Sound letter relationships are key to developing strong reading skills beginning with the alphabetic principle. This foundation enables children to comprehend and fully understand written words in the English language. In its simplest form, the alphabetic principle teaches readers that printed words are made up of individual letter sounds represented by written letters.
The alphabetic principle is the cornerstone of learning to read and write in the English language. It entails being able to recognize that spoken language can be represented through print, pairing sounds with letters as part of literacy development.
Understanding the alphabetic principle requires more than just memorizing letters (graphemes); it involves grasping phonological awareness, or recognizing that words are formed from individual sounds (phonemes). With this alphabetic understanding, a student’s knowledge can develop further into manipulating these sound-units (phonemes) in words.
Alphabetic knowledge involves understanding that words are composed of letters and distinguishing those, both in upper-case and lower-case forms, which represent speech sounds. It takes many repetitions for children to become fluent with different letters. Later I will offer some tips and resources to use in your core reading instruction
Why Is the Alphabetic Principle Important?
Teachers know how important it is for kids to understand the alphabetic principle to become fluent in reading and writing. Not only is this cornerstone of English language literacy, but in other languages too!
Without being able to convert those printed letters into a phonetic code, they’re just meaningless characters on paper. Help your students decode words without guessing, looking at illustrations or just looking at the initial sound of a word. – an understanding of the alphabetic principle can be transformative for them!
Pair the Alphabetic Principle with Phonemic Awareness
Traditionally, teachers would teach letters and letter shapes separately from a phonemic awareness lesson. But more recent research has shown phonemic awareness should be paired with the alphabetic principle during reading instruction.
To support students in developing the alphabetic principle, phonemic awareness activities should incorporate letters. Go beyond using just the sounds in words during a phonemic awareness lesson for example asking which letter sound is present at the beginning of a word. Guide your student to explore further. Instead of just asking, “What letter sound do you hear at the beginning of hat, and hot ?” Supply letter tiles and connect them with those phonemic awareness skills. In the early stages children are not ready for independent word reading but they can connect common sounds with letters.
Follow up by seeing if your student can go beyond the initial letter sounds and segment words and identify the other sounds in the word and find the letters that represent them. Then have the children connect those spoken sounds to the letter names. This explicit instruction is essential in children’s reading development.
Ehri’s Phases of Word Reading Development
Discovering and understanding Ehri’s Phases of Word Reading Development can help teachers unlock the secrets behind how their students learn to comprehend written words and ultimately read words. Understanding how students develop the alphabetic principle will help us plan lessons for our students to learn word reading with ease.
Young learners are like detectives in the pre-alphabetic phase, using their investigative skills to make connections between symbols and what they stand for. They may be recognizing words but bases on color and shape not based on the alphabetic writing system. Just think – these pint-sized sleuths can recognize logos of brands adults find recognizable! In this stage, children can recognize words the same way they recognize logos by memorization of symbols.
In this exciting partial alphabetic phase, young readers are discovering the wonderful world of letters! They’re piecing together letter names and letter sounds to build their alphabet awareness as they hone in on phonemic awareness.
At the full alphabetic phase, readers leap further into letters and letter combinations. Children discover that each letter carries its own wonderful sound. With these letter-sound correspondences, students begin segmenting and blending letter sounds together. Students can use letter sound correspondence to orthographically map words.
By the consolidated alphabetic phase, readers are equipped with a powerful tool to help them tackle unfamiliar words with letter-sound correspondences.
Instead of decoding letters one by one, they can now use patterns in letter combinations and meaningful word parts (morphemes) to accurately pronounce unfamiliar words and solidify their understanding of multisyllable words as they break words apart and create new words based on morphology.
They can decode words and read unfamiliar words. In this stage, typical readers know that letters can have more than one sound and can read words by flexing between those sounds. In this stage, sight words grow exponentially for fluent readers as the read and spell words each day!
Explicit Phonics Instruction
Teachers, the alphabetic principle is essential in creating successful readers. To develop this skill effectively, it’s important to provide explicit phonics instruction that focuses on letter-sound correspondence. With a systematic approach, you can ensure your students have all the tools necessary for success!
Helping readers explore the wonderful world of words, with this method connects letters to their most prevalent sound or sounds. It allows learners to obtain a strong foundation in pronunciation rules for reading and understanding unfamiliar terms with ease!
Apply the alphabetic principle with decodable texts
If students are able to blend sounds and read some words, delving into decodable texts is a fantastic way to apply the alphabetic principle in action! With fewer irregular and unknown words, readers can perfect their skills while having fun.
When talking about helping students become confident readers, explicit phonics instruction makes a big difference for regular words. But when it comes to those tricky irregular words that make up so much of early literacy programs – now there’s something we can really dig into!
Teaching irregular sight words can bring unique challenges with letter-sound correspondences! But don’t worry – some parts of these tricky words still stick to the basics and follow the alphabetic principles. So we can still use letter-sound relationships to guide our orthographic mapping of irregular high-frequency words.
Ways to practice letter-sound relationships
Teach students letter-sound relationships in an engaging ways. Start slowly – no need to rush things! Two or four new letters and letter combinations will be plenty each week, and don’t forget about the importance of review with letter sound correspondence. Start with intial sounds as you slowly build alphabet knowledge.
