What is the alphabetic principle?
To start, let’s come to a common understanding of what we mean by the alphabetic principle. This is not just singing or saying the ABC’s. It is a term used to describe a very important part of the reading process. We are really talking about 2 interconnected skills.
- Alphabet knowledge – the ability to identify letters in different fonts, name the letters, and an awareness of the overall alphabet order and structure. This also includes letter-sound correspondence.
- The overarching concept that letters and letter patterns represent the sounds of spoken language and that there is a predictable relationship between those letters and letter sounds.
You may see definitions that separate alphabet knowledge as a prerequisite skill and include decoding as part of the alphabetic principle. In reality, the process is more fluid than can really be described by discrete stages. At any rate, the alphabetic principle is a crucial bridge between phonemic awareness and orthographic mapping.
To better understand how the alphabetic principle fits into reading development, Ehri’s phases of reading development is a useful framework. It illustrates the development of both the understanding of letter-sound relationships and their use for decoding and encoding.
Pre-Alphabetic: The pre-alphabetic phase is where the reader has minimal letter knowledge but recognizes the meaning of other symbols. This is the phase where a child sees the golden arches and reads it as “Cheeseburgers dis way.”
Partial Alphabetic: The partial alphabetic phase is when a student uses some awareness of letter and sound connections, often focusing on first letters. Instruction here focuses on letter sound knowledge and phonemic awareness.
Full Alphabetic: The full alphabetic phase is where the magic happens. Readers learn to attend to each letter in sequence matching sounds to the print. In reading, this happens with sounding out a word. In writing, this is the process of segmenting a word for encoding into graphemes.
Consolidated Alphabetic: The consolidated alphabetic phase, also called the Grapho-morphemic phase is when students use chunks and sequences of letters and morphemes rather than individual letters to decode.
The two middle stages are where the alphabetic principle is being taught and learned. As the teacher moves into alphabetic principle work, phonemic awareness drills remain critical in laying a strong foundation for literacy. However, alphabetic principle learning will help to prepare the student for phonics instruction, reading, and writing.
Now that we understand what we are talking about and why it is important, the natural follow up question is How? What are some activities to help strengthen the alphabetic principle for young children? How can we teach this crucial skill?
- Card drills. Identifying the letter, key word, and sound is excellent practice for letter-sound correspondence as is the blending drill from the OG lesson. Another useful type of card drill is using missing letter cards. If you show the student A, B, ___, can they tell what is missing? You can increase the level of difficulty by omitting the middle or initial letter.
- Alphabet arc activities. These activities prove surprisingly difficult for many students. It can be very enlightening to have a 2nd or 3rd grade struggling student write the alphabet in order from memory and observe their process. Do they write all the letters in order or do they omit letters or get some out of order? Are they able to write the alphabet straight through or do they need to periodically go back to the beginning to determine what comes next? If they do need to go back, how often? Some students will sing to themselves and misunderstandings that have persisted such as the single “ellemeno” letter can reveal themselves. Through these activities student develop an understanding and awareness of the alphabet as the letters relate to each other, to the alphabet as a whole, and that alphabetical order is a constant. A student that is adept is able to locate letters within the alphabet quickly, pick up from nearly any point and not need to repeat the entire alphabet song to move forward.
- Magnetic Letters. The sky is really the limit with magnetic letters. Matching upper case and lower case, sorting letters by shape, features, locating particular letters, building words or using magnetic letters to draw visual attention to a particular part of a word.
- Alphabet Puzzles. Alphabet puzzles are a fun way to work on alphabet knowledge and sequencing without feeling so much like work. Chatting while working on the puzzle can reinforce concepts of letter sounds and phonemic awareness.
- Multisensory Materials for Tracing and Sky Writing. Letter formation is a key part of learning the alphabetic principle and requires fairly extensive practice, particularly for students that struggle. Using multisensory materials, tracing and combining this with the child saying the letter and sound they are writing or tracing is an important tool for developing proficiency with these letters and sounds. These same supplies are useful for error correction.
- Alphabet Charts. The key to using alphabet charts is making sure that the pictures used for the letters represent the most common sounds. X is for xylophone or xray is not an appropriate key word.
- Sound Walls. Sound walls are another valuable tool. Having pictures that show mouth shapes for the formation of the letter makes these an even more valuable tool. Using little mirrors allows students to see how their mouth looks while they are making particular sounds.
- Letter Name Drills. These do not necessarily need to be timed to be effective, particularly if a student is nervous about timed trials. A sheet with 5 or 6 letters randomly repeated is excellent practice for identifying letters quickly.
- Reading or Singing Letters with Prosody. Singing the alphabet song to a different tune or reading letters A!B?C. to encourage appropriate expression is a great way to build flexibility and automaticity with letters. It also lays important groundwork for future work on fluency.
- Plenty of Time for Meaningful Review, Practice & Mastery. All too often, struggling readers lack the opportunity to reach true mastery with the alphabetic principle. If we keep in mind a goal of overlearning, we will be well on our well to ensuring a high degree of competency.
When helping a student that struggles with literacy, it is important to make sure that this bridge between phonemic awareness and orthographic mapping is in good working order. Struggling students may have surprising misunderstandings and gaps in their knowledge. They may not be able to use alphabetic knowledge with ease and efficiency. Make sure the bridge has no loose boards or gaps that might trip up the reader. True proficiency and mastery can be surprisingly elusive and evade detection.
If you are seeking more activities, be sure to check out the alphabetic principle resources in my store.
Feature below is one of the alphabetic principle resources.