Let’s learn about sounds, not letters.
When it comes to preparing a child to read it seems to make sense to teacher letter names (e.g. A (ay) is for apple) because words are made up of letters. Words are definitely made up of letters, however more importantly, words are made up of SOUNDS ('a' is for apple). Teaching letter names is not beneficial to a child who is learning to sound out words. This is because knowing the letter names, does not tell a child how the word should sound. Let’s look at an example of this.
EXAMPLE 1: The word DOG.
If a child saw this and knew only letter names they would decode (sound out) this word as ‘Dee’ ‘Oh’ ‘Gee’ which when said together quickly does not make ‘dog’. However if the child understands the phonemes (sounds), they will decode this as /d/ /o/ /g/, say that together and you have said the word ‘dog’! To correctly decode this word the reader must know the sound that each individual letter or letter group makes as well as be able to say them together quick enough to make it sound like dog.
The next example explains how this works in words which involve 'pairs' or 'groups' of letters which make 1 sound.
EXAMPLE 2: The word SHIP.
The word ‘ship’ is made of four letters ‘es’, ‘haytch’, ‘eye’ and ‘pee’ however it only has three sounds /sh/, /i/, /p/. For learning to read it is more beneficial for children to learn that ‘ess’ and ‘haytch’ together make the ‘sh’ sound, than to know the letter names. Otherwise the word ‘ship’ cannot be decoded. Knowing the sounds that letters make when they are alone and when two letters are together means children can decode words and therefore teach themselves words that they have never seen/heard before.
If a child is not taught the sounds that letters make they read using what we call an ‘analytical approach’ to reading. This involves looking at the first letter and then using the pictures or other known words in the text to guess what the word is. Knowing the sounds and being able to decode a word means no guessing is required for reading, which in turn makes reading easier and more enjoyable! Being able to read fluently means that children can focus on the meaning of the text and therefore rather than spending their time working out what the words are they can learn from the text.
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