What is letter-sound correspondence?
Letter-sound correspondence is the ability to match letters with their corresponding sounds. Seems straightforward, right? In practice, letter-sound correspondences, especially in English, can be quite complex due to irregular spellings and pronunciations of letters in different words (Hutzler, 2004). For example, the “c” in “cent” and “count” sound different. Vowels have many variations as well, such as the “a” in “bacon” and “mat.” These differences seem normal once we get used to them, but how do we teach young learners how to read and write out these inconsistencies?
Those distinct sounds, even for the same letter, have their own name. Phonemes, or the smallest units comprising spoken language, combine to form syllables and words (Ehri et al., 2001). Each letter of the alphabet counts as a phoneme. Added together with combinations of letters, such as “ch” and “oo”, English consists of 44 different phonemes all blending together to create words (Watson, 2019). For instance, the word “check” has three phonemes, “/ch/” “/e/” and “/ck/”. The number of phonemes for “check” (3) are different from the number of letters (5) or syllables (1). Awareness of these phonemes and the ability to manipulate them plays a crucial role in helping students master the alphabetic principle, or the understanding that letters correspond to sounds that make up spoken words (Moats, 2010; Keesey et al., 2015). Phonemic awareness falls under the broader phonological awareness, or the recognition that words are made up of sounds, such as syllables, onsets and rimes, or phonemes (Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 2017). Letter-sound correspondence is a prerequisite phonemic awareness skill for students to eventually blend sounds together to read words.
Letter-sound correspondence vs. alphabet recognition - what’s the difference?
Both letter-sound correspondence and alphabet recognition are crucial preliteracy skills, which greatly improve a child’s reading ability when they begin grade school (Lonigan, 2006). Furthermore, both require students to match a written letter of the alphabet with a sound or name. So how are they different exactly?
Alphabet recognition, sometimes referred to as letter recognition, is the ability to name a letter shown or pick out a letter among a group of letters by differentiating their shapes (Lynch, 2020). Letter-sound correspondence, on the other hand, is the skill of identifying a letter based on what sound it makes in a word, which is not necessarily its name. In order for students to match letters with their sounds, or phonemes, they must be able to first differentiate letter formations and shapes first. Once they can name the letters of the alphabet, they can more easily associate letters with the sounds they make. In the end, however, knowing the sound a letter makes is what will allow them to read, not just the letter’s name.
Why does letter-sound correspondence matter?
Letter-sound correspondence is one specific skill among a number of other preliteracy skills that preschool children develop before entering kindergarten. Building preliteracy skills before formal schooling is a critical factor that ensures a child can become a successful beginner reader in kindergarten and in the years that follow (Strickland & Riley-Ayers, 2006). Letter-sound correspondence contributes to one of two main parts in the alphabetic principle, which are 1) alphabetic understanding - words are composed of letters that make sounds and 2) phonological awareness - letters make sounds that can be identified and put together to retrieve the pronunciation of an unknown word (University of Oregon, 2009). Letter-sound correspondence falls primarily within the second of the two parts, contributing to a child’s ability to understand basic units of sound in language and connect them to the letters of the alphabet.
This ability to match letters with their sounds is a key early literacy skill that preschool age children begin to develop (Diamond, et al. 2008). Children’s literacy skills by the time they reach kindergarten correlate to their reading achievement in early elementary school (Denton et al., 2003) and in high school (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997). Phonological awareness and the ability to associate sounds with print is an integral part of developing early writing and reading competence (National Reading Panel, 2000). Notably, however, the process of learning to read and write does not follow a linear sequence of learning letter shapes, sounds, pronunciations, then the meanings of words. Study findings have pointed out the reciprocal relationship between phonological awareness and learning to read and write (Weaver, 1998; Diamond et al., 2008), emphasizing that letter-sound correspondences must be taught within the whole of phonological awareness and other preliteracy skills to prepare young children for high literacy and language development down the line (Chapman, 2003).
Different approaches to teaching phonemic awareness
In recent years, two main approaches to teaching phonemic awareness skills have been discussed in early childhood research: systemic phonemic instruction and whole language instruction. Systematic phonemic instruction explicitly teaches students letter-sound correspondences, often in isolation first and then teaching students how to blend phonemes together (Keesey et al., 2015; Gibbs et al., 2018; Ehri et al., 2001). The more long-standing approach, whole language instruction, focuses on speaking, listening, and reading with a literature-rich curriculum to expose students to new words and phoneme-combinations and teach them on an as-needed basis (Strauss, 2019; Chapman, 2003; Klesius et al. 2010).
So is one better than the other? Not necessarily. Both systematic phonemic and whole language instruction teach integral concepts and skills for children learning to read, but in different ways. Teaching phonemes first, as in systematic phonemic instruction, is a systematic and comprehensive approach that gives students the tools to sound out new words. This direct teaching approach ensures students are exposed to all existing phonemes in a logical progression, which is advantageous in setting a strong foundation for decoding words in text since whole language instruction captures learning opportunities as they arise.
However, there are many words that cannot be decoded by identifying phonemes in the word, in which context whole language instruction has an advantage. These words are either regularly occurring “sight” words that students must learn to recognize as a whole (e.g., “the”); or they are words that can only be identified by understanding the context in which they are found in text (e.g., “It was crowded, there were a lot of [people] at the mall,” where “people” cannot be sounded out but guessed in context).
The tricky part is that between phonological awareness and early literacy, there is a mutual effect on learning letters and their sounds with growth in literature and writing skills. A recent literature review of both approaches determined that they should be used in tandem for emergent readers (Holton 2021) to provide a holistic approach to reading instruction.
In both approaches, letter-sound correspondences must be taught at some point - whether on its own initially or in the context of specific words. For both systematic phonemic and whole language instruction, teachers need to know what letter-sounds their students know and the ones they don’t. In the home setting, parents and caregivers can use the whole language approach; the key is that children should be surrounded by literature and read often.