I’m ashamed to admit that at the age of 24, I still—still—have to mentally scan through parts of the alphabet to find which letter precedes some other letter. I’ve known the English alphabet by heart since I was very small, but if you ask me, say, which letter comes before L, my thought process goes something like this:
—before L, alright… H–I–J–K–L— K, it’s K.
I have to scan from H through the letter in question to find that K precedes L. I don’t have any other way of knowing that K comes right before L without scanning forward, sequentially, until I come across the right letter.
I really hope I’m not the only one who lacks this ability. But I think I’m not alone.
As children we learn our letters in order, from A to Z. Some of us memorize chunks, one following another, then put them together. Others, like me, learned with the help of a pre–18th century French folk melody sung with the lyrics of the alphabet. But both of these methods rely on forward–seeking, sequential rote memorization of not just the letters themselves, but crucially, the order of those letters.
Most of us, I imagine, split the alphabet into sections. We probably don’t do this consciously, but when you’re learning the alphabet as a small child, remembering the sounds and order of 26 seemingly–random symbols is a tall order. Breaking the string of letters into digestible pieces makes memorization and recall easier.
But as adults we suffer the consequences. My mental alphabet is still broken along those lines. When finding K before L earlier, I started scanning letters at H because H is the start of one of my alphabet sections:
A B C D E F G—H I J K L M N O P—Q R S—T U V—W X Y Z
(I’m probably not the only one with those divisions—it’s the damn song’s fault!)
We should stop teaching the alphabet sequentially. While I agree it’s important for us to share a common alphabet structure, there’s no reason at all to learn or teach the alphabet in its arbitrary order. We should instead present the alphabet to children as a doubly–linked list, teaching the following points about each letter:
- the shape of the glyph,
- the phonemes to which the sounds of this letter contribute,
- the letter preceding this one, and
- the letter following this one.
By memorizing the preceding and following letters of each alphabet member, children will automatically acquire the forward– and backward–structure of the alphabet. They’ll be able to recite the alphabet backwards without learning anything different, but more importantly, they’ll know the relationship of each letter to its neighbors. Their alphabet will be truly random–access.
If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to give it a try.