Your child may be a pro at their letters and sounds, but does that mean that they are a master of the alphabetic principle? Not necessarily. You will want to keep on reading to ensure that your child is gaining the best foundation for learning to read.

After reading this post you will know:

  • What the alphabetic principle is
  • The 6 secrets of the alphabetic principle
  • How to assess the alphabetic principle
  • Some activities to that will strengthen this skill
boy laying down and reading

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What Exactly Is the Alphabetic Principle?

The alphabetic principle is the link between a letter sound and its symbol. So understanding that the written letter n says “nnn” and applying that knowledge when they see the letter n in context is the alphabetic principle. Being able to identify the letter symbols and the sounds they make is an important early literacy milestone for children and is quite essential in order for your child to be able to learn to read.

6 Secrets of the Alphabetic Principle

The alphabetic principle isn’t as simple as it sounds, which is why I wanted to share the top 6 things you have to know about it in order to be prepared to work on it with your child.

The Alphabetic Principle is Different from Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate the individual sounds (or phonemes) in words. This is an essential skill to master in order to be able to understand the alphabetic principle.

However, the alphabetic principle isn’t just about the sounds. It is attaching that sound to a written symbol (letter) and then applying that knowledge in reading and writing.

When children are able to orally break down words into individual sounds and understand that there are smaller units of sounds within a word, the next logical step would be to attach a symbol to that sound. So you could say that phonemic awareness leads into the alphabetic principle.

The Alphabetic Principle is a Key Reading Skill

colorful alphabet letter ABC isolated on white background; alphabetic principle

Think for a moment of what your child’s brain does when they are reading. They see a word on the page that they want to read. So they look at each individual letter in the word, recall its sound, and then blend those sounds together to read the word.

We call this decoding.

We have to break a word down to its individual units of sounds in order to be able to put it back together again. As adults who have been reading for many years, our brains complete this process so fast that we don’t even realize we are doing it. We do it with automaticity.

Now imagine that your child doesn’t know the sounds that are attached to the letter symbols. That whole process of decoding I described just got a whole lot harder.

This is what makes the alphabetic principle a critical early literacy skill for your child to master.

The Skills Involved in the Alphabetic Principle

There are a couple of skills to consider when working on the alphabetic principle.

The University of Oregon explicitly states that two skills are necessary throughout the scope of learning the alphabetic principle. Those are:

  1. Letter-sound correspondence: Matching a written letter to the sound that it makes.
  2. Reading words: starting with simple decodable words and sight words.

Now remember, just the act of matching a letter to its sound is not the alphabetic principle. Your child needs to be able to apply the matching of a letter to its sound while reading to have mastered this skill. This is how your child learns how to decode and read words like in the process I described above.

How to Know Your Child Might be Ready

There are a few signs that you should look for to see if your child is ready to start practicing this critical skill:

  1. They have a desire to sort and classify things in their environment.
  2. Your child knows a couple of letter names and has an interest in learning more.
  3. They understand that words are made up of sounds (Phonological Awareness).

How you Teach The Alphabet Is Important

Woman showing a boy an uppercase letter a

So this one is an important one.

Not all letters are created equally.

You want to work on the letters that appear in the greatest frequency in texts first, before those that aren’t used as much. Think about how often you see the letter t in a sentence versus the letter x. This strategy helps your child begin to read words sooner, building their confidence and motivation to continue learning. ABC order is out!

I always recommend starting with the letters in your child’s name because of the pride that children hold in their names. It is an intrinsic motivator and is special to them. Outside of your child’s name, a recommended list of letters would be: m, a, s, t, p, and h.

Learning the Alphabetic Principle Can be Difficult

There is a reason why people say that English is one of the hardest languages to learn, which makes it even harder to read and write.

Letters Make More than One Sound

There are multiple letters that make more than one sound. All of the vowels, c, g, s, and more make more than one sound.

You also need to consider that even though there are only 26 letters, there are 44 different sounds (phonemes) in the English language. Think about the sounds sh, ch, th, aw, and ou, for example. Now, to overwhelm your child even more, you are sharing that there are two letters that abandon their old sounds and make completely new sounds when found together.

Letters look different in different fonts

There are many different fonts out there now and books are being printed using different fonts all of the time.

Your child finally learns to identify a letter and then comes across that same letter in a book and it looks entirely different.

The letters that this is most common with are a and g.

Assessing the Alphabetic Principle

To assess the alphabetic principle, it is first important to monitor if your child is correctly matching letters to their sounds. You can do this and so much more by using the ELMO, my Early Literacy Monitoring Observer. It will give you a snapshot of where your child is in their literacy journey and what you need to do to help prepare them for reading success.

After you have a glimpse of your child’s progress in letter-sound correspondence, you then need to observe them reading words in action. Give them some sight words with only the letters/sounds they have learned so far and watch them try to read.

You may need to model what to do if this is your first time doing this. Check to see if your child is able to recall the sounds for the letters in the word and is at least trying to say them individually. You may have to help your child blend the sounds together, especially if this isn’t something they have done before.

Watching your child’s process through decoding a word is a great way to see if they are actually applying the skills they should be to be successful as a future reader.

Alphabetic Principle Activities

Here are a couple of activities that will help build up your child’s ability to master the alphabetic principle. I’m going to introduce them to you in the same order you should share them with your child.

Matching letters to a Picture’s Beginning Sound

Letter cards and matching pictures to help with the alphabetic principle

One of the best ways to lay a foundation for the alphabetic principle is to build up that letter-sound correspondence. Just matching letters to their sounds is the first step in being able to apply this skill when reading.

Rather than using worksheets or printables, I highly recommend learning through play. You can use letter cards or index cards with letters written on them.

Give your child a stack of maybe 10-15 letters (depending on their stamina) to use during play. Then, you have two options. Lay out or hide picture cards or objects around the house that begin with the letters that are in your child’s stack.

Have your child match the letter card in their hand to the picture’s or object’s beginning sounds.

The Word Search

simple words written on a post-it for an alphabetic principle game

Use post-it notes to write down words in which your child is familiar with the letters and their sounds.

Post them up on the wall in front of your child. Call out one of the words and have your child grab that post-it note off of the wall.

For extra brownie points, have your child say each sound in the word and then practice blending those sounds together out loud.

Making Words

Magnetic letters on a black surface

Making words is a very complex skill for an emergent reader, but also a very powerful one created by my college professor, Dr. Pat Cunningham and very widely used by many literacy professionals including Jan Richardson.

You will need a set of magnetic letters for this activity. I like using magnetic letters over letter tiles or cards because the magnetic letters are physically in the shape of the letter, reinforcing to your child the letter’s formation and identity.

Let’s say your child has been practicing the letter sounds for a, c, t, p, and h. You will have your child spell the word cat with their letters.

Then, one at a time, give your child the direction to change one letter to make a new word. So I would say change one letter in cat to make the word hat. I would continue this process for about 4-6 words.

In this example, I would use the progression: cat–>hat–>pat–>rearrange letters to make tap–>cap

Want some more ways to help your child learn the alphabet? Check these out:

Build Up Slowly for Mastery

So there you have it…the alphabetic principle in a not-so-small nutshell…maybe a tortoise shell?

The important thing to remember with the alphabetic principle is that you need to start small and slow and build your child up. Starting with letter-sound correspondence is a great way to lay the groundwork for the application of this skill.

Slowly start building in opportunities for reading and applying the alphabetic principle as you feel your child is ready.

I’m so excited for your child’s literacy journey!

What are your favorite ways to practice the alphabetic principle? Drop a comment below because I would love to hear about it!