Why Letter of the Week May Not Be Such a Good Idea

  • 10 April, 2016

Teacher question:

Our district is trying to determine the proper pacing for introducing letter names/sounds in kindergarten. One letter per week seems too slow; 2 seems a bit fast. Most teachers are frustrated by 2 per week.
We are thinking about going with 1 for the first 9 weeks, then doubling up. This would have all letter names/sounds introduce by February. Can you offer some advise? How much is too much?
Shanahan response:
        This seems like a reasonable straightforward, simple question. And, it is, if you are a teacher, principal, or curriculum designer trying to plan a year of instruction. However, it is not the type of question that research takes on, so I can give you an answer, but it has to be one constructed on my understanding of the teaching of reading (research-based, but not research proven).
        The problem is that I could give a very specific answer like, teach one letter per week during kindergarten (and let’s face it, “Letter of the Week” is very popular). However, if I answered it in that way, I’d be ignoring some really important issues, like whether we want that much focus on individual letters and what is it that we want kids to know about letters.
        So let’s start with a really basic question:  What should a kindergartner know about this aspect of literacy by the end of the year? 
      In my opinion, kindergartners should know the names of all 52 upper and lower case letters. That means they should be able to name the letters presented to them in random order. They should also be familiar with one of the sounds associated with each of those letters—and it would be great if they knew both the “long” and “short” vowel sounds (so if I named or showed them a letter they could produce its sound, and if I made the sound, they could tell me the letter). Kindergartners should be able to sound out some one-syllable words or nonsense words using the letters they have learned. They should be able to fully segment single syllable words easily, and perhaps even be able to manipulate some of these sounds (adding them, deleting them, reversing them). And they should be able to print each of these letters and their names without having a visual model in front of them (and print their names).
    That description would be really easy to accomplish in some communities, where kids come to school already knowing letter names and some of the sounds, and it will be tougher in others. However, it would send kids off to Grade 1 ready to really become readers (especially if other aspects of literacy and language are being taught too).
      In any event, to accomplish all of this I would devote 30-45 minutes per day to these decoding issues—including the teaching of the letters (that's for full-day kindergarten--I would cut this in half in half-day situations). However, that does not mean you should sit kids down for 30-minute letter learning lessons—you might work on letters 2 or 3 times per day, for anywhere from 5- to 20-minutes per sitting.
      I think a combination of 1-2 letters per week is reasonable, but I wouldn't teach new letters every week. Remember letter naming or even letter sounding isn’t all that we want them to learn. 
      For example, let’s say that on Week 1 I teach the “m” and “t” (letter names and sounds, upper and lower case), on week 2, the “p” and “h,” and on a third week, I teach only the letter “o” and its short sound. Then, on Week 4, there would be no new letters introduced. We would focus on using the 5 letters already taught. That means all of my decoding minutes would be spent on phonological awareness exercises focused on those specific sounds, blending various combinations of those letters (op, ot, om, top, tot, Tom, pop, pot, pom, hot, hop, etc.) into syllables, decoding and trying to spell syllables/words on the basis of the sounds alone. 
      If you gave each vowel its own week, and taught many, but not all, of the consonants in pairs, you could easily introduce all the letters over a single semester of kindergarten—and the students would have had at least 45 hours of practice with those letters; meaning a reasonably high degree of mastery should be accomplished by most kids. 
      That means that those “non-letter introduction weeks”—like week 4 above—would be available 18 times during the year--fully half the year. You’d be spending as many weeks introducing letters as not introducing them. Those weeks would allow substantial amounts of phonemic awareness practice with those sounds, decoding work with those letters and sounds, invented spelling work and word construction with those letters and sounds, and ongoing review of all of that to ensure that the learning is really mastered.
  I would not save up those combination weeks until the second semester. I would salt them throughout the year to make sure that the learning was substantial and deep (meaning that kids would not just “know” those letters, but would be able to do something with them). Again, staying with my example above… 3 weeks of letter introduction, and then a week of consolidation might be followed by another week or two of letter introduction, and then back to consolidation with all the letters taught to that time, and that kind of a scheme could go on most of the year. Of course, if you noticed that your kids weren't retaining some of that, there would even be times that you could add in extra days or weeks of consolidation work as needed.
With a plan like that, by summer, your kids would know their letters. But more importantly, they’d be able to perceive the sounds within words, and to engage in simple decoding and spelling using those letters and sounds. Outcomes not common in "letter of the week" teaching environments.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Megan Davis Apr 07, 2017 07:26 PM

