Letter Sounds Matter

Which is more important – knowing the name of letters or knowing the sound of the letters?

The importance of knowing letter names versus letter sounds in early literacy development has long been debated. Similarly, should we be teaching letter sounds first and then letter names or is the reverse order of more benefit, or should we be teaching both at the same time?  Adding to the controversy is whether we should be teacher capital or lower case letters first or simultaneously.

Research by Treiman et al. (2013) provides some answers to this debate. According to these researchers, in the USA letters names are stressed in early informal and formal literacy instruction and when letters are presented individually they tend to be presented in their uppercase form. When USA children enter their first year of formal schooling (the school year after turning 5 years of age) they can often name quite a few letters and are better able to recognise upper case letters compared to lower case letters. Although these children are taught letter sounds in school, teachers and parents continue to more commonly refer to letters by their names.

In comparison, parents and teachers in the UK place a greater importance on letter sounds and the national curriculum emphasises the teaching of sounds and phonics. In addition, letter sounds are usually taught using lowercase letters. The names of letters are taught after the letter sounds are known, often towards the end of their first year of school and at the beginning of their second year of school.

Treiman et al. tested a group of USA and UK 6 year old students’ ability to spell real and nonsense words that contained either a short vowel sound (e.g., bag) or a long vowel sound (e.g., gate). They found that the UK students were significantly more likely to spell the target word correctly when it contained a short vowel sound (.76 versus .48) and also significantly more likely to spell words containing a long vowel sound (e.g., gate) correctly.

As Treiman et al. note, although teaching with an emphasis on letter sounds has benefits in terms of literacy acquisition, it is not a ‘magic wand’ that will make learning the English writing system effortless!


Treiman, R. Stothard, S. E., & Snowling, M. J. (2013). Instruction matters: Spelling of vowels by children in England and the US. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Jo The US and England have taken different positions on



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