The Importance of Learning the ABCs

Learning the ABCs is something so intrinsic to childhood that as adults, we might hardly recognize the importance, but learning the ABCs is more than just singing a song, it’s understanding that each letter has a name, each letter makes a sound, and that these sounds come together to make words. Having a strong understanding of this concept at a young age will make learning how to read seem to happen “as if by chance” (which is how Finnish children typically learn to read).

What Does It Mean to Learn the ABCs?

  1. Letter Names: Learning the names of the 26 letters is pretty basic and straightforward. When children learn what each letter is called, it paves the way for learning the sounds that the letters make.
  2. Letter Sounds: Learning the sounds that the letters make is a bit more complex…probably due to the fact that our 26 letters actually make 44 different sounds. Knowing the different sounds that the letters make is called phonemic awareness.
  3. Letters Come Together to Make Words: Before children start putting letters together to make words, they need to understand that words represent something…a person, action, thing, idea, etc. Then, they learn that the letters “c”, “a”, and “t” can be sounded out as /c/-/a/-/t/ to make the word “cat” and this is the gateway to reading. This is what is known as phonics.
  4. Writing Letters: I often hear of children learning how to write their letters at the same time they are learning letter names and sounds, and I believe that these are two very different skills that should not be taught simultaneously (unless the window for learning has been missed, and there are no other options). Learning how to write letters requires an advanced level of fine motor skills that children do not typically possess until about 4 or 5 years of age, but learning the letter names and sounds is something that can begin as young as 6-8 months of age.

How Children Really Learn How to Read

There is a misconception in the United States (and other countries too) that children are not ready to learn how to read until they begin formal schooling. The U.S. Department of Education actually supports the notion that Louisa C. Moats coined in 1999 that,

“Teaching reading is rocket science.”

They go on to explain that,

“Becoming a reader is not a natural process, but requires direct and explicit instruction.”

This type of rhetoric perpetuates the stereotype that only qualified professionals are equipped to teach children such a complicated skill as reading. And while yes, teaching the letter names, sounds, and simple phonics does require a wee bit of direct and explicit instruction, it mostly occurs naturally when a learning environment is created that encourages the teaching of these skills.

If you look at the way they do things over in Finland (which boasts some of the highest reading scores in the world), you’ll see that children there are immersed in reading skills from a very young age and learn how to read “as if by chance”. (Read more about the differences in the U.S. and Finland’s educational system here in my blog: 15 Reasons Why Schools in Finland are Performing Better Than Schools in the United States).

In my blog, How Children Really Learn to Read..in 10 Steps, I explore the true progression that occurs when a child learns how to read based on what I’ve learned during my seven years as an elementary classroom educator and ESL teaching coach, throughout the acquisition of my Master’s degree centered around language acquisition, and from raising our four children who have all learned their ABCs from a very young age and then went on to read “as if by chance”.

Basically, learning how to read is about acquiring a battery of skills that starts at birth. It begins with feeling safe and loved and having all basic needs met, then it progresses into vocabulary development in a language rich environment that includes lots of songs, nursery rhymes, and repetitive reading, after that children need a solid foundation in letter names, sounds, an understanding that words have meaning, and explicit guidance to see how letters come together to form words. It then all culminates with a massive amount of word memorization that occurs almost effortlessly when a love of reading is nurtured and allowed to grow.

Brain Development

In my article, “How Children’s Brains are Wired for Learning“, I explain in depth how children’s brains are wired to learn A LOT from a VERY young age. If you look at graphics like this one and this one that show the number of neurons and synaptic connections in between neurons, you’ll see that there is an EXPLOSION of connections beginning at about 6 months, culminating at an unprecedented height between the ages of 2-3, and then dwindling beginning at the age 4 when synaptic pruning occurs. During this process, the connections that are used become reinforced and the connections that are not used go away.

What does this have to do with the ABCs? When children begin learning about the ABCs at a very young age (like 6-8 months), the brain learns that this is something VERY IMPORTANT, something that needs to be reinforced, and something that will be used to help lay the foundation for all further connections that will be made in the brain.

Understanding the letter names and sounds from a young age is absolutely crucial to being able to sound out new words and add them to the memory bank of words. When this knowledge is solidified at a very young age, it makes learning how to read happen “as if by chance”.

Research Supports Early Learning of the ABCs

In every bit of research I have ever studied about early literacy, there is insurmountable evidence that a strong foundation in phonemic awareness produces amazing results. Take a look at this meta analysis of 71 intervention control groups in studies reporting post test and follow up data looking at the long term effects of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and reading comprehension interventions. What they found is that,

“Comprehension and phonemic awareness interventions showed good maintenance of effect that transferred to nontargeted skills, whereas phonics and fluency interventions…tended not to.”

This reinforces the fact that learning phonemic awareness (the letter sounds) in conjunction with comprehension (so not just isolated phonemic awareness drills, but phonemic awareness in the context of learning say, vocabulary) is extremely important and WAY MORE so than phonics and fluency.

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) research has studied 10,000 children over the past 15 years and found that the one of the main reasons why children struggle with reading comes down to their inability to do one simple thing, and that is to connect letter names to letter sounds. The research shows that children need to be explicitly taught the letter names, the letter sounds, and how to decode words, and that these are not skills that children will just “figure out” on their own with exposure.

The bottom line is that it is MUCH easier for children to learn things correctly the first time around. According to the research in “Learning to Read: A Call from Research to Action” by G. Reid Lyon, Ph.D 85-90% of all reading disabilities can be corrected if early intervention occurs (like in kindergarten). But unfortunately, many kids don’t become identified as having a reading disability or being behind in reading until they are 9 years old and by then, their brains aren’t as ready to accept new pathways of learning, and only 25% will be able to reach average reading levels with interventions.

The biggest disservice we are doing for children is that we are waiting WAY too long to teach them reading skills in the first place. If we can start to build the foundation for reading as parents when our children are young, then we won’t have to wait until it might be too late.

Observations with My Own Children

When our first daughter was born, being an educator, I naturally had great plans to stimulate her mind and help her grow, but after using portions of Your Baby Can Read and teaching her letter names and letter sounds I have been continuously BLOWN AWAY by all that she can do. When she knew all of her letters at 15 months, I was astounded, when she was reading words (that she memorized) well before the age of 2, I was blown away, and when she was full on able to read at the age of 4. Now, at the ripe old age of 6, she absolutely loves reading chapter books. (See more videos of all of our children learning how to read here.)

With all four of our children, we have taught them the letter names and letter sounds from a very young age (starting at about 8 months). At the same time, we have used repetitive reading and my own videos teaching vocabulary and the concept that words have meaning. After we taught my three older ones (now ages 3, 5, and 6) how to decode simple three letter words and continued reading to them regularly, we noticed that they all started to read (each in their own good time) “as if by chance”.

In Conclusion

By teaching children the ABCs from a young age, not only will they enjoy it and be entertained by the challenge, but they will move into the next phase of learning how to read with such strength, confidence, and ease without any of the challenges that come from not knowing the letter names, sounds, or how they work together.

Check out my reading program where I provide resources and explain in explicit detail how to teach your child how to read at a young age.