Letterland is a synthetic phonics program for pre kindergarten to grade three, which focuses on the use of multi-sensory instruction, story based learning, mnemonics, game based learning, and picto-graphs. Perhaps most unique about the Letterland program are the mnemonic picto-graphs. Each letter presented to students is also drawn to resemble a word that starts with that phoneme. While Letterland is primarily a phonics program, it also includes instruction on phonemic awareness, spelling, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, and even some small amounts of morphology. However, the fluency, morphology, and comprehension elements appear to be de-emphasized in comparison to the phonics and phonemic awareness instruction. The Letterland program is often compared to the Jolly Phonics program.
“Introduce the alphabet letter shapes and sounds, expand vocabulary and explore phonemic awareness. With songs and actions for all the alphabet, this is a wonderfully multi-sensory approach to learning for Pre-K students.”
“Enjoy full alphabet immersion with speed and accuracy. Start to blend, segment, and learn first digraphs with the engaging Letterland spelling stories that build on the knowledge of the Letterland characters. Introduce high-frequency words and check progress with the integrated assessment strand.”
“The focus at Grade One is on word families, digraphs, prefixes, suffixes, and fluency. The multi-sensory approach to learning is continued and students are encouraged to learn special tricks to improve fluency and ensure mastery of many more digraphs and trigraphs.”
“In Grade Two, students will learn more advanced spelling patterns, syllabification, and word structure. The program incorporates many reading and fluency activities, as well as motivational word games. There is an integrated assessment strand as well as an intervention section in this guide.”
“Letterland Grade Three facilitates students growth in word knowledge by building on previous learning in phonics, spelling, and word structure and applying that knowledge to learning more sophisticated words that occur in academic subjects across the curriculum, fostering a greater interest in words and language.”
It should always be stated. To properly review the efficacy of a pedagogical concept or program, we should rely on peer-reviewed meta-analyses. However, as it is for most language programs, no such meta-analysis exists. I searched Google, Education Source, Scholar’s Portal, and the Letterland website for studies on the program. I was able to find one experimental study by Robert’s Et, al, conducted in 2019. This study was a 13 hour long RCT study, on 38 pre-kindergarten students. In the treatment group, the students received Letterland programming. In the control group, the students received the identical curriculum, but without the multi-sensory, or mnemonic elements. The treatment group outperformed the control group on every assessment. However, the assessment was a non standardized assessment, which sometimes, inflates effect sizes.
The authors calculated effect sizes (ES) using a Cohen’s d formula. The study found an ES of 1.31 [4.08,6.26] for letter ID, .61 [2.05,4.59] for phoneme ID, .62 [2.90,5.27] for phonemic awareness, and .46 [3.55,8.44]for writing, with a mean effect of .75.
I was only able to find one study on Letterland. However, the study was of decently high quality and the results are far above the average. Both the NRP meta-analysis, and my own meta-analysis found on average an ES of .45 for phonics programs. The results in this Letterland study, almost doubled this average. Moreover, Letterland itself has only one study. There is other significant research out there on the principles of Letterland, showing the same general trend. Jolly Phonics is a similar program and as I discuss in this article (https://www.teachingbyscience.com/jolly-phonics-meta-analysis) there is very strong experimental evidence for Jolly Phonics. Just look at the following graph, from the above article, which charts Jolly Phonics studies, three of which were peer reviewed, and one of which was an RCT.
Not only does Jolly Phonics have strong experimental evidence, but the Stuart study was one of the highest effect size studies, found within the NRP meta-analysis.
When I first reviewed the Jolly Phonics program, I assumed that the reason its research outcomes were so high was in part that the program included systematic, synthetic phonics, and also in part due to luck. I never considered the possibility that the reason it was so efficacious was due to these stories, mnemonics, and songs. I was highly sceptical of this aspect of the program and in truth I assumed the program worked in spite of these elements, not because of these elements. A few months ago, I did an analysis of multi-sensory phonics programs. Jolly Phonics was one of the only ones that I analyzed which showed high efficacy. Again, I assumed this was luck.
However, now I wonder if it was not luck that caused Jolly Phonics, high results, but rather its use of mnemonics, and story based learning.
Last year, Dr. Shanahan who is possibly one of the most qualified scholars on this topic wrote about how he too had been biassed against mnemonics in literacy instruction and that he was wrong. Similarly, Dr. Ehri has also endorsed such practices. Infact, this year, she gave the following speech at the AIM Institute Annual Research to Practice Symposium.
“To move children into the next partial phase, they need to acquire alphabetic skills. They need to learn letter shapes, names and sounds. Once they know letter names, it's easy to learn the phonemes contained in the names, for example: 'b' contains /b/, 'm' contains /m/, in fact most of the letter names contain their phonemes.
We've conducted studies to see how to help children learn grapheme-phoneme relations. We used embedded picture mnemonics like those shown in the slide. On the left are Annie Apple, Eddy Elephant and their letter friends from the Letterland program. The figures on the right are useful for teaching the five short vowel relations; Annie Apple says /a/, Eddy Elephant says /e/, [...] Uppy Umbrella says /u/. Short vowel phonemes are not found in letter names, so having a mnemonic is helpful for teaching them.
Why are these letter mnemonic especially effective? It's because the letter shape resembles the object, whose name begins with the letter's phoneme. When children practice these mnemonics a few times, they can look at the bare letter without its picture, be reminded of the object shaped like the letter, remember its name, and then say its initial sound. Soon the mnemonic drops out and the letter evokes its sound automatically.
In our studies we found that children learned grapheme-phoneme relations much faster with letter-embedded pictures than pictures that don't look like the letters."
Of course this research has actually been around for decades. Indeed, the NRP meta-analysis also came to the conclusion that Mnemonics are helpful, see the following quotation from the report.
"In 1997 US Congress commissioned the National Reading Panel "to assess the status of research-based knowledge, including the effectiveness of various approaches to teaching children to read." The NRP report was published in 2000.The panel's research focused on a number of "topics for intensive study" including 'Phonics Instruction'. This included an examination of "the value of mnemonics for teaching letter-sound relations to kindergarteners". The report states that there was evidence to support the use of mnemonics in teaching letter-sounds."
Letterland Final Grade: B+
Letter land has 1 short duration RCT, that did not use standardized tests and showed a mean effect size above .40.
Qualitative Grade: 8/10
The Letterland program includes the following evidence-based types of instruction: explicit, systematic, phonemic awareness, phonics, morphology, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. However, it appears to only include ample instruction for phonics, phonemic awareness, and vocabulary.
Disclaimer: Please note that this review is not peer reviewed content. These reviews are independently conducted. Pedagogy Non Grata, does not take profit from conducting any program review found on this website.
Written by Nathaniel Hansford: teacher and lead writer for Pedagogy Non Grata
Last Edited 2022-07-28
Roberts, T.A., & Sadler, C.D. (2019). Letter sound characters and imaginary narratives: Can they enhance motivation and letter sound learning? Early Childhood Research Quarterly.
NRP. (2001). Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence Based Assessment of the Scientific Literature on Reading Instruction. United States Government. Retrieved from <https://www.nichd.nih.gov/sites/default/files/publications/pubs/nrp/Documents/report.pdf>.
T, Shanahan. (2021). A Question I Hate: Should We Use Pictures (Embedded Mnemonics) When Teaching Phonics? Shanahan On Literacy. Retrieved from <https://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/a-question-i-hate-should-we-use-pictures-embedded-mnemonics-when-teaching-phonics#sthash.SvK8qzn8.dpbs>.
Letterland. (2022). Research. Retrieved from <https://us.letterland.com/research>.