I’m issuing my own product recall on alphabet charts, and yours might be included!
This isn’t a safety issue, I can’t imagine an alphabet chart causing physical harm (though I suppose the occasional paper cut could be pretty traumatic) but the alphabet chart you’re using might not be teaching what it’s meant to teach.
Alphabet charts, those posters or room headers that show upper and lower case letters along with a picture, are meant to be a reference point for children. They are meant to help a child associate the written letter with its accompanying sound. So you have “Tt” next to a tiger, “Ff” next to a frog, and “Dd” next to a dinosaur. Easy enough, right?
X is for X-Con
The letter X is the biggest offender on these alphabet charts. Most alphabet charts show “Xx” x-ray, or “Xx” xylophone. These cues won’t help your children much, unless they’re trying to spell X-Men or xenophobia. Now I’ll be the first to agree, that finding a familiar word that begins with x is not an easy task. Just check out this list of words starting with x. Not too child friendly. The problem is, the purpose of an alphabet chart is not just to match letters to cute pictures with the same beginning letter, it is to offer visual cues to match with a useful sound.
The most common sound for the letter X, particularly in the early stages of reading and writing is the “ks” sound. That is the X sound children need to learn. Now, I don’t think I can come up with a word starting with X and the “ks” sound, but I know a few common words that end with the X-“ks” sound. Box and fox, for example. The fact that the sound is at the end doesn’t make it less useful. In fact, it’s more useful because it teaches the actual sound the child needs to learn.
X is by far the worst offender, but you might want to take a look at the vowels on your chart too. Vowels are the Jason Bourne of the English language. Just when you think you know exactly what they’re about, they change on you. While we teach long and short sounds, we all know there are about twenty subtly different sounds those five letters can produce- think R controlled, schwa, diphthongs. For the sake of basic concepts, an alphabet chart should ideally show a picture corresponding with the short sound for the vowels. The long sounds are obvious – they state the letter’s name. It’s the short sounds that children will need to be reminded of. So instead of “Ii” ice cream, it would be better to find “Ii” insect, or iguana, or igloo. Now, this may require some vocabulary training, but really, with any alphabet chart, you need to spend some time explaining what each picture represents. Otherwise you have children reciting A for Crocodile or Q for Pretty Princess.
The good news is, you don’t have to send your chart in to the factory to be retrofitted with a new part. You can do that yourself. Simply identify the offenders in your alphabet chart, choose words that more appropriately match the sound cues you are trying to teach, do a quick image search on the internet, print, paste over the offender, and you’re done!
Charts Vs Books
Now I don’t want you to suddenly rifle through all your alphabet storybooks and throw them out as well. Alphabet books like Alphabet Under Construction by Denise Fleming, or Jerry Pallotta’s Icky Bug Alphabet Book shouldn’t be held to the same standard as the alphabet charts. While charts are meant as a ready reference across situations, alphabet books are meant to show application of the alphabet within a theme or context. They can show “airbrush” for A because tomorrow you’ll show them another book with “anaconda” for A. Books can show variation, but your chart needs to show consistent basic concepts.
No one will come from the government to enforce this recall. But if you have children trying to spell the word “zebra” with an X, you can’t say I didn’t warn you about your misleading “xylophone“.
You may also be interested in A Culture of Literacy: Teaching Preschooler’s the ABCs and More.
Top photo by ctech.
Sheri Brown says
Or should we have alphabet charts at all?
That’s a valid question, Sheri! I suppose it depends a bit on your philosophy for literacy education. Within my personal philosophy, based on the research I’m aware of, alphabet charts aren’t inherently bad practice, but they can be used in bad practice. If your chart is just a pretty poster with cute pictures that don’t give the best information – as I mentioned in the post – then it’s not the best tool you could be using. If you rely too heavily on one chart or recitations or use that chart as your only form of instruction, your literacy education will be lacking. But if you use it as part of a larger culture of literacy, as I mentioned in the post I linked to at the bottom of this post, there’s no harm in using an alphabet chart as one of many references. It’s like a dictionary. I’m certainly not going to use one as the basis of my reading program, but I do want to have access to one as a tool.
What are your thoughts?
Sheri Brown says
I think it depends on the age of the children. For two year olds, I think it takes up wall space that would be better suited to other things (their work, for example). For older children, it may be better to make one with them. Not sure what any child learns by seeing it up on the wall before they’re interested in letters.
BTW, my staff loves your blog! I think several of my parents have started reading it too.
I’m with you, Sheri – two year olds are probably too young, and their literacy focus would more likely include exploring words and sounds with fingerplays, songs, and rhymes (which older ones need too). I would put an alphabet chart in the writing area with older ones – fours and fives – to reference when they’re doing their own writing. As they’re using their inventive spelling they may pause to connect a sound to a letter and might use the chart as a reference.
Making a chart with them is a great idea! Word walls are a great way to do this because you get a lot of ownership from the children, and also have a wide variation of sounds as well as fonts.
Thanks for passing my blog on! I’m glad to hear your staff and parents are enjoying it. I’d love to explore a topic particularly pertinent to your center if you ever want to drop me an email! firstname.lastname@example.org
Wow, I never thought about this at all before. (As a mum) I always think alphabet charts are kind of boring anyway, so the only one we have is one to show my preschooler how to write each letter.
But I suppose the issue of finding words with the right sound is useful to apply when you are playing games like I Spy with new alphabet learners too.
This is really helpful and a really good reminder of the importance of the sounds of letters… I have passed it on (via fb) to all my early childhood uni peers…..one teacher also recommended “whose name starts with the sound ….” rather than “the letter….” as a transition as it helps the children think more about the sounds and hence helping with early literacy skills.
Thanks for passing it on, Wendy! Focusing on the sound is really where it starts. And using names to talk about those sounds will always get the children to pay attention – and remember!
Melissa D says
I thought I was the only person who obsessed about the usability and design of alphabet charts and number books! Glad to know I’m not insane. 🙂
Seriously, look at number books too — especially the ones that mix number concepting with entirely too much going on in a picture, like shifting colors/shapes and busy backgrounds.
Didn’t all the old books just use “x-ray” for X?
You are not alone! I do remember just about every old reference using x-ray for X, which reinforces letter name, but doesn’t do much for the sound concept for early readers. For them, the “ks” sound is most valuable. It just requires a shift in thinking, because that sound occurs in the middle or end, rather than at the beginning!
I’m glad to hear I’m a nerd in good company! 🙂
Am in the UK and recently bought the Jolly Phonics songs and poster as my 2 yr old is getting quite interested in letters and I though the songs would be a nice introduction, was really surprised to find x, although sounded as “ks”, represented by x-ray. They don’t match and seems ludicrous that no-one noticed this in a phonics programme!