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The Alphabetic Principle

Alphabet tiles in a clear bowl


A Cornerstone for Reading Success

What is the Alphabetic Principle?

Along with phonemic awareness (the ability to blend and segment the sounds in words), the alphabetic principle is essential for reading success.  The alphabetic principle is the understanding that letters and letter patterns represent sounds in the spoken language.

Understanding the alphabetic code begins with learning the names and shapes of letters.  Children may do this in a variety of ways: singing the Alphabet Song, playing with brightly-colored letter magnets or blocks, and/or listening to caregivers read aloud alphabet books.

The next step is attaching sounds to letters.  In order to read students must be able to 1) recognize the letters and 2) apply the sound(s) to the letters.

Do children need to learn all of the letter names before they begin to attach the sounds?

Exposure to the sounds of letters can occur alongside learning the names of the letters.  For example, alphabet books include pictures of items that begin with the sound of each letter (i.e.  ‘B is for bear and bunny and bike.’)

Once formal instruction begins, using picture clues can help cue the student to the sound of the letter.  Letter-sound-picture cards are quite helpful with this task.  The following procedure outlines the steps involved when using letter-sound-picture cards to help students identify  letters and apply sounds to them.  Moving from one instructional step to the next is a gradual process that must take into consideration a student’s level of mastery and understanding.

Large Sound Cards A-Z_Page_01

  1. Show the letter-sound-picture card.  Prompt, “My turn:  A, apple, /a/.”  The student echos the response.
  2. Show the letter-sound-picture card.  The student says, “A, apple, /a/” without prompting.
  3. The picture clue is released and cards containing a single letter can be introduced.  The teacher may prompt, “My turn: A…/a/.”  The student echos the response.
  4. Show the letter card.  The student says, “A…/a/,” without prompting.
  5. When shown the letter card, the teacher may prompt for the sound only, “My turn, /a/.”  The student echos.
  6. Finally, when shown the letter card the student gives only the sound, “/a/” without prompting.

Why is learning the sounds of the letters so tricky for some students?

Learning the sounds that are attached to letters may be confusing for the following reasons:

  1. The beginning sound of some letters match the sound they make (i.e the letter ‘b’ starts with the /b/ sound and the letter ‘z’ starts with the /z/ sound).
  2. Other letter names END with the sound they make (i.e. the name of the letter ‘s’ is pronounced /e/…/s/, ending with the /s/ sound).  Initially beginning learners may state that the sound of ‘s’ is /e/ because they assume that all letter sounds match the beginning sound of the name of the letter.  Other letters that are confused in this way are f, l, m, n, r, & x.
  3. Still other letter names do not contain any of the sounds found in their names.  Consider the pronunciation of the letter name ‘w’: /double/… /you/.  Also consider the pronunciation of the letter name h: /a/…/ch/.  Teachers often find that when first learning the letter sounds students make the sound /ch/ or /a/ for the letter h and students frequently say the sound /d/ for the letter w.
  4. Some letter names such as g and j sound similar to each other and children may confuse the names and/or sounds of them.
  5. Some letters have two sounds.  The sound of the letter ‘c’ can be pronounced, /k/ or /s/.   Letter ‘g’ can be pronounced /g/ or /j/.  The  letter ‘s’ can be pronounced /s/ or /z/.

Appropriate, targeted instruction can help clear up these confusions.

Why do some students have trouble recognizing letters in different fonts?

Alphabetic Principle A Photo
Repeated practice forming the letter ‘a’ helps students recognize ‘a’ in various forms.

This confusion is very typical and it is also why practice with writing the letters is vitally important.  Each time a student forms a letter (i.e. ‘a’), the letter shape changes a bit.  The letter ‘a’ becomes recognizable in a variety of shapes and sizes.  The emerging reader begins to categorize letters.   A, a, and are all variations of the same letter.  They all fit in the subcategory of ‘A’.  Simultaneously, these same readers develop the understanding that while ‘B’ fits in the category of letters, it does not belong in the subcategory of ‘A’.  

The more a student sees letters in slightly varying forms the easier it becomes to recognize them.  Eventually letter recognition becomes automatic.

Why can my students remember some letters and sounds but not others?

Not all letters are as easy to learn as others.  Some letters and sounds are harder to recognize and may require more isolated practice.  The letters b, d, and p are particularly troublesome for some students.  Some students have difficulty with the letters n, m, r.  Others have a tendency to flip the letters m and w and n and u.  Fluency grids can be helpful in providing the targeted, extra practice needed to accurately recognize visually confusing letters.

It is helpful to check in regularly with emerging readers to determine their level of mastery.  Progress monitoring helps determine which students need more practice.  Progress monitoring also helps determine which letters require more review.  Although progress monitoring takes a little time, it can help the teacher work smarter, not harder.

Letter Name and Sound Bundle Cover

But isn’t repetitive practice boring?

The good news is that the practice of letter names and sounds doesn’t have to be boring.  In fact, practicing can and should be fun!  Along with the letter name and sound practice described above, a variety of games can be played to help develop letter recognition and sound recall.

Our LNLS Bundle contains everything you need to get your students started on the path to success with the Alphabetic Principle.  It includes, LN/LS cards with and without picture cues, a progress monitoring tool, fluency grid, a variety of games that help to develop mastery of letter names and sounds.

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