It is common practice to start with the Alphabet of a language while teaching reading and writing.

But some linguists I know say that we need not begin with the Alphabet but we can move from words or sentences to the Alphabet.

Must we start teaching reading and writing with the Alphabet?

  • 2
    Clarifying question: can you provide an example of learning to read and write a language without learning the alphabet first? It kind of sounds like trying to learn algebra without first learning numerals.
    – Hatchet
    Oct 3, 2019 at 22:22
  • Mathematics and languages are different.There are many methods like word method, phonic method etc Oct 4, 2019 at 5:33
  • I'd really like to know more about methods to learn writing/reading without starting with the alphabet. Phonics is generally used to teach the alphabet. I'm not familiar with "word method". My guess is that in the linguistics research this question could better be answered, but hunting around for something that might not exist is not a rewarding proposition. Nov 11, 2019 at 6:02
  • Is your question about learning the first language, or about a second language? Because this forum assume the second one, IIUC. Jan 27, 2021 at 14:05

3 Answers 3


Imagine that the first thing you learn is to memorize written words such as bat, cat, rat, cod, god and dog. Only after you can read and write those words in their entirety do you start to analyze the letters in isolation. In theory, this could work.

In my experience teaching Spanish and English, I find it is often easier to memorize entire phrases than discrete words without context. On a macro level, this is a case in which it makes more sense to learn big chunks before their constituent parts.

Taking it to a lower level of complexity, everyone who is literate knows the letters, but hardly anybody takes the time to learn strokes, the building blocks of letters.

That said, there are so few letters that it makes little sense to learn to read entire words before tackling the alphabet.

  • 1
    The number of letters is different based on which language we are discussing. Also, punctuation marks do add to the count. For a language like Thai (with few punctuation marks) there are 44 consonants and more than 50 vowels and special characters. Also they use both Arabic numerals as well as Thai numerals (borrowed from Khmer) which are also unique and difficult to learn. In many ways the complexity of the script delays the age at which children learn to read (I have a 4 year old who could read English at 3.5 but is still mystified by Thai, his native language). Nov 10, 2019 at 7:24
  • Note that if we are dealing with a first language, then obviously it is strokes that are practiced at first, and not even letters. Dealing with a second language, instruction may skip that, to the detriment of the learner. Jan 27, 2021 at 7:46

Depends on the language. For Mandarin Chinese, there are (free online on edx.org) courses based on pinyin, ignoring the Chinese symbols completely.

Of course being able to speak, but not being able to read, will severely limit your learning potential - but if might be a valid first step in learning Mandarin. Luckily, some/most Chinese (I heard - I have no personal experience with Chinese) will be able to understand your written pinyin, and there even might be pinyin-to-mandarin translator programs.

For most other languages, and especially for languages with nearly-phonetic script like Russian or Thai, learning the alphabet first is fully warranted, and postponing it does not make sense (if you seriously intend to learn language beyond few tourist phrases using some local romanization system).

I also read that to learn Japanese, it is preferable to learn one of the simple alphabets (I forgot which one), because (Japanese learners said) romanization will teach you wrong habits.

  • The original question is only about language, not about learning a second language. Jan 27, 2021 at 7:49

It would be interesting to hear how one doesn't need to start with the alphabet. Any references/papers on this topic? The original poster mentions "some linguists I know" how about starting by asking them?

Since reading is reading letters, groups of letters, words, and groups of words, starting without letters seems a bit difficult. The broader question is why start without the alphabet? What advantage would there be not not learning the alphabet first? It is a bit like saying can we learn to speak without starting with individual sounds.

Many answers here talk about speech, but the question is about learning to read and write. My guess is that someone thinks they can teach reading and writing by teaching whole words rather than the individual parts of words (letters and glyphs). But learning to read is also about learning to say the words that are being read, and phonics (at least in alphabets and abugidas) is the sounding out of individual letters.

I've got young children in my house learning to read Thai and English and I've got no idea whatsoever how to teach that without the individual letters. Note that writing focuses on letters as well. How can that not be the atomic element that needs to be mastered and then drive up from there to words and sentences?

  • Pimsleur's language courses take the approach of teaching how to speak without starting with individual sounds.
    – K Man
    Nov 10, 2019 at 12:52

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