? Thanks in advance

Timothy Shanahan Dec 17, 2023 04:05 PM


I am a big believer in teaching recognition and production together. There is even a study showing the effectiveness of teaching the alphabet letters, sounds, and writing altogether.


Lori Josephson Dec 17, 2023 05:15 PM

In my experience (and the experience of other esteemed educators), I have found it most beneficial to teach 'continuous' (rather than 'stop' consonants) first, as well as one short vowel at a time. 'Continuous' consonant phonemes can be 'continued' or held onto such as M, S, L, N, F, V, etc. as long as the air lasts in the lungs. This helps greatly in terms of teaching blending and segmenting. Examples of 'stop' consonants are B, T, C, K, P, etc.. It certainly helps to teach the continuous consonants in the initial positions of words. I totally agree with teaching upper case/lower case/ phoneme/grapheme recognition simultaneously, as well as teaching the most common speech sounds first. That said, variations in sequence are certainly just fine, as long as the instruction is cumulative with lots of practice for both decoding and encoding.

Jacob Shiffrin Dec 18, 2023 01:16 AM

Tim- this topic has been on my mind for a while! I’m curious to know more about not just the order of how sounds are taught but also when sounds are taught. Jolly Phonics, which we’ve used to teach our kids sounds, names that their materials are for 3+ year olds. Some students come into kindergarten, or even Pre-K knowing all of their sounds whereas some phonics curricula don’t teach 52 sounds until the end of first grade. Is there literature as to whether it is advantageous, detrimental, or not impactful for students to learn more sounds earlier in their lives?

Timothy Shanahan Dec 18, 2023 05:33 PM


No, I don't know of any such studies. Basically, these skills are beneficial whenever they are learned (preschool, kindergarten, or grade 1). However, it is possible that some children have difficulty learning these skills. You could have a group of children whose parents or preschools taught them and some of those children learned what was taught and others struggled with it. They all show up in your school and it looks like some kids were taught and some were not (but it was really some kids learned and some did not). My prediction would be that those kids who struggled would still struggle with those skills at school


Emma Hartnell-Baker Dec 20, 2023 08:11 AM

I gathered data over about 7 years in Australia (hundreds of teachers would submit end of term data, across every state) and discovered a trend that is more than a statistical outlier; it challenges current paradigms in literacy education. It calls for a re-evaluation of the timing and methodology used in introducing reading materials such as levelled readers to young learners.
Note I didn’t say removal of …which will leave SoR fanatics screaming at me…as they generally do.

This goes deeper than ‘letters or sounds first’…

Although the phonics ‘kick-start’ essential some children hardly need any explicit instruction, some need more guidance.
What matters if that parents and teachers know what they need, when they need it.

I found that at a specific point within that orthographic awareness (phonics) kick-start children could pick up ‘levelled’ readers (associated with three-cueing) and apply the skills - applying phonological recoding and semantics - and read the books: books with a much wider range of words re how mapped (orthographically) and vocab.

That’s the issue when the push is for whole class one size fits all programs where teachers follow a handbook, a ‘scope and sequence’. We’re in a mess in the UK because of it. A lot of babies thrown out with bath water! And yet synthetic phonics now being pushed in Australia by the ‘SoR’ movement. Jim Rose was concerned in 2006 that only 84% of eleven-year-olds could read. Since mandatory changes? Now 1 in 4 can’t.

We need teachers with knowledge and more autonomy. And we need researchers to look at data collected around that learning sequence. Children with good phonemic awareness and mapping skills don’t need to be restricted as they are when taught with commercial programs.

Gaynor Dec 22, 2023 05:52 AM

In NZ, children are taught the well known alphabet song at pre-school as three and four year olds. Alphabet books, puzzles and letters are bought by parents. It seems contrived to me , therefore, to then selectively teach certain alphabet letters when children have been introduced to all the letters in these traditional materials .' X ' and 'Q' may not form many words but fox , box , sox and queen are common in childhood stories . Zig-zag is a fun word and also fuzz as short vowel words.

Parents also hang up alphabet friezes , which they point to as the child sings the alphabet song. Friezes with pictures shaped like the letter as in' o' for orange are common. I tell parents of three year olds to find a frieze like this and make sure the short vowels are represented and the hard 'c' and ''g'. I also tell parents to spend five to ten minutes per day with three year olds and have recordings of the alphabet phonemes to play in the car during trips with the child. Every home with preschoolers should have a sand box for writing letters with their finger.

Teaching dysgraphic children requires considering confusing shapes as well as sounds. The word bed, distinguishing the b and d shape is good for this drawn with a head and foot board and a pillow at the head and a folded blanket at the bed end. PIg is another helpful word for dysgraphic students , appropriately illustrated. with a head and tail.

I have just read an annoying pre-school parent guidance book from the local library which condemns the teaching of preschoolers reading skills as I have mentioned above. Needless to say the references were Marie Clay and Meme Fox. One infuriating quote from the book is, 'Once a parent starts to teach reading they kill off the enjoyment '.

This nonsense really needs strong condemnation. Parents are invaluable and treated as such.

https://youtu.be/75p-N9YKqNo?si=sJAhLTWgIMuRKoaa Here is the classic alphabet song , mentioned above.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.