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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?

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    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 '19 at 22:22
  • Mathematics and languages are different.There are many methods like word method, phonic method etc – successive suspension Oct 4 '19 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. – jeffmcneill Nov 11 '19 at 6:02
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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.

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  • 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). – jeffmcneill Nov 10 '19 at 7:24
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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.

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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 learing the alphabet first? It is a bit like saying can we learn to speak without starting with individual sounds.

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  • Pimsleur's language courses take the approach of teaching how to speak without starting with individual sounds. – K Man Nov 10 '19 at 12:52
  • @k-man That may be true, but what would it be like to read or write without the alphabet? Children bootstrap themselves with hearing sounds and producing sounds. Reading and writing is quite different, historically/evolutionarily. It is said that the vast majority of people are 10 generations away from illiteracy, which in my family was true, as the immigrant ancestor 11 generations ago was clearly illiterate (signed his name with an X). – jeffmcneill Nov 11 '19 at 5:57

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