I love your idea of mapping out letter instruction. I teach middle school special education and most of my students come to me with an understanding of letter names and letter sounds, but with no idea of how those sounds blend together to make recognizable words. I think that if more emphasis had been put on the phonological usage of those letters and their sounds, like you mapped out for the 4th or 5th week of the lesson cycle, my students would have better reading skills. It has been incredible frustrating to me to try and intervene with my students’ reading abilities. I was not trained in teaching reading, so my go to was always “what sound does this letter make?” and they always knew the answer, but that did not lead to them being able to read the word. After research and more years of experience I now know that a whole language approach that focuses on phonological awareness, blends, sight word memorization, and integrates many other facets of research based reading instruction is more effective to leading students to being able to read independently. Thank you for offering what might not be a popular opinion to the people who have been instructing based on “Letter of the Week” for their entire careers. As teachers, we have to be willing to evolve with our students’ needs and the research that proves what is effective and what is not. 4/10/16

Harriet Apr 07, 2017 07:26 PM

Well, Tim, you know what I think about teaching letter names either before or in conjunction with letter sounds, so I won't beat that dead horse. Here's a relevant excerpt from an email I received from a researcher who recently published in Reading Research Quarterly. "As for teaching and learning letter knowledge: here, ultimately, one must learn what letters SAY – what their sound values are – rather than what their names are. Only letter sound knowledge is directly applicable to the task of decoding or encoding. This knowledge can be acquired implicitly – some children who know letter names only may figure out the relevant letter sounds for themselves (see the work of Rebecca Treiman). But it is probably best to teach them that knowledge directly and explicitly. Thus I believe – though I have not done a systematic literature review on that – that it is best to teach letter SOUND knowledge first – not mentioning letter names at all – until children master core word decoding skills. Letter name knowledge becomes directly relevant only later, when children need to work with a dictionary, or use oral spelling." This recommendation--sounds before names--helped minimize code confusion for all of my kindergartners, especially my strugglers. Linnea Ehri's research shows the effectiveness of using letter-embedded picture mnemonics, which is why I used and loved Zoophonics (and so did the kids). Practice all the sounds every day; emphasize a few for blending and segmenting. Once again, a very important post. Thanks! 4/10/16

Vicki Gibson Apr 07, 2017 07:27 PM

I am posting this caution from my friend and colleague, Vicki Gibson:

Your post read today about teaching alphabet letters may cause some problems, especially for people like me that are trying to help teachers understand that emergent reading readiness (for preschool and kindergarten) is MUCH more than memorizing names of letters and isolated sounds. Unfortunately, because those skills are used to assess kindergarten readiness, there is a strong emphasis on memory work in PreK and K...and less attention to teaching and practicing and developing the phonological awareness/contributions to language development and the contribution to early reading success.

I would never recommend teaching a letter of the week or all letters in one semester, especially these days with so many children entering PreK and K that are Dual Language Learners and do not have strong foundational skills in sound systems for English nor do they possess word meanings and oral language sufficient to jump right into phonemic awareness, letter recognition, blending,decoding and segmenting.

An example...a school district near Dallas forces all END-of-year information in standards to be introduced by December 1...even though the outcomes in the standards do not have to be accomplished until END of year...You know why? So their mid-year data looks good. I fear your suggestions could be interpreted as support for that kind of teaching.

