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The Alphabetic Principle & Learning to Read

Instructor: Sharon Linde
Learning to read can often be a complex process for children, especially bilingual and other language learners. How does the alphabetic principle come into play? This lesson will explain how all children use the principle to develop reading.

What Is the Alphabetic Principle?

Do you think you'd be able to walk into the cockpit of an airplane and fly it solo? Unless you've had lessons or experience, that task would be nearly impossible. The same analogy can be used with children when learning to read and write. Without the experience and understanding of letters, speech sounds, and the relationship between these two ideas, children will struggle with literacy concepts.

The alphabetic principle is the knowledge of letter/sound relationships. When a child understands both that speech is made of individual sounds, also called phonemes, and that these sounds are represented by letters arranged to form words, the ability to read and write will naturally follow. Children who don't understand even one of these key concepts may struggle with learning to read.

Mandy is a learning consultant who works with students identified with early reading issues. She knows that most English-speaking students will need to be taught that there are predictable patterns and relationships between letters and phonemes. What does Mandy do to help students? Let's take a peek.

Teaching the Alphabetic Principle (General Approach)

When typical English-speaking students come to Mandy for help, she first screens to determine if they understand the alphabetic principle. If not, Mandy sets her sights on helping students to learn the relationship between sounds and letters, eventually promoting a solid understanding of reading and writing. She focuses her instruction on teaching a few guiding concepts:

  • Students first need to recognize speech at its most basic level: the individual sounds or phonemes. Mandy will make sure students are able to hear each sound in a word. For example, the word 'cat' has three phonemes: /k/, /æ/, and /t/. Similarly, the word 'like', though it has four letters, only has three phonemes: /l/, /ai/ and /k/.
  • Once Mandy determines students are phonemically aware, including the ability to manipulate sound into segments and syllables, she will teach symbols for sounds (also known as letters). The introduction and instruction of these letters needs to be in isolation or small chunks so students keep them straight. For example, introducing /b/ and /d/ at the same time can lead to confusion between the two letters.
  • Mandy then allows children to practice these new letter/sound relationships often in reading, writing, manipulative toys, and games. Before introducing a new letter, Mandy makes sure a student is comfortable with the current knowledge.

In this way, Mandy can reinforce learned skills and build upon that knowledge to create new understandings to help develop reading abilities.

The Alphabetic Principle for Non-Native English Learners

Mandy sees many students from bilingual homes (homes in which two languages are used to a measurable degree of fluency) and students who have a very limited understanding of English. These children may already know how to read and/or they may have different knowledge of sounds than we use in English. How does she prepare them to read?

If Mandy receives a student who has working knowledge of both their native language and English, like if the student is bilingual, or if she receives a non-native English-speaking student with weak English skills, she approaches her lessons differently than she would for typical English learners. She focuses her teaching on three key areas: phonemic awareness, phonics, and vocabulary.

  • Phonemic awareness: Like with her English-speaking students, Mandy makes sure the children have a solid understanding of speech sounds. However, because many languages have different phonemes than English, Mandy spends extra time ensuring the 44 English phonemes are distinguishable to her students.
  • Phonics: She also teaches the sound/symbol relationship in phonics. Students who are not readers in their native language often need extra help understanding these conventions. For some who already have a basis of alphabetic principle knowledge in their native language, Mandy monitors for confusion of English rules. Because the 44 English phonemes are expressed with just 26 letter representations, it is important to make sure students do not miss connections at this stage.
  • Vocabulary: Non-native English-speaking students need to be directly and indirectly taught words used in the English language. Students who are able to sound words out need to be able to understand what the word is, too. If a student sounds out 'cat,' working knowledge of what that word means (via recognizing the relationship between the sounds and meaning) will be the only way she'll understand what she reads.

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