I’m often asked, “What’s the best order to teach letters?” The answer is: it depends. Keep reading to find out my recommendations!
Many teachers and parents wonder what’s the best order for teaching letters of the alphabet.
Should we go in alphabetical order? Should we start with uppercase or lowercase? What does the research say?
Well, here’s the first thing to know: As I stated in the first post of this series, research strongly suggests that we should teach both letter names and sounds at the same time.
This conclusion may very well bother people of the “letter sounds first” camp, who believe that letter sounds are what matter when it comes to reading (true), and that learning letter names will confuse children who are trying to learn to read (debatable).
Knowing that, let’s move on.
Should we teach upper or lowercase letters first?
According to Dr. Shayne Piasta, a major researcher in the field of alphabet learning, there is correlational evidence that children may use uppercase knowledge to learn lowercase letters, but no studies have been conducted to determine which is best to teach first.
In other words … we are left to our best judgment.
Arguments for teaching uppercase letters first
Because we are left to our best judgment, this means we will have disagreements. I have great respect for Jamie White, of Play to Learn Preschool, who supports her students when they write their names in all capitals. Here are some of her reasons:
- Children see capital letters everywhere and therefore learn them more quickly (think of alphabet puzzles and toys).
- Capital letters are easier to recognize because they are still developing visual discrimination skills (for example, D and B are easier to distinguish than d and b).
- Forming capital letters is easier because there they tend to have simpler lines (think E vs. e).
Many occupational therapists agree that it makes sense to have preschoolers learn the uppercase alphabet first. Here’s a summary of this argument from Laura Sowdon, an occupational therapist and writer at Five Senses Literature Lessons.
- Uppercase letters are generally straighter and simpler to form than lowercase letters, making them easier to form than the lowercase versions.
- Unlike many lowercase letters, capital letters don’t require students to write on lines they’ve already written. (Think M vs. m, or B vs. b.)
- Curves and intersections are the hardest to write, and there are fewer of these in the uppercase alphabet.
Arguments for teaching lowercase letters first
If the comments section of my blog are any kind of clue, many kindergarten teachers believe that preschoolers should learn lowercase letters first. Here are reasons to teach lowercase first:
- When children learn to read, they will primarily encounter lowercase letters.
- It’s hard to break the habit of uppercase letters in the middle of a child’s name or other words.
- In one way, the uppercase alphabet letters are actually trickier to write because there is so much picking up and putting down of the pencil, instead of using more continuous strokes like we do with lowercase letters.
My conclusion? If you teach preschool, do what you think is best for your learners – but if you are teaching kindergarten, absolutely start with lowercase because you want to get your students reading as soon as possible.
What’s the best order to teach letters?
Once you’ve decided on upper or lowercase, there are other things to consider. What is your goal here?
- Are you focused on matching letters with their sounds?
- Are you focused on letter formation?
- Are you merely interested in letter recognition?
Whichever is your primary focus will help you choose an order for teaching the alphabet.
I recently finished writing a letters and sounds curriculum for preschool (my team is currently editing it). Since the program is for preschool, I am most focused on letter formation. Therefore, I’ve chosen an order that groups letters based on how they are formed.
How to choose an order based on letter formation
My curriculum (coming soon) includes two different sequences: Uppercase and lowercase. Each sequence aims to order letters by stroke as well as by easy to hard in terms of letter formation. Is it based on science? No, because science doesn’t tell us the best order. It’s based on common sense and good judgment, which is what many of our teaching decisions must be based on because there’s often no research to draw on.
The uppercase sequence looks like this:
T, L, I, F, H, E, J, D, P, B, O, C, G, U, S, R, Q, A, M, N, Z, V, W, K, Y, X
The lowercase sequence looks like this:
t, l, i, j, u, r, n, m, h, b, p, o, c, d, a, g, q, s, f, e, z, v, w, k, y, x
Could someone with the same goals order the letters differently? Yes. This is just one way to do it.
In ordering my sequence, I was also conscious that my curriculum teaches letter sounds. I left at least a little space between vowels because those sounds are easily confused. This means that I had to make a few concessions when it comes to the order of easy to hard based on letter formation.
How to choose an order based on getting kids to read
I use a different sequence when I teach the alphabet to kindergartners because my goals are different. While I certainly want kindergartners to form letters correctly, we have a more pressing goal: getting them to read.
When creating my set of decodable stories with custom illustrations (free on the website), I chose an order that separated both vowels and consonants which are easily confused, while also including letters that allowed students to read CVC words as soon as possible.
In choosing an order like this, it’s wise to start with letters whose sounds can be sustained (like s, f, or m), teach high utility letters first (for example, waiting to teach letters like z and x) and order the short vowels in what is often considered the best order (a, i, o, e, u).
For me personally, it’s important for students to be able to read stories as soon as possible, so I had to make exceptions with my sequence. I needed the word JAM in the first short, basic decodable book, so I included j (a low utility letter with a stop sound) early on.
You see? It all depends on your goals.
My scope and sequence for teaching lowercase letters and sounds to kindergarteners follows (you’ll notice that digraphs are included throughout):
s, j, a, t, p, m, d, c, h, r, n, i, b, f, g, k, ck, o, e, l, v, w, sh, th, u, ch, wh, x, y, qu z
This order allows me to start with very basic decodable books (you can get them for free here) like this one:
So what do you think? How do YOU choose the order for teaching letters? Feel free to let us know in the comments!