Best Order for Teaching Letter Sounds: Research and Considerations
Several key issues must be considered when deciding the order in which letter sounds should be taught. First, if you are a parent or tutor, it is generally best to proceed in the sequence used by your child’s teacher. The introduction of more than one letter sound at a time can cause significant confusion among younger children. For educators, a first consideration must be to follow the order that correlates to connected text when there is a set sequence. For example, most decodable early reading books begin with words that contain the short a sound. As a result, short a should be among the first letters taught, and it should be introduced before other vowel sounds. This is a critical step in providing opportunities for students to successfully apply and transfer what they have learned.
A paramount consideration in all sequencing decisions is that prominent researchers (Light & McNaughton, 2019; Chard & Osborne, 2021; Murray, 2009) insist it is best to teach letter sounds in an order that facilitates the learning of words as quickly as possible. This approach aligns to conclusions reached by the National Reading Panel (U.S. Department of Education, 2000). In their widely referenced 2000 report, they stressed the importance of explicitly teaching students how letter sounds are applied to reading and writing. They also concluded “…PA [phonemic awareness] instruction may be most effective when children are taught to manipulate phonemes with letters…” (U.S. Department of Education, 2000, p. 2-6). Letter sound programs that allow for more immediate opportunities to decode words might start with a sequence such as a, t and m. In this example, a student could be taught to blend or segment sounds in the words at, am, and mat very early in the process. This type of order provides students with the opportunity to understand the purpose of letter sound instruction and to readily practice the skills they are learning.
Another key issue is that there is disagreement among researchers regarding precise sequencing of letter sound lessons. One might consider beginning with at least some letters that appear to be easier to learn when weighing options. Many investigators deem letters that contain their sounds in the first part of their names to be easiest (as in b /bee/), those with corresponding sounds in the last portion of their names to be more challenging (as in f /ef/), and letters with sounds not contained within their names to be most difficult (as in w) (Kilpatrick, 2015, p. 270; Treiman, Pennington, Shriberg, & Boaba, 2008). The caveat is that the majority of letters considered easiest to learn are more difficult to utilize when blending sounds to form words, unless they are in the final position. When initially training students to blend words, it is an essential to make use of phonemes (single sounds) that can be pronounced continuously (i.e. /mmmmm/) to maximize success among beginning readers. That is why researchers such as Murray (2009) advise teachers to begin with letters that can be “stretched” (/mmmmm/), with the prospect of adding unvoiced consonants (/t/) shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, five of the eight letters considered easiest to learn are not ones that can be “stretched”. An important final consideration is that careful attention must be given to separating letters that are similar in sound (short e and i) or appearance (b and d) when sequencing letter sound lessons (Light & McNaugton, 2019; Carnine, Silbert, & Kameenui, 1997). This reduces confusion and error.
For more information on the SnapBack Phonics suggested letter sound instruction sequence, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carnine, D. W., Silbert, J., & Kameenui, E. J. (1997). Direct instruction reading (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice-Hall.
Chard, D. J., & Osborn, J. (2021). Phonics and Word Recognition Instruction in Early Reading Programs: Guidelines for Children with Reading Disabilities. Reading Rockets. Retrieved from https://www.readingrockets.org/article/phonics-and-word-recognition-instruction-early-reading-programs-guidelines-children-reading
Kilpatrick, D. A. (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley.
Light, J., & McNaughton, D. (2019, February). Letter Sound Correspondences. Literacy Instruction for Individuals with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome, and Other Disabilities. Retrieved from https://aacliteracy.psu.edu/index.php/page/show/id/6/index.html
Murray, B. (2009). Making Friends with Phonemes. The Reading Genie. Retrieved from http://webhome.auburn.edu/~murraba/phon.html
U.S. Department of Education, National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?q=teaching+children+to+read%3a+an+evidence+based+assessment+of+the+scientific+research+literature&id=ED444127