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What Is The Alphabetic Principle?

Voyager Sopris Learning
The Reading, Writing, and Math Intervention Specialist
Updated on July 26, 2022
  • Alphabetic Principle

The jobs of elementary educators may seem like all fun and games, but kindergarten teachers don't just referee recess and hand out snacks. In fact, elementary educators have the great responsibility of teaching children one of the most important skills to their future health and success—literacy.

There are many building blocks to literacy, and each is uniquely valuable for young children learning to read. But before the first building block can be placed, one foundational literacy concept must be mastered—the alphabetic principle. Until they understand the alphabetic principle, alphabet letter shapes and individual sounds will not have meaning, and students will struggle to learn to read or write.

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What Is The Alphabetic Principle?

Many educators and parents think learning to read starts with learning letter names. Just look at how many alphabet books are on the shelves at every bookstore. A mastery of letter names is certainly important, but for letter sounds and names to have meaning, children must first understand that written letters or words convey sounds. The concept of understanding that letter-sound relationships exist is called the alphabetic principle.

The alphabetic principle may sound simple, and for some children, understanding it is intuitive. However, it's actually quite a complex concept that is a struggle to grasp for many young children and requires explicit instruction in most classrooms.

The alphabetic principle has two key components:

  1. Alphabetic Understanding—The knowledge that there are relationships between letters and sounds. Note: This does not mean children know specific letter-sound relationships; rather, they're grasping the concept that predictable relationships do exist between individual letters or letter patterns and common sounds, or phonemes.
  2. Phonological Recoding—The understanding of how to translate individual letters and sequences of letters (called graphemes) into the sounds of language. For example, students must learn that reading English texts occurs on a page sequentially from left to right.

The alphabetic principle is the foundation of all literacy concepts to follow. Once students have grasped this concept, they're able to move on to more challenging skills vital to reading instruction, including:

  • Instruction of phonics rules—Learning the individual sounds and letter names of each letter in the alphabet and the rules that accompany them (such as "sh" making a different sound than "s" and "h" individually)
  • Phonemic awareness skills—Learning the 44 different phonemes, or distinct sounds, that make up the English language. There are numerous phonemic awareness activities to implement in the classroom environment.
  • Phonological awareness skills—The ability to segment, or break apart, words into individual sounds (a skill called decoding) and build words from individual sounds and letter combinations (sometimes called blending sounds) to sound out and read words


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Alphabet vs. Alphabetic Principle vs. Phonemes: What To Teach First?

When it comes to literacy instruction, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Having a strong grasp of alphabetic knowledge is obviously important, but alphabetic knowledge without phonemic understanding is meaningless, since children come to literacy much more familiar with spoken language than written language.

Additionally, English is a language filled with "exceptions," which makes memorizing individual letters complicated. For example, depending on the context, the letter "c" could make several different sounds—just consider the different sounds it makes in the words "cat," "cheese," and "cereal."

Recent research suggests that rather than focusing early literacy instruction on a knowledge of letter names and a knowledge of letter sounds, children might benefit from a phoneme-first approach to help them organically understand the alphabetic principle. 

In this approach, educators would start by teaching the 44 individual phonemes, or sounds, present in the English language. Phonemes are more comprehensive and concrete than letter names, and learning to memorize them first will avoid students struggling with letters and letter combinations that "break the rules."

3 Activities To Help Children Understand The Alphabetic Principle

Students struggling with the alphabetic principle may benefit from focused, systematic instruction that emphasizes the concept of sound-letter relationships. Here are a few simplified activities suitable for a classroom full of beginning readers.

Pick the Block

Most teachers (and parents) of young children have alphabet blocks or magnetic letters on hand. For this simple activity, grab three or four letters and spread them out so children can clearly see each one. Sound out a simple word, like "bat." Encourage children to choose which letter made the first sound.

This game is endlessly repeatable and requires no preparation. You can even have children choose the word to give them some additional autonomy and interaction. 

Use Elkonin Boxes

Elkonin boxes are a valuable tool that help children learn how to break words apart into their individual phonemes. This helps children learn to segment and blend letters and sounds, which is an important skill for learning to read.

Elkonin box templates can be found online, or you can simply draw the boxes on a piece of paper or a whiteboard. To start, write a simple word, or draw a picture of a simple word (like "fan"). Draw one box under the word or picture for each phoneme, or unique sound, in the word. In this example, you would draw three boxes because the word "fan" has three phonemes: /f/, /a/, and /n/.

Slowly sound out the word. Depending on the skill level of the student, they can either place an object, like a marble or a penny, in the box as you sound out each phoneme, or they can place a plastic letter or even write the phoneme in the box as you read it.

This activity helps children learn to associate the sounds they hear as you read the word with the letters they see on the page.

Name Game

Extensive practice can help students learn the alphabetic principle, but endless drills can make children weary and frustrated. For educators who need a fresh way to hone in on this critical concept, try making the alphabetic principle a little more personal.

By the time they reach school age, all children not only know their name, but many know how to write it or are at least familiar with its spelling. Encourage children to write their names, or write it for them and walk them through each of the individual letters and the sounds those letters make. This simple activity helps keep children interested in reading and writing and can help them gain early confidence in letter to sound knowledge.


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Tips for Teachers Sharing The Alphabetic Principle

The alphabetic principle is a bit like riding a bike—once the concept is grasped, it's impossible to forget. Although teachers (and parents) may struggle to teach a concept that feels so simple, adults should remember the alphabetic principle concept is intuitive for some children, but not all. To make instruction maximally effective, educators can follow the guidelines below: 

  • Focus on high-use, dependable letters first. Vowels are high-use letters, but they make many different sounds depending on which letters they're surrounded by. Instead, focus on letters that make predictable sounds in most words, like "m," "t," "p," and "s." By teaching predictable letters, you'll help students gain confidence. By teaching high-use letters, you'll get students reading as quickly as possible.
  • Choose letters with sounds that are the same in isolation as well as in words. Letter names don't always sound like the letter sounds they represent (just think of letters like "i" or "l"). However, some letters, including "f," "m," "n," "r," and "s," typically sound similar in words as they do alone. Focusing on these letters early on can help children learn to associate the correct sounds with these letters when found in words.
  • To avoid confusion, don't teach letters that look or sound similar at the same time. For example, teaching the letters "d" and "b" at the same time can cause significant confusion for beginning readers, since these letters look (and sound) very similar. Additionally, letters like "b" and "v" may not visually appear similar, but their letter names sound very similar and may make some children confused.
  • Last, take things slowly. These concepts can be a significant stumbling block for some learners. However, an understanding of the alphabetic principle is foundational to literacy and can't be rushed through. Without grasping this invaluable topic, students will never be able to progress in their literacy journey. Educators must be patient as they teach students and should intentionally teach only a few new letters and sounds at a time.

Need Resources To Help Your Struggling Students? Try a Literacy Program from Voyager Sopris Learning

It's important that students struggling with literacy receive adequate intervention to help them achieve grade-level milestones and find academic and personal success. Voyager Sopris Learning® has research-based programs to help educators at every grade level provide the greatest level of support to struggling students. 

Our Voyager Passport® program provides beginning readers in grades K–5 with explicit education in the five essential components of literacy: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. It's a natural pair to our Reading Rangers program, which provides additional reading practice for young learners.

For students in grades 5–12, LANGUAGE! Live® builds on foundational literacy skills with a classroom-tested approach that easily integrates with current curriculum.

Literacy educators have a huge responsibility, but they're not alone. For literacy programs, professional development, and more, partner with Voyager Sopris Learning.