What Is The Alphabetic Principle: Everything Parents Need To Know

Outdoor portrait of a cute young girl reading a book

Why is the alphabetic principle so essential?

Multiple studies have shown the importance of early childhood reading in a child’s life. Kids who are read to gain greater general knowledge, become more fluent readers, and expand their vocabulary, to name a few.

But learning to read can often be a complicated process. So, how can you help your little one develop this essential skill? You can use the alphabetic principle!

In this article, we’ll dive deep into what it is, some of its benefits, and how to help your child get started in learning this important foundation of reading and writing.

What Is The Alphabetic Principle?

Mom teaching daughter alphabetic principle

It takes a lot for a child to fully grasp how to read and write, especially as they get older and are exposed to more unfamiliar and complex words.

But no matter how complicated a word can be, if children have a solid alphabetic principle foundation, they will be more likely to read or write words correctly.

In a nutshell, the alphabetic principle is the understanding that letters (and combinations of letters) predictably represent spoken sounds. By using this principle, we can attribute sounds to letters in order to read and letters to sounds in order to spell.

In the simplest of terms, a child who understands this concept will know that the written letter “n,” although it’s pronounced on its own as “en,” actually makes a “nn” sound in words.

The alphabetic principle has two key components. Let’s take a look!

1) Alphabetic Understanding

Alphabetic understanding means that kids know that each word in the English language is made up of letters and that these letters represent the sounds of our speech.

2) Phonological Recoding

Phonological recoding is the process of using the systematic relationship between letters and letter-sounds (phonemes) to pronounce or spell unfamiliar words correctly.

While we’re on the subject of letters and the sounds associated with them, let’s talk about two important concepts: phonological awareness and phonemic awareness.

People often confuse the two but, although these concepts are interrelated, there is a notable difference between them.

Phonemic awareness refers to a child’s (or adult’s) ability to segment, blend, detect, and manipulate individual sounds from words.

On the other hand, phonological awareness is broader, incorporating phonemic awareness but also an individual’s ability to manipulate combinations of sounds.

Children with strong phonological awareness can rhyme, identify individual words in sentences, and break words into syllables.

This skill of understanding letters, the sounds they make, how to form words with them, and how to manipulate these sounds is the foundation of early childhood reading and writing.

And it all starts with the alphabetic principle!

Why Is The Alphabetic Principle Important?

Mom reading to young daughter

The alphabetic principle is an essential learning skill because languages have hundreds of thousands of words. There are 170,000 commonly used words in the English language, in fact. To memorize each word individually would be an impossible task.

Since memorization isn’t a feasible option, helping kids understand the alphabetic principle is the best way to set them off on the right path to literacy success.

In English, every word is made up of a combination of 41 sounds, and each sound is linked to a letter or combination of letters. The ability to connect sounds to letters and letters to sounds is the way we facilitate learning to read.

Any fluent reader does this more or less automatically, which is why if you write a nonsense word (like “glisherment”), you can figure out how it is pronounced. That’s the importance of the alphabetic principle.

When Is Your Child Ready?

Mom teaching young son about alphabetic principle

While each child develops at their own pace, here are a few signs that can help let you know that they are ready to start grasping the alphabetic principle:

  • They have begun learning to identify and name individual letters and want to learn more
  • They have begun to link the letters they know with individual sounds
  • They understand that words are made up of individual sounds
  • They can begin to identify the initial sound in some words

The above are sure signs that your little one can start learning this important concept. So, how can you help them get started?

3 Exercises For Teaching The Alphabetic Principle

Only after your child has learned some letters from the alphabet and the sounds associated with those letters will it be possible for them to start piecing together these letters to make meaning with them.

Here are a few exercises to help get them started on the right track.

1) The First Letter Game

Dad reading with young son

Recognizing the first letter of a word is a great way to begin to grasp the concept of the alphabet principle. This game can help!

What You’ll Need:

  • Magnetic letters or letter cards (check out the magnetic letters in the kits we offer!)

What To Do:

Ask your child to choose the letter they hear at the beginning of a word.

For instance: “If I were reading the word ‘hat,’ which letter would you see at the beginning of that word?” If your child hears the /h/ sound, they would then pull out an “h.”

2) Beginning, Middle, Or End?

This game helps your child understand where they hear specific sounds in words.

What You’ll Need:

  • Clear sheet
  • Crayon or pen to draw with
  • Letter cards

What To Do:

To get started, create a board game by drawing two lines to make three different columns: first, middle, last (or beginning, middle, end).

Once these columns are complete, it’s time to play! In a nutshell, your child will need to indicate whether they hear certain sounds in the beginning, middle, or end of the word.

Here’s an example:

  • Where do you hear the sound “rrr” in “rabbit”?
  • Let’s say “rabbit” out loud together! (Sometimes it’s better for your child to sound out the words so that they can “feel” its sounds in their mouth.)
  • Your child can indicate on the board where they hear the “rrr” sound.
  • Yes! At the beginning!
  • What letter makes the “rrr” sound?
  • Yes! That’s “r.”
  • Now, let’s find “r” (from a group of different letters)
  • Great job! That’s an “r.”

3) Swapping Letters

As highlighted above, phonemic awareness is the concept of identifying and manipulating individual sounds (phonemes) in words.

Manipulating these sounds includes stretching, blending, or changing the words completely.

For example, take the word “hat.” If the beginning of the word is changed to an “m,” then you will end up with a new word (mat) with a completely different meaning.

What You’ll Need:

  • Magnetic letters or letter cards

What To Do:

For this fun exercise, you can again use magnetic letters, letter cards, or anything else you may have around your home.

Start by spelling out a simple word such as “dog.” Then ask your child to change a letter from “dog” to form a new word.

For example, you can ask them to change one letter in “dog” to form “fog.” They would then have to understand that the change needs to happen at the beginning of the word, and it would require swapping out “d” with “f.”

Others Tips

In addition to the above activities, what else can you do to help your child develop the alphabetic principle? Here are some ideas!

1) Read To Your Child Every Day

Mom teaching alphabetic principle to her kid

As parents, we already understand the importance of reading to our kids from an early age. But research has highlighted the incredible benefits of reading every day, not just occasionally.

While reading to your child, remember to highlight new words that they may be unfamiliar with. Say them out loud and enunciate them so that your child will familiarize themselves with the sounds that compose the words.

2) Sing The Alphabet Song

How can your child learn to read and write without knowing the alphabet? Help your little one grasp all 26 letters in a fun and engaging way, like singing the alphabet song!

This can be especially great for younger children as you begin introducing them to different letters.

3) Teach Your Child Both Uppercase And Lowercase Letters

If your child only learns “a” when it’s written in lowercase, it will be a little confusing for them when they start reading to understand why “a” now looks like “A.”

Expose your child to both uppercase and lowercase letters so they understand that, while the two symbols may look different, they are actually the same letter.

Master The Alphabetic Principle One Day At A Time

Mom reading to young daughter

Reading can be a complicated process for young learners, especially in the beginning! All those letters, the sounds they make, and how the same letters can sound different (e.g., “c” sounds different in “cake” and “dice”) can be confusing.

Remember to be patient with your little one as they try to make sense of all this. Start with a few letters and build from there. You can also use Homer’s Explore Letters Kit to help make this process both educational and enjoyable for your little one!

Finally, remember to have fun, be lighthearted, and animate your facial expressions as you enunciate the different words.

Soon, your child will grasp the alphabetic principle and be on the right track to early childhood reading and writing success!