This blog post is about our early years team’s inquiry into early reading. We’ve been on a reflective journey and rethinking our practice over the last 4 years. Do children achieve greater success in reading in kindergarten if they are instructed uppercase or lowercase letter names or sounds first?
From what I’ve heard many primary/junior teachers, like myself, were not required to take linguistics nor were we instructed on how to teach children to crack the language code. The focus was on “literacy”, which in our class readings and discussions was mostly based around reading comprehension and theories. This is unfortunate that many of us primary/junior educators had to figure out how to teach children to read on our own. So, many of us turned to the resources on the market and what long standing kindergarten and grade 1 teachers were using.
Many of these resources that have young children learning uppercase letters first have been making lots of money. Many parents and educators have been using these resources and worksheets to instruct children in their care to learn uppercase letter names first for years. Our team used to instruct this way too until we stumbled across an article that got us to rethink our practice. We began to reflect and ask questions like: Are we maintaining this practice because it’s always been done this way? Are we certain that children achieve greater success by instructing uppercase letter names first? In the article that stirred up these questions it mentioned how 95% of print is in lowercase letter sounds, so shouldn’t we instruct these first so children can begin reading right away? Does instructing uppercase letters first discourage some children from reading because they can’t follow along in stories being read to them by adults?
Some programs that instruct uppercase letters first tell us they do this so children learn proper letter formation and avoid reversals. However, from what I know about reversals they are a line direction issue. So, why not have these children work on line direction? Some of these programs also say they introduce uppercase letter names first because they have straight lines thinking that is easier for children to form these straight lines. Although, research suggests that young writers are more successful at printing lowercase letters since they are formed in a fluid motion with less pencil pick ups and breaks. One frequent complaint kindergarten teachers hear made by other primary teachers is that some children who get in the habit of writing their name in uppercase are still doing so well into grade 2 and 3. Some of these grade 2 and 3 students are also including uppercase letters randomly in words.
Well, in the past 4 years we took the plunge and changed our ways. We now instruct lowercase letter sounds first and have seen a greater percentage of children reading by the time they move to grade 1. I’m grateful that I found the Reading Whisperer online that has a program called SSP reading. I didn’t purchase her product, but have adopted many of her fantastic practices from watching youtube videos and reading lots of her writing. We now believe that the benefit of instructing lowercase letter sounds first far outweighs the benefits of instructing uppercase letter names first. One of the main reasons we now instruct lower case letters sounds first is because 95% of print is in letter case sounds. Once children can identify the most frequent lowercase sounds they can begin sounding out simple words. They can also follow along with books being read to them by adults. Whereas, children that learn uppercase letters first will only recognize the first letter in a sentence and proper names. This means that for some children it may take longer, and sometimes even years, for them to be able to participate in following along in texts being read to them. We are not forgetting the importance and need for proper phonological awareness training for beginning readers. It is necessary for explicit instruction and multiple experiences in rhyme, syllables, identifying first and last sounds, blending and segmenting be afforded to young children in their early years to set them up for reading success.
Our early years team takes a constructivist approach to learning to read where children begin to piece together the language code. Children begin building words by blending sounds together. We follow the order encouraged by Jolly Phonics where the most common letter sounds are introduced first. When children can identify the most frequent 6 letter sounds(i.e. s, a, t, p, i, n) and have the phonological awareness skills to blend sounds, they can begin to read words like at, as, it, is, in, sat, pin, sip, sap, pat, sat, and tip. Being able to read words from the get-go helps children understand that letter sounds together are meaningful and relevant. Being able to read words with only identifying a few lowercase letter sounds also provides confidence for these learners. They feel rewarded because they are reading and this confidence spurs them to continue their journey in reading. We’ve seen children become disinterested with learning uppercase letter names because it isn’t meaningful to them. Years may pass and they are still working on the same thing. There is no buy in. They’re bored. Some may say these children have learning disorders and say that it’s not possible for them to progress any faster. This brings us to our next thought.
Another integral reason we believe in instructing lowercase letter sounds first is to support the future struggling reader. Children with learning disabilities, working memory issues, executive functioning issues, and other issues can experience frustration in learning to read if they have to learn all the uppercase letter names first, then lowercase letter names, then upper and lowercase letter sounds before achieving success in reading. For some, they will lose confidence before mastering uppercase names. They may give up before they’ve even had the opportunity to read. Why delay this opportunity for them? Why not encourage their growth mindset with success in reading? We believe that an importance to their success in reading begins with the most frequently used lowercase letter sounds. This start to reading can help close the gap from an early age and help boost the future struggling reader to becoming more confident.
We’ve noticed over the years that there are some children that learn to read no matter what the teacher does. They seem to just “pick it up”. There are other children that with lowercase letter sound, phonological awareness, and explicit language code cracking instruction, are just as capable to learn to read quickly like the children that just seem to “pick it up”. Like numbers, they need to understand that words are built by joining lowercase letter sounds together. Also, as previously mentioned, learning lowercase letter sounds first will help close the gap for children with more challenging learning needs as they aren’t required to memorize all letter names before letter sounds to begin reading.
How did your early years team come to the decision to instruct uppercase or lowercase letter names or sounds first? Have you tried tried it both ways? Does your team expect children to memorize words? Does your team provide children with opportunities to build words?
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