Orthographic Mapping Theory
In order to learn to read and write, all students must first learn the names, sounds, and formations for the 26 lower and upper case alphabet letters, and form associations between the shapes and sounds. This lower level knowledge is foundational to the development of automatic word reading (Ehri & Roberts, 2006). Acquiring this knowledge is challenging for regular education students and especially so for English Learners (Roberts, Vadasy & Sanders, 2018). Yet beginning alphabet learning has long been considered a low level skill that preschool age children accomplish easily, informally and naturally.
Conventions in Teaching the ABCs
Pervasive constructivist-based beliefs in the necessity of teaching alphabet knowledge in meaningful language contexts such as stories, poems, and/or children’s names have driven the conventions and methods incorporated in preschool curriculums and supplemental handwriting programs. These beliefs are also evident in early childhood standards and pre-K assessments. As a result, most children generally do not learn more than a handful or two of letter names at preschool.
Emerging Evidence: Letter Learning Instruction
Until recently, few high quality design research studies had investigated the key instructional elements involved in letter learning (e.g., letter order, teaching names versus sounds first, teaching letters in various contexts, associating images with letters, or the rate of instruction); provided conceptual frameworks for the procedures studied; or, investigated potentially demotivating effects of instruction despite widespread aversion to the idea of making preschool instruction overly “academic”.
In an academic paper (Roberts, 2021) published in one of two Reading Research Quarterly special issues on the Science of Reading in 2020/21, Dr. Theresa Roberts summarized the findings from four Randomized Control Trial studies published between 2017–2020 and co-authored with Dr. Patricia Vadasy, Dr. Elizabeth Sanders, Dr. Carol Sadler.
The experiments were all highly controlled, 10–12 week long implementations conducted with preschool age children selected for having very little prior alphabet knowledge, with instruction delivered by graduate assistants.
Key Research Questions
- Which alphabet content optimizes learning (names, sounds, both)?
- Is teaching letter names before sounds, or vice versa, advantageous?
- Which Cognitive Learning Processes (CLPs) optimize learning?
- Paired Associated Learning (PAL)
- Articulation Referencing
- Orthographic Learning (forming letters)
- Is teaching letters in the context of meaningful
- Can direct alphabet instruction be demotivating?
Results of the four studies contradicted the widely held belief that letter learning has to be taught in the context of language. Explicit, letter-focused PAL instruction (with ample opportunities for practice and memory retrieval activities) produced superior outcomes to the other approaches tested—and with no evidence of demotivation.