Among the most important words in children's lives are their names. And since we know that instruction for young children is most successful when it is fun, active, and personal, the first word that children might want to read and write is their own name.
Preschool teachers frequently spend time helping children recognize and write their own name, saying the names of the letters as they go. They can also show how the letters represent the sounds we hear in a name. For example, we write "S" for the /s/ sound at the beginning of Ssssssam, "a" for the /a/ sound, and "m" for the /m/ sound at the end. This personal introduction to phonics helps build phonemic awareness as well.
The national Head Start guidelines recommend teaching children to identify letters in this way, beginning with the letters in their names. The National Research Council's expectations of three- and four-year-old children include being able to identify 10 or more letters of the alphabet, especially those from their own name.
Kindergarten teachers are delighted when students enter the classroom with mastery of this name-writing skill. Many use class name charts as a springboard into word study, advanced alphabet knowledge, and phonics. For example, name charts may show a name that begins with an "M," and teachers can ask students to find another name that begins with the same letter. Teachers can find ways to use names to introduce and reinforce a range of phonics skills. According to the National Research Council, by the end of kindergarten, children are expected to recognize and name all of the uppercase and lowercase letters of the alphabet.
To learn to read and write, children also need to notice the sound structure of spoken words: their length, their similarities and differences, and the discrete sounds (called phonemes) that go together within each word. This ability to recognize the spoken word as a sequence of discrete sounds is called phonemic awareness. The word "sun," for example, contains three phonemes, or speech sounds: /s/, /uh/, and /n/. A child who has developed phonemic awareness will be able to break the word down into these three separate sounds, to blend them together again into a word, and then recognize the word as "sun." This ability will enable a child to read and spell many different words.
The song "What's Your Name?" focuses on one phoneme, /uh/, the sound that the short "u" makes. Teachers can make the most of young children's interest in their own name to help boost phonemic awareness and build children's understanding of the separate sounds within words.