Learning to ‘look at’ and ‘write’ the letters of the Alphabet

Apologies for the long break between postings. Life has been a bit crazy over the past 12 months but I am planning to get back into doing postings quite regularly

This Blog posting is informed by the first part of the following book chapter. The chapter will give you a much richer picture of this complex topic. What follows is a taste.

Mackenzie, N. M. (2019). Learning to ‘look at’ and ‘write’ the letters of the alphabet. In L. Beveridge, R. Cox, & S. Feez (Eds.), The alphabetic principle and beyond: a survey of the landscape Newtown: Primary English Teaching Association (PETAA).

I will start with a quote from Read:

‘Whatever intricacies of orthography a child must master in school, the most significant cognitive achievement comes at the outset: Mastering the alphabetic principle.’(Read, 2009, pp.262–263)

What do we mean by the Alphabetic Principle? Simply put, it means that oral language can be converted to written language using letters of the alphabet. These letters are also know as graphemes. In the English language we have 26 letters and approximately 44 spoken sounds, but there are more than 120 ways that the letters of the alphabet can be organised and grouped in different combinations/orders to represent those 44 sounds. We do not know what sound a letter is making until it is placed within a word.

For example: Let’s look at the letter ‘c’

What sound does ‘c’ make in ‘cat’?

What sound does ‘c’ make in ‘cello’?

What sound does ‘c’ make in ‘musician’?

What sound does ‘c’ make in ‘race’?


In this blog I am talking about the ‘letters of the alphabet‘ – we should always use the letter names when we are talking about letters. To call a letter by a sound that it may make in some words, is akin to calling a dog a woof woof. The animal in question is a dog, and sometimes makes a ‘woof woof‘ sound.

Now let’s move on,

No matter the level of a child’s phonemic awareness, to make use of it, she or he must learn to identify the visual forms of individual letters.’ (Adams, 1990, p.333)

Not being able to distinguish or name the letters of the alphabet has been linked to extreme difficulty in learning letter sound relationships and word recognition.

We know how important phonemic awareness is to early literacy development but children also need to be able to differentiate between and label the 26 letters of the alphabet (in upper and lower case).

TIP: The Alphabet song – is a useful anchor for children when teaching letters.

According to Adams (1994, p. 359) the ability to name and recognise letters is, in general, not established through showing children the letters and then teaching them the names. That’s backwards. Most children are taught the letters only after they know their names. By thoroughly learning the names first, the child has a solid mnemonic ‘peg’, to help [them] recognise, discriminate and use letters in reading and writing.

Clay also advised that,

‘Children must learn what visual information in print is usable and how to use it.’ (Clay, 2001, p.148)

While Lyons suggested that,

The similarities between letters in English require highly developed visual discrimination skills (Lyons, 2003).

For example, if I asked you to write down the following letters ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘p’, ‘g’ and ‘q’ (in print form) you would be able to see that they are all represented as ‘circles with sticks’, and being able to differentiate one from the other requires a child to see fine details and differences (e.g. direction, size and position).

Upper case letters and lower case letters also look very different- giving children 52 symbols to learn to write and 54 to recognise (‘a’ and ‘g’):

a b c d e f g h I j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z


Add the differences between the handwriting scripts taught in schools and scripts used in published texts that children are learning to read, and children have a lot to learn about looking at and writing letters. Consider the following examples:

• Lower case ‘the hand written form of the letter ‘a’ , ‘a’ and upper case ‘A’ are the same letter but look different
• Upper case ‘R’ and lower case ‘r’ look very different, but are the same letter
• Upper case ‘A’ and upper case ‘H’ look similar but are different letters
• The only difference between lower case ‘b’ and ‘d’ is the direction they face
• The only difference between lower case print forms of ‘a, d and q’ is the height and position of the stick.

Children also need to learn the concepts of: word, sentence, writing, reading, first and last, directionality and return sweep, spacing and punctuation. 

Handwriting assists children with letter learning: 

According to research:

The motor actions performed to produce letter shapes by hand promote letter knowledge, spelling, and reading acquisition (Labat, Vallet, Mangnan & Ecalle, 2015)

It is the ‘meaningful coupling between action and perception during handwriting, [which] establishes sensory-motor memory traces’ and facilitates written language acquisition. (Kiefer, Schuler, Mayer, Trumpp,  Hille,  & Sachse,  2015).

In conclusion:

‘. . . the skills of ‘looking at print’ and ‘writing letters correctly’ are important skills for all young learners to develop.

How teachers support children as they grapple with the challenges involved in ‘looking at and producing print’ impacts their ongoing success as readers and writers.’ (Mackenzie, 2019, p. 164)

In my next blog I will talk about how children’s names are a great resource for teaching about letters. This is also discussed in the chapter.


Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Clay, M. M. (2001). Change over time: In children’s literacy development. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Kiefer, M., Schuler, S., Mayer, C., Trumpp, N. M., Hille, K., & Sachse, S. (2015). Handwriting or typewriting? The influence of pen-or keyboard-based writing training on reading and writing performance in preschool children11(4), 136-146.

Labat, H., Vallet, G., Magnan, A., & Ecalle, J. (2015). Facilitating effect of multisensory letter encoding on reading and spelling in 5-year-old children. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 29(3), 381-391

Lyons, C. A. (2003). Teaching struggling readers: How to use brain-based research to maximize learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Mackenzie, N. M. (2019). Learning to ‘look at’ and ‘write’ the letters of the alphabet. In L. Beveridge, R. Cox, & S. Feez (Eds.), The alphabetic principle and beyond: a survey of the landscape Newtown: Primary English Teaching Association (PETAA).

Read, C. (2009). Learning to use alphabetic writing. In R. Beard, D. Myhill, J. Riley, & M. Nystrand (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of writing development (pp. 260-270). Los Angeles: SAGE.

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