Alphabet Learning and Instruction

Alphabet knowledge is a basic building block for early reading and writing. Children who learn the forms, names and sounds of letters during early childhood are less likely to experience reading difficulties later in school.

Crane Center faculty associate Dr. Shayne Piasta studies how children develop alphabet knowledge and best practices for alphabet instruction. Below are some highlights of this work along with resources for assessing and teaching the alphabet.

Articles about Alphabet Knowledge Development and Instruction

This work has resulted in multiple published papers. To learn more about Alphabet Learning and Instruction for early childhood educators, check out the peer-reviewed articles.

As early childhood educators support children’s development of alphabet knowledge, it is clear that children in the same classroom have widely differing needs. Counter to a one-size-fits-all approach, this article encourages alphabet instruction aligned with assessment-driven decision making and differentiated instruction based on theory, research, and best practices.

This study compares two instructional approaches to foster children’s development in alphabet knowledge.

This study examined the developmental sequence of how children – between the ages of two and five and from diverse regions, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds – gain letter name knowledge.

Findings from this study can be used to discuss the educational implications, limitations, and future directions of preschool benchmarks for children participating in publicly funded preschools.

Alphabet Learning Assessments

An important first step is to assess what children know about letter names and sounds. Here are two brief assessments of children’s letter-name knowledge and letter-sound knowledge. Additional ideas for assessment are included in The Reading Teacher article.


Our colleagues Dr. Laura Tortorelli, Dr. Ryan Bowles, and Dr. Lori Skibbe at Michigan State University developed the Quick Letter Name Knowledge Assessment (Q-LNK). You can access the assessment and more information here.


Developed by Dr. Piasta and her colleagues, the Letter-Sound Short Form Assessments a brief and easy tool for assessing young children’s basic letter-sound knowledge. These assessments were developed using item response theory and demonstrate strong psychometric properties. They are designed to provide formative and summative information concerning children’s letter-sound knowledge for educators and researchers.

Materials available for download include two versions of the assessment, each with multiple parallel forms. The three-form version includes three parallel forms of 8-letters each and is designed for those wishing to assess letter-sound knowledge at three measurement occasions (e.g., beginning, middle, and end of year). The four-form version includes four parallel forms of 6-letters each and is designed for those wishing to assess letter-sound knowledge more frequently, such as the four annual measurement occasions often utilized with other progress monitoring tools. Scoring keys are provided to convert raw scores to scores based on the item response theory analysis. This includes scaled scores (based on a mean of 20 and standard deviation of 2) and sum scores (the number of letter sounds the child would be expected know, had s/he been assessed on all 26 letters). Users should review the associated manuscript (Piasta et al., 2016). Additional validity information is provided in Piasta et al. (2018). Links to these studies are provided below.

This assessment has been peer-reviewed. You can read The University of Chicago’s Press Journal, The Elementary School Journal, article here or the Sage Journal article here.

Best Practices in Alphabet Instruction

Surprisingly, we know very little about how to best support young children’s alphabet learning. Should we teach uppercase letters first or teach both uppercase and lowercase letters? Should we teach letter names before teaching sounds? Should we start with easier or more difficult letters? Does multisensory teaching result in better learning? How can we teach letters in fun, engaging ways?

Dr. Piasta and her research team are trying to answer these questions in their Best Practices in Alphabet Instruction project. The initial portion of this work involved creating lessons that can be used with young learners to provide differentiated, targeted alphabet instruction. In creating these lessons, the research team partnered with experienced teachers at the A. Sophie Rogers School for Early Learning in the Schoenbaum Family Center at The Ohio State University. The lessons can be downloaded below.

To evaluate the lessons, the research team partnered with local early childhood centers to conduct a pilot study. Results showed that the lessons improved children’s letter-name knowledge, letter-sound knowledge, and letter writing. Once ready, the results will be made available.