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Five Myths about Teaching the Alphabet

Updated: Apr 9


We all know that letters are an important part of early literacy education. Studies show that alphabetic knowledge in preschool and kindergarten is one of the best predictors of literacy success in later elementary years. In fact, there is a direct correlation between struggling to learn letter names, and future difficulties in reading. We know these facts to be true, but how in the world are we supposed to tackle the challenge of teaching children letter names and sounds? A letter a week? In ABC order? Uppercase first? Do we need to teach letter sounds? As I embarked on my journey in preschool literacy education, I really pondered this question. Is there a method to the madness? Being a lover of research, I was bound and determined to find out the science behind how children learn letters of the alphabet. I needed to better educate myself, so that I could better educate others. After hours of scanning articles and reading the research, I finally found my answers and I am here to help walk you through the five myths that surround how children learn the alphabet! Understanding the science behind introducing the alphabet has certainly changed my perspective and instruction, and I am excited to spread the word!


Five Myths about Teaching the Alphabet


Letters of the alphabet

Myth 1: It is best to introduce the alphabet in ABC order.

Studies have proven that children learn letters at a variety of rates and orders, typically beginning with learning the letters in their names first. Because of this, there is no perfect order for introducing letter names and sounds, as every child’s focus will be different. However, the research does show these interesting facts about letter acquisition:

  • Children typically learn the letters in their names first.

  • Children often know more letters at the beginning of the alphabet because of repeated exposure in their environment (seeing ABC on the cover of books, hearing the alphabet song, seeing the beginning letters on toys, etc.).

  • Children typically learn letters that have names that include their matching sounds at the beginning or end. For example, the letter Bb has the /b/ sound at the beginning of the letter name. The letter Ss has the /s/ sound at the end of the letter name. These letters are usually easier for children to learn.

  • Children often learn letters with unique shapes, that set them apart from other letters of the alphabet. For example, several of the children that I have worked with that struggle with letter identification only recognize one letter…the letter Xx.

Because of this research, I suggest beginning by introducing and studying letters in children's names first, and building from there!


Myth 2: We should teach one letter per week.

Learning letters in preschool

As mentioned above, children learn letters at a variety of rates and orders. I strongly believe that teaching one letter per week is not effective, and I would argue that by using this method, you are significantly delaying children’s letter acquisition and growth. Let me explain. Let’s say that your name is Abby. Because studies show that children typically learn the letters in their names first, Abby most likely already knows the letters Aa and Bb. However, using the “One Letter Per Week” method, she has just spent two weeks in the classroom staring at two letters that she already knows! During these two weeks, she could have been introduced to ten letters (if you chose the method of introducing one letter per day), or a variety of different letters (if you chose the method of introducing letters in children’s names each day). If you would like to learn more about one letter cycles that has strong data supporting its effectiveness, check out this article on the Enhanced Alphabetic Knowledge instruction.


Myth 3: We only need to focus on uppercase letters when we first teach the alphabet.

Learning letter sounds

Many teachers choose to introduce uppercase letters first. I assume that this belief came from the idea that children can developmentally write more uppercase letters than lowercase letters at a younger age. Programs such as Handwriting Without Tears teach uppercase letters first, because many uppercase letters consist of horizontal and vertical lines, which children are developmentally capable of drawing before slanted and curved lines. However, take a little stroll around your house or school. The world is full of both uppercase and lowercase letters. Think about names, which children love to learn. Names consist of ONE uppercase letter and the rest lowercase. Open a children’s book. Chances are extremely likely that you are going to see mostly lowercase letters. There is very little research related to if it is best to introduce uppercase or lowercase letters first (besides when it comes to handwriting). Therefore, I again rely on the practices of the Enhanced Alphabetic Knowledge approach linked above. I believe that we can and should expose children to both the uppercase and lowercase letters at the same time. While children may not be able to write both the uppercase and lowercase letter forms, they can certainly be exposed to how the lowercase letters are formed. While they may not be able to write the lowercase versions of the letters, they can practice the letter formation with their fingers in sand trays or by forming the letters with their fingers on the carpet. Exposing children to both uppercase and lowercase letters at the same time opens the door to greater letter acquisition.