Many PreK and Kindergarten Program Directors encourage memorizing letter names/sounds and prereading before children have developed the foundational skills for print awareness (basic knowledge about print...spaces, words can be spoken and printed and read, or understanding that oral language has a "sound" and "system"...a word order to express ideas).

Those early skills are skipped in lieu of alphabet work and instructional time is used to memorize information that is often isolated and introduced too quickly...children get confused...i.e., LMNOP is one sound and one word and one letter to some kids. Worse, teachers teach those skills in whole-group and do not monitor children's response to instruction so incorrect information is practiced and over-learned.

There are many skills that need to be taught, practiced, and established before we get to phonemic awareness. Kids need skills for self-regulation skills, communication, cooperation, and collaboration...the HOW TO knowledge for participating as a success student in a classroom.

Additionally, the CCSS, as well as most state standards, do not require children to recognize all uppercase and lowercase letters until the END of kindergarten (CCSS, Foundational Skills, Print Concepts, 1.d). Further, they do not have to print all letters until the END of first grade (CCSS, Kindergarten Language Standard 1.a...Print MANY upper and lowercase letters...and Grade 1, Language Standard 1.a...Print ALL upper and lowercase letters).

Also, your recommendation of teaching decoding may need to have a caveat...Encourage teachers to introduce skills, but not expect mastery in kindergarten. The CCSS Foundational Skills for END of year Grade 1,Standard 2...are" a)Distinguish long from short vowel sounds in spoken single-syllable words. b) produce single-syllable words by blending, c) isolate and pronounce initial, medial vowel, and final sounds, and d) segment spoken single-syllable words into their complete sequence of individual sounds.

Vicki Gibson, Ph.D.
Chairman, Gibson Hasbrouck & Associates
www.gha-pd.com 4/11/16

Timothy Shanahan Apr 07, 2017 07:28 PM

Thanks, Vicki. Perhaps I am suggesting too big a bite of this apple for kindergarten, but for many kids I don't think so. Some thoughts that your comment elicits:

1. Trying to teach all of these versus mastering all of these is an important distinction. Even if you believe that most or many kids can accomplish what I describe here, there definitely will be kids would don't learn it all by the end of the year. An important reminder.

2. Also, valuable is your insight about the schools that get it in their heads that if we are supposed to teach these by the end of the year, we can profitably front load to make our mid-year testing look great. Vicki, you know, but perhaps some readers here do not: if I say end of year, I mean end of year--not April to facilitate the testing, not December because you are competing with your buddy at PS 54.

3. You also point out lots of other things that kids need to learn about literacy (and other things during kindergarten): I don't disagree, but remember I was only talking about 30-45 minutes per day. When I teach ELA, we spend 120-180 minutes, so this doesn't get anyone out of building language, teaching listening comprehension, involving kids in fingerpoint reading, and even fluency practice (if they are reading), and writing/composition.

4. Finally, you ding pure memorization (and I have several other offline comments highlighting that). I certainly intend for most of the time (like 7/8 of it) to be spent on phonological awareness and working with the sounds of the letters, rather than memorizing.

thanks. 4/11/17

Anonymous Apr 07, 2017 07:28 PM

With all due respect this post and comments continue to muddy the instructional waters unnecessarily. Plainly said, teaching the letter names is illogical for the four and five year old student and can be detrimental to the real work of learning to blend, manipulate, and segment the sounds in the context of reading whole words. Reading letter names or sounds in isolation is pointless. Please refer to the solid work of USF's Diane McGuiness and Carmen & Geoff McGuiness' brilliant program, Phono-Graphix. It is research-based, systematic, tested, and it works because it is based on how the brain processes learning, and not dependent on fitting some silly one-size fits all weekly calendar of Mr. Letter-of-the-Week. Young children, delayed readers, and ESE students can learn to read fluidly much faster and more efficiently than with the plan described in these posts. 4/11/16

Anonymous Apr 07, 2017 07:29 PM

I agree wholeheartedly with 1-4.
When you are involved in reading intervention for years,any grade, what you see over and over and over again are the above missing pieces.
It`s absolutely nuts that we left it out for so long.
It`s like building a car and we don`t put gas in it.

