The Alpha-Beta and The QWERTY

The alphabet song is one of the first songs that we teach our children. We are thrilled as they learn to sing the song along with us, so much so that the song itself ends with “next time won’t you sing with me?” I’ve often wondered about the usefulness of teaching the alphabet and the names of the letters as one of the first things that young toddlers learn. Unless one is attempting to use the index of a book or find a book in a library, what is the usefulness of the alphabet in our current society? Toddlers are not searching for one word among many words listed in alphabetical order. Should the alphabet really be one of the first things that children learn?

Unpacking the alphabet a bit, we find two components: the name of the letters, and the order of the letters. As a lover of word roots and etymology, it didn’t take long to recognize that the word “alphabet” itself is self-referential and self-defining: Alpha and Beta are the names of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, and are given in the word “alphabet” in alphabetical order. The most compelling argument that I could fabricate for teaching the alphabetic order of letters to toddlers is that, well, the letters have to be put in some order so that they can be comprehensively listed and learned. They might as well be put in alphabetic order, the memorization of which is assisted by the Alphabet Song. But why learn the names of the letters? Learning to read involves learning the sounds that the letters make – phonics – rather than learning the names of the letters themselves or learning their official alphabetic order. Should we point to a letter B and call it a “Buh” instead of a “Bee” to put phonics ahead in importance of letter name? If phonics involved a simple one-to-one relationship between letter and sound, then I would say yes. However, letters like C (evoking both a K and an S phonic) and phonics based on letter combinations like CH and OO complicate this approach. When I discussed these things with my husband, he said, “Letters are the atoms, and phonics is the molecules”. I love this. In layterms, letters are the building blocks of phonics – either singly or in combination – from which language is built.

So, memorizing an order of letters ensures that no letters are forgotten (the Alphabet Song helps) and learning the names of letters may help toddlers learn the building blocks from which more complex phonics, and language, are built. Perhaps learning the alphabet isn’t such a bad thing after all.

These thoughts brought forth the alternate order of letters that is found on the QWERTY keyboard. This brings two ideas to mind.

  • Would an alternate Letter Song that lists the letters in their QWERTY keyboard order be a useful song for toddlers to learn? Probably not, only because one generally doesn’t learn how to type on a QWERTY keyboard by letter order but by letter position relative to the “home” finger position of ASDF and JKL;.
  • Why do toy laptops marketed to the parents of toddlers display letters in alphabetic order rather than by their QWERTY placement? Years ago, I flirted with the idea of buying my then-toddler a toy laptop until I saw that most toddler keyboards were non-QWERTY. As we all know, the ability to effectively use computers is critical to functioning in our society. Why would I want my child to learn how to spell his name on an alphabetic keyboard only to be confused when given a standard QWERTY keyboard? As mentioned above, there is nothing magical about the alphabetic order of letters whose only usefulness for a toddler is making sure that all letters are represented. We quickly decided to give our toddler his own account on our computer (with appropriate parental controls and limited applications) and he learned directly on the QWERTY. In short, the QWERTY order has a different usefulness than the alphabetic order. Perhaps the only example of separate being equal.

As I began this journey into the Land of the Twenty-Six, I approached the alphabet as possibly archaic and one of those things that children learn because they always have learned it, and whose true usefulness (finding one word in a list of many) was not evident until years later after children learned to read. After contemplation, I can see the alphabet as the first step into the more complex world of phonics. I’ll be teaching my daughter the alphabet, and will be once again thrilled when she can sing along with me.


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