Why we shouldn’t be teaching children the alphabet

If you think sounds and phonics-based instruction is something new, you’d be very much mistaken.

“The influence of prejudice and fashion has prevailed in nothing more than in the business of education. However averse to innovation, we cannot refuse to acknowledge innumerable blemishes in almost all our systems of instruction. To speak in general terms on this subject, would be as useless as it would be tiresome—we will come at once to business.”

So begins an article in The Hobart Town Courier that raises issues with the idea of teaching children to read by first demanding they learn the names of the letters as spoken in the alphabet.

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“Suppose then we have a little child, 3, 4, or 5 years of age ready to begin to learn—what are we to do? Buy him a spelling book and teach him the alphabet, by repeatedly calling the letters to him until he knows their names by sight… This is the usual method, and we do not wonder that it generally proves an irksome one both to teacher and scholar. We think these spelling books may entirely be dispensed with, unless we wish to disgust the pupil and make him loathe the sight of a book.”

“To set the whole alphabet before him at once, Roman, Italic, capitals, and small letters, names and powers duly accented, as is often done, is like setting a man at the foot of Mount Wellington to remove it away.”

“If we are to teach a child to read, let us set before him such combinations of letters as he will meet with when he does read, that is the commonest words in the language.”

“The mode of teaching children to form the letters on a board of sand at the same time that they learn to pronounce them is a good one, for by that means they learn the principles of reading, writing, and spelling at once, and their hands and minds are set to perform something which they are pleased to accomplish. Who has not witnessed the exultation of a child when he has told his parent or his teacher, exclaiming “I know it! I did that!” To teach a child, by force of memory alone, to repeat the whole English alphabet from beginning to end is more a matter of curiosity and exultation than of real practical use as a means of teaching him to read.”

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“As far as it is practicable the first lesson should be made as simple and as easy as possible, and the softest letters, and those that are most easily pronounced should first be learned. Suppose then we take the child and teach him to pronounce the letters a, m, and n without showing him the book, then point out to him the three characters which indicate these sounds, first uncombined and printed in a good size and clear manner, and afterwards combined as in the words ‘a man’. His mind will thus have an idea impressed upon it, it will have something substantial to rest upon, and at the very first step will be convinced of the utility of the exercise for it will be put to use and meaning.”

You may be surprised to learn that this article and its very rational argument that sounds are taught in small chunks rather than the alphabet in its entirety, is from 12 April 1828.

Yet almost two hundred years later, we still send our children off to kindergarten proud that they can recite the letters of the alphabet, only to confuse them when they later learn that the 26 letter names don’t always correspond to the 44 sounds of our language.

But as the article continues:

“The very naming of the English alphabet, as it now prevails is jumbled and accidental, some of the consonants being pronounced as b, o, d with the assistance of a vowel after, and others as in n, a with that of one before. But most of the consonants have two sounds or powers, and the letter c as pronounced in the alphabet and in the word cat is as different as any two letters can be.”

 The original article can be found here:
THE TEACHER, No. I. (1828, April 12). The Hobart Town Courier (Tas. : 1827 – 1839), p. 4. Retrieved June 27, 2023, from

Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and the author of "Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World", now available in all good bookstores.

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