English as an Alphabetic Language

Instructor: Sharon Linde
Children learn to read by relying on the alphabetic principle. This lesson focuses on defining this principle, and explains why it's important for students to fully understand it when learning to read and write.

The Alphabet

You probably already know there are different languages - English, Greek, Spanish, or Russian, for example. You also likely realize that English uses symbols for written language, which are collectively known as the alphabet. These symbols are representations of the sounds in speech. But here's what you may not know - this makes English what is called an alphabetic language, or one that uses letters to record words.

In other words, as an alphabetic language, English has 26 letters that can (individually or combined) make up to 44 sounds, or phonemes. Phonemes are the smallest measure of sounds in speech. The letter 'a' has a few different sounds, as you hear when you read 'cat', 'what', or 'plate'. Some letters are blended together to make one sound, such as 'th', 'sh', or 'ght'. All of these single and combined letters make up a code of our spoken word.

Why is this important to educators? It turns out that what children know and remember about letters of the alphabet (their shapes, names, etc.) can accurately predict how well they'll be able to read later on. Learning to read and write, then, is a nuanced process. Students must first understand that there are individual sounds in speech, and then make connections about these sounds to the letters we use to represent them. How does this work? Let's take a closer look at sound/symbol relationships.

The Alphabetic Principle

Think back to when you learned to read. It may have been in your early elementary school years, or maybe even before you entered school. Can you remember how your teachers taught you to read? Most of us were taught using a system of phonics, which is a way to teach reading that relies on understanding the relationships between letters in alphabetic language and the sounds we speak. Our teachers taught us the alphabet, we memorized the letter names and the sounds these letters made, and eventually we began blending these sounds into words to read and write.

Being able to understand this process relies heavily on having a deep understanding of what is known as the alphabetic principle. This tells us that in order for learners to succeed in reading and writing, they need to recognize and understand that there is a predictable nature to phonics - the letter 'a' will always and only make a few different sounds, or the letters 'th' make another. So why does this matter?

Applying the Alphabetic Principle

We saw above that learning to read and write in English depends on the use of the alphabetic language and applying the alphabetic principle (knowing that letters represent sounds in a predictable way). It is this predictable relationship that is important when learning to read and write, especially when building fluency, the ability to read at a steady rate with proper voice inflection. When a child is fluent they are better able to attend to comprehension. Why does fluency increase?

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