As they become more familiar with individual sounds, give them regular opportunities for practice in practicing different letters and letter patterns.
Teach the most common sounds and less complex letter patterns first. Let children practice letter-sound knowledge with simple VC, and CVC words. Teaching the alphabetic principle does not require teaching children a large number of the letter sound correspondences before using them in words. We can begin having children listen for different sounds and blending them.
Teaching individual sounds and which letters represent those sounds is an important part of building literacy skills in students! It is essential to teach students letter sound knowledge but students need to know letter names as well but concentrate on letter sounds first..
Instead of introducing all consonants and vowels straight away, I recommend starting with groups that contain a mix – like MATP. This allows your learners to see how letters come together quickly to form words (real or nonsense). I would not ask very beginning readers to blend sounds at first. I would say and exaggerate the single consonant sounds in the word and have students pick the letter they hear.
For example a script would be:
This is the word ‘mmmmaaap. Show three colored circles. Touch and segment the sounds and have the students touch and say the sounds as they touch the circles.
Show choices of letters to go with the sounds
Let’s find the letters that go with those sounds. If the student doesn’t know which letter is associated with the /m/ sound. The teacher can simply say,
No, this (tapping the letter) is <m>, as in the word, “map.”
Then the will move the <m> square under the first colored circle and the teacher will repeat the questions
Great! Now listen for the sound you hear in this spot (tap the second colored circle), when I say, /maaa—–t/ (exaggerating the short ,<a> sound).
What sound do you hear? Student says the sound and picks the letter and then continue until they have built the whole word. This is an interactive way to teach the alphabetic principle and get a head start on written language and word reading. Make different words with the same letters. They can be real or nonsense words.
The students are introduced to blending here but they are not expected to do it independently. You can find these activities in the Freebie Library.
Keep instruction of visually similar letters far apart
As you progress through teaching letter combinations it’s best practice not to introduce visually similar letters-such as <m> and <n> while teaching alphabetic understanding.
Activities That Develop the Alphabetic Principle
By incorporating activities focused on explicit phonics instruction into your lessons, you are taking a great step to nurture the alphabetic principle! Check out these ideas for some fun and engaging ways to do just that.
Sound drills are helpful for some students to relate the pictures and letters to sounds and increase phonological awareness! With these activities, teachers can easily hold up cards with letters and pictures on them. Students then say the letter sound and name, and associate each phonogram with an engaging keyword – all in under five minutes!
Engage your students in an alphabet arc challenge and help them master the ABCs. Have the kids touch and say the alphabet as they touch the letters. Don’t use the old reliable classic “Alphabet Song” so they don’t get lost somewhere around those “elemeno’s”. This helps students correctly connect letters and letter names for different letters. After they say the letters from beginning to end then start at differing places in the sequence for example E, F, ____ J, K, ___.
Use a Mirror
Your students may not always have keyword pictures available to them but they will always have their mouths. Have children look in a mirror when they are struggling with individual letters and sounds. For example, I have a student who confused the letter sound correspondences with <m> and <n>. I had the student look at her mouth in a mirror and see how her lips came together to see the way her lips were pressed together for the <m> but how her lips were more open and her tongue curved behind her teeth. This attention to her mouth helped her differentiate the two sounds and the individual letters.
Sort Magnetic Letters
Magnetic letters for individual letters can be the perfect tool to assist in teaching students a variety of important literacy skills! From sorting by shape and matching upper-to-lower case, to saying letter sounds and letter names to practice individual letter recognition – these versatile manipulatives are your go-to learning aids.
Use pictures and have students say the initial sounds for each picture and place the correct magnetic letter that corresponds with that sound on the picture. Then have the students find two pictures with the same initial sound. For example, show that the /m/ in ‘man’ and the /m/ in mat are the same sound and are represnted by the same letter. If students are ready they may even write words after building them.
Multi sensory Writing to reinforce the alphabetic principle
For teachers, try engaging your students in multiple senses when practicing written letter formation. Have them say the sound and name of each letter as they trace it or write it while saying the formation strokes- this will greatly help those who have difficulty learning letters! To make things even more fun, incorporate textures like writing with fingers on sandpaper or write in sand or on a textured surface as they say the common sound for each letter! This is another opportunity to practice showing how letters represent sounds.
Letter Name Drills
Letter name drills are similar to keyword letter drills. The difference is that letter name drills are done without any keyword pictures. For some students, this is challenging and some children should do this type of drill because they get too dependent on keywords and they become more fluent without the keywords. I include these drills in all of my reading lessons!
Use Decodable Texts
Decodable texts with simple CVC words are a great way for teachers to help their students become more fluent with decodable words! By keeping the text simple and focused on what has already been learned, it allows them to hone fluency in an engaging yet controlled manner. Say different sounds and have kids highlight those sounds in words.
With a bit of effort and lots of practice, your students can reach success in learning to read! There is no better way to gain an understanding of the alphabetic principle than explicit phonics instruction coupled with plenty of exposure and repetition. In fact, all those extra reps are invaluable when it comes to mastering these skills – so encourage your little ones on their journey toward reading words!
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