They start to figure out a lot of stuff when you give them the essentials,not that metacognition in all other facets aren`t good to teach but these are the core essentials.


Vicki Gibson Apr 07, 2017 07:30 PM

Can we go one step farther with info about the alphabet and phonemic awareness?...and stop asking, "What sound does this letter SAY?"...or saying, "This letter says /mmm/" or whatever. Letters are not living things...and they do not talk. The correct language is, "What sound?" and show the letter and wait for response....OR, to teach..."Say, /mmm/...Show the letter and say, "This letter represents the sound, /mmm/".

One more request...Initially, map the sound to the lowercase letter since emergent reading and writing involves more lowercase letters than uppercase. Then "pair and associate" sound and lower- and uppercase letters. The phonics rule for using capitalization for proper nouns is an END-of-year Grade 1 Language skill in most state standards....so why are we making young children memorize uppercase letters?....Because we assess them and think that demonstrates readiness for reading and many adults print in uppercase letters, even on bulletin board titles or announcements....and they are included on keyboards for technology.

Children can see that special names begin with uppercase letters, but they do not need the rationale except at the introductory stage. Ask any kindergarten or elementary teacher...there is nothing more challenging than trying to stop a child from printing in uppercase letters!


Harriet Apr 07, 2017 07:30 PM

Once again, excellent contributions to an important discussion. Dr. Gibson listed several standards but neglected this one: Fluency: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RF.K.4
Read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding. Decoding should be fun and child-friendly, but it needs to be practiced continuously if kindergartners are expected to read emergent-reader texts by the end of the year because otherwise they simply won't be ready for the first grade.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 07, 2017 07:31 PM

You might know a program that doesn't teach letter names that has been successful and research proven, but there are many more with similar evidence that included letter names. Generally, research shows that adding letter name/sound teaching to phonological awareness programs increases their effectiveness significantly. The evidence just isn't there on your side of the argument. Believe what you want, but the best theoretical and empirical work leans toward teaching them.



Harriet Apr 07, 2017 07:31 PM

The research I've looked at definitely shows that adding LETTERS to phonological awareness programs increases their effectiveness significantly, but referring to those letters as Dee, Em, Kay or Tom, Dick and Harry doesn't advance reading skills in the way that referring to their sound does. And Dr. Gibson is absolutely right that letters aren't living things; they don't make sounds--people make sounds. They are not long or short, fat or skinny, naughty or nice. They are pictures of sounds. I never ask what sound a letter makes. I always ask, "How do we show the /oe/ sound in the word show?" I highly recommend Diane McGuinness's books Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us About How to Teach Reading and Language Development and Learning to Read: The Scientific Study of How Language Development Affects Reading Skill.


Mrs. Morehead Apr 07, 2017 07:32 PM

This is something that I once struggled with in the past...pace. What letter to teach first? Next? How long should I teach this letter? One week? Two weeks? I settled with teaching one letter per week and picked the letters based on building words. Phonemic awareness has always been the foundation for me when it comes to teaching letters and their sounds.

I have noticed through out the years, that sometime children can get words and letters visually confused. Thus, the reason and importance for mastering individual letters and their sounds. Teaching letters using phonemic awareness which includes blending sounds and manipulating letters has worked for me and it has worked for my students. It promotes letter knowledge, letter sounds, spelling and decoding.

