One of the first steps in learning to read is to successfully identify the letters of the alphabet and begin matching them to their sounds. For most of us, the memories of this process are vague; you might be able to dimly recall alphabet flashcards or something about the letter Q from Sesame Street. You certainly wouldn’t be able to pinpoint when you went from only identifying a handful of letters to knowing them all – but you would have been required to learn at least some letters by the end of preschool according to your state standards.
How many letters? Well, that depends. Texas requires preschoolers to be able to name at least 20 uppercase and 20 lowercase letters. In Alabama, preschoolers must identify at least 10 letters of the alphabet, especially those in the child’s name. Indiana state standards for preschoolers are to point to and name at least six letters. Wyoming wants preschools to associate at least 10 letters with their shapes and sounds. Going through the standards and benchmarks for all other states reveals a wide range of requirements with little consensus for what makes the necessary benchmarks for preschool letter-naming abilities.
The study How Many Letters Should Preschoolers in Public Programs Know? The Diagnostic Efficacy of Various Preschool Letter-Naming Benchmarks for Predicting First Grade Literacy Achievement seeks to provide further insight into how letter-naming abilities correspond to later literacy achievement so states may develop better, research-based benchmarks.
Florida Center for Reading Research researcher Dr. Yaacov Petscher served as the quantitative methodologist for the study, co-authored by two Ohio State University faculty members, Dr. Shayne Piasta and Dr. Laura Justice. The study supported optimal preschool benchmarks of 18 uppercase and 15 lowercase letters, which could be used to justify decisions about state standards. Stated Piasta, "We expect that a student who is meeting grade-appropriate reading standards should continue on the path of reading success, but current alphabet standards are often arbitrary and not based on evidence. In this study, we used longitudinal data to empirically determine preschool letter benchmarks that distinguished children who were and were not likely to demonstrate continued reading success as they moved into first grade."
In recognition of the study’s value in the field of literacy acquisition, the study was selected as the winner for the 2014 IRA Dina Feitelson Research Award. Presented by the International Reading Association, an organization dedicated to advancing the quality of literacy instruction and research, the award recognizes an outstanding empirical study for a refereed journal.
The full study is available through the American Psychological Association Journal of Educational Psychology and can be found at http://psycnet.apa.org/psycarticles/2012-08597-001.pdf.