Myth 4: Tracing letters is the most effective way to apply letter knowledge.

Teaching handwriting to preschoolers

There is no doubt that children MUST learn proper letter formation. In fact, neuroscience has proven that handwriting boost brain activity and activates memory centers. Handwriting increases letter processing, as it activates memory retrieval of letter knowledge. I am a firm believer in handwriting instruction and believe that children need to learn proper letter formation from the start. Bad habits are very difficult to unwire in the brain. When we think of handwriting instruction, we often give children worksheets with letters to trace. While there is a time and a place for this type of instruction, a recent study with MRI scanning of five year olds found that children’s “reading circuits” are much more active when handwriting practice is completed in free form (meaning that the children are writing the letters on a paper from memory, not simply tracing over a dotted line). Therefore, children must practice letter formation on their own, in fun and unique ways. Do children need to learn proper letter formation…yes! Do children need opportunities to practice proper letter formation through tracing letters…yes! Is tracing letters the most effective way to build letter knowledge…no! Writing the letters in free form activates memory centers in the brain, forcing children to think about their prior knowledge and create the letter on their paper from memory. This is the most effective way to challenge the brain!


Myth 5: Children should first learn letter names before learning letter sounds.

Learning letter names and sounds in preschool

Preschool is such an exciting time for building alphabetic knowledge. We sing the ABCs, point out letters in the world around us, and talk about letters in children’s names and books. Learning letter names is often the focus in preschool. It is not uncommon for a child as young as two years old to say random letters, or even properly identify a few. While letter names are very important, children must also be exposed to letter sounds in preschool. Learning to read is HARD! The English language is complicated and confusing to say the least. How do we learn to read…through decoding. Decoding is the ability to apply knowledge of letter sound relationship and letter patterns to correctly pronounce (read) written words. The science of reading has proven that children must have a strong foundation in letter sounds to become successful readers. Therefore, I encourage teachers to focus on BOTH letter names and letter sounds simultaneously from the start. I LOVE to use the Moving Little Minds Alphabet Motion Cards. By teaching children letter names and sounds, along with phonological awareness skills, we are creating a deeper understanding of what the letter symbols represent and building a strong foundation for beginning readers in the future. Building that strong foundation will make a great impact on our children! We must go beyond letter names in preschool!




I hope that these myths have given you some insight on what the research says about building alphabetic knowledge in preschool. Think critically about your current beliefs and consider your current practices. Is there something that could be modified or changed? Reach out with questions and comments at hello@movinglittleminds.com.

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References:

Byington, T., & Yin, Y. (2017). Promoting Preschoolers’ Emergent Writing. Young Children, 72(5). https://doi.org/https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/nov2017/emergent-writing


Dinehart, L. H. (2014). Handwriting in early childhood education: Current research and future implications. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 15(1), 97–118. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468798414522825


Drouin, M., Horner, S. L., & Sondergeld, T. A. (2012). Alphabet knowledge in preschool: A Rasch model analysis. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 27(3), 543–554. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2011.12.008


James, K. H., & Engelhardt, L. (2012). The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 1(1), 32–42. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tine.2012.08.001


Jones, C., Clark, S., & Reutzel, R. (2012). Enhancing alphabet knowledge instruction: Research implications and practical strategies for early childhood educators. Early Childhood Education Journal, 1–9. Retrieved August 23, 2022, from https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1403&context=teal_facpub.

Piasta, S. B. (2014). Moving to assessment-guided differentiated instruction to support young children's alphabet knowledge. The Reading Teacher, 68(3), 202–211. https://doi.org/10.1002/trtr.1316


Piasta, S. B., & Wagner, R. K. (2010). Learning letter names and sounds: Effects of instruction, letter type, and Phonological Processing Skill. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 105(4), 324–344. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2009.12.008


Schuele, C. M., & Boudreau, D. (2008). Phonological awareness intervention: Beyond the basics. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 39(1), 3–20. https://doi.org/10.1044/0161-1461(2008/002)


Spear-Swerling, L. (2013, November 7). The importance of teaching handwriting. Reading Rockets. Retrieved January 6, 2023, from https://www.readingrockets.org/article/importance-teaching-handwriting

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