Thanks for your insight and making it clear about keeping a precise schedule. 4/12/16

Viriginia Coffey Apr 07, 2017 07:32 PM

My challenge, as a reading teacher for 10 years and a K, 1, and 4th grade teacher for 10 years prior to that, is how to keep learning authentic and real everyday for the kids. It seems much of what we do in education is for the benefits of the adults teaching, i.e. 'letter a week'-makes planning more methodical for those that need that type of organization and predictability in their day. There isn't research that supports a letter a week, why oh why are teachers still practicing this? If we invest our time in learning how literacy unfolds, by studying kids and studying the research then we have a greater chance of facilitating children's development.

However, when research is examined of how kids develop as readers we find that it isn't always clean and linear and tidy. Their is much weaving and integrating and spiraling of the different threads of research. In our instruction we have to find ways to practice the research AND keep it real for the kids. In reading this thread of comments I have missed where we need to use kid friendly language in order to keep it real and authentic. So instead of this letter 'represents' the /s/ sound, what about 'we write the letter S when we hear /s/'. Also, if we want to know what kids can do with phonological awareness (not just phonemic awareness), let's do some simple tasks with kids, informally, and learn where they are in their development. And then provide authentic opportunities to further develop their understandings.

We use capital letters early on and talk about names of letters because they are REAL for kids. A child's name has significant importance in their life. Names of family members, names of friends and names of pets speak to kids. Being able to write those names is an authentic window in to writing with purpose. Forming capital letters is easier! HWT developed by OTs is developmentally appropriate; it starts instruction with capitals because that's what kids have the greatest success with based on small motor development.

Thanks for providing a public forum for this discussion.


Jason Breslin Apr 07, 2017 07:33 PM

I think that this has always been a question that has plagued Pre-K and K teachers. As a nationally certified teacher as an early childhood generalist, and now an instructional coach after spending 10 years in the classroom, I still struggle with teachers on how to balance letter instruction as well as phonological and phonemic awareness. I have found that a letter of a week is good to help the struggling students who have had no instruction coming into Kindergarten. For students who have already had exposure, I incorporate more letters and sounds into their guided reading group and practice those sounds 1-2x a week. The other 3 days I spend working with them on reading skills that the CCSS expect.

As for whole group, I have students work with different letter activities for all students. So for example, we make letter books for each letter that was done in whole group, which allows my lower-level students to continue working with recognizing and naming the letter, but also allows my average and above average students to work with printing, spacing, sound spelling, etc.

It may not be the perfect method, but it has worked for me. The caveat is I only spend 1-2x a week doing direct whole group instruction of letters. Other than that I am working on reading strategies and literacy skills that students will need to be successful by the end of Kindergarten.

Those are just my 2 cents as a Nationally Certified Teacher as an Early Childhood Generalist. With that being said I think it is imperative to always know the students in front of you and having a well developed beginning of the year diagnostic assessment so you know what your students need. There is never a one size fits all program.


Melissa Rosenberg Aug 16, 2018 02:52 PM

Is this good for my threes that I have in my classroom? i'm still trying to figure out how to plan this way.

Anonymous Jul 02, 2020 01:20 AM

I agree with Jason Breslin. Being an early childhood educator of 14 years, I do both. Focus letter of the week for beginners and as well as small group reading activities focusing on their own differentiated needs for the rest of the class. I don’t just focus on just the letter of the week. I try to expose them to any letters whenever they come up during the day. In addition, building on their phonological awareness is just as important as their phonemic awareness. This will make them become better writers in the long run.

Stacy Feb 15, 2024 06:12 PM

We are doing a program I like and a lot of "Science of Reading" but I have been teaching for 30 years pre k-1. I now have to do 1 letter a week now, we work in depth and are using the letters in decodable reading etc but by Feb. they are bored with routine and know the letters and sounds even when I am only half way. I do not feel this 1 letter a week is adequate. They know the letters and sounds and now need to learn to use them in reading and writing. I am doing 2 letters a week in similar format but want to be done in April not May! . My students seemed a lot farther along in knowledge than they are now at this boring redundant pace. Very good for those that struggle but it is definitely not a one size fits all.

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Why Letter of the Week May Not Be Such a Good Idea


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