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What is the Alphabetic Principle?

By Josie Myers
Updated May 23, 2024
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The alphabetic principle states that there are individual letters, or combinations of letters, to represent all of the regular sounds of speech. Under it, the patterns are predictable so that a native speaker of the language can read or speak words that are otherwise unfamiliar to him. The alphabetic principle is the basis for the written words of many languages, including English.

The system of writing with alphabets has been in place since ancient times. Latin and Sanskrit are among some of the most well-known dead languages to use the alphabetic principle for writing. Modern English uses the Latin alphabet, which was created by the Romans and designed specifically for use with the Latin language. It was later adapted to suit the Romantic and other European languages.

A language's orthography is the set of rules to follow when putting together written words and pronunciations. Some languages have a singular orthography, which means that there is only one sound for each letter of the alphabet. English has a more complex system, and requires many letters to have several possible pronunciations based on the combinations of letters around them. These complications arise from a combination of factors, including "leftover" letters in words from time-altered pronunciations; the adoption of foreign language words without spelling alterations; and the fact that there are 40 possible sounds within the language and only 26 letters to express them.

The alphabetic principle is discussed most frequently in relation to early reading instruction. Phonics teaches children to recognize the relationships between letters and sounds. Repetition, consistency, and a solid plan are essential for teaching children to work within an alphabetic system with ease.

Debates are ongoing over the most effective ways to use the alphabetic principle when teaching children to read, as the field of reading education expands and is studied. The majority of reading specialists would agree that it is most effective to begin by introducing children to those letters and sounds that are the least confusing, and have the highest rate of regular usage. Letters such as "m," "s," "t," "f," "n," and "r" are among those studied first. They are high-usage letters that can often be pronounced in isolation and without much distortion.

Once children are comfortable with the simpler letters, more complex letters and combinations can be introduced without confusing the students. Visually difficult letters like "d," "p," and "b" typically come next. Among those that come later are letters like "x," and combinations like "th," "sh," and "gh."

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Discussion Comments
By anon252431 — On Mar 05, 2012

My mother was a school teacher before she was married. I don't remember her reading to me, but she bought a group of books entitled, "Journeys Through Bookland." There were ten volumes, with the last one being instructions to the mother how to use the set. There were short passages from many of the English and American writers. It led me to want to read more.

I had a ticket to an adult library when I was in the third grade. I continue to enjoy reading to this day. I was 90 in February. --Donald B.

By lighth0se33 — On Jan 20, 2012

I remember that my kindergarten, first grade, and second grade teachers all drilled phonics into our heads. Every day, we would work on our pronunciation, as well as our writing.

The teacher would write letters on the chalkboard, and she would pronounce them. She would then have us pronounce them with her in unison, after which we would write them down on a tablet with guiding lines to show us where the different parts of the letter should fall.

This repetition for several years at an early age is what taught all of us to read and write. We learn by doing, and we did this over and over until we were sick of it. Consequently, we became good at it.

By orangey03 — On Jan 20, 2012

@JessicaLynn – This is why many immigrants have trouble learning our language. Our orthography makes it difficult.

Personally, I can see how throwing in letters that sound one way when pronounced alone but entirely different when paired with other letters could confuse someone not familiar with the language. No one who had just learned to pronounce 'c' and 'h' separately would imagine that putting them together would make the sound that we have attributed to the combination.

I have been able to learn Spanish fairly easily, because it is a simpler language in terms of pronunciation. However, if Spanish had been my native language and I were trying to learn English, I'm sure I would have had a lot of frustration along the way.

By Perdido — On Jan 19, 2012

@wavy58 – You may be onto something there. My parents read to me regularly, and I am very adept at reading and spelling. However, my boyfriend's parents never read to him, and he has trouble with words to this day.

He says he cannot wrap his brain around why we use silent letters and letter combinations that don't sound like they look, such as 'ph' to make the 'f' sound. Since he didn't grow up seeing these words pronounced aloud, he has no basic concept of them ingrained in his brain.

I wish every parent would make it a point to read to their children often and early. I think we could prevent literacy problems by doing this.

By wavy58 — On Jan 18, 2012

Children whose parents read to them at an early age and consistently thereafter have a better chance of understanding the alphabetic principle. If the kids follow along in the book as the parent reads the words aloud, they can learn to read faster than their peers and be better prepared to enter school.

My mother read to me every day when I was very young. By the time I entered first grade, I had an advanced reading level. I was surprised by how slowly the other children read and how much trouble they seemed to have pronouncing words that I had no trouble with.

By starrynight — On Jan 17, 2012

@indemnifyme - The alphabetic principle is rather interesting, and very convenient too. In fact, I remember learning phonics when I was younger. I had one teacher who seemed to use a phonics worksheet for every single lesson.

I can't remember what order we learned the letters/sounds in, but I think it makes sense to introduce kids to the least confusing ones first. Children get frustrated so easily, and learning language is really important!

By indemnifyme — On Jan 17, 2012

@JessicaLynn - Singular orthography does sound much simpler. However, languages develop gradually over time, and English developed differently. We can't very well go around introducing new letters to the alphabet at this point just because it would be a bit more convenient.

Anyway, I'm more interested in the alphabetic principles than in orthography anyway. I think it's amazing that there is a letter or combination of letters to represent every sound. Imagine if language developed under some other system and you had to learn to pronounce every word individually? I think we actually have it pretty easy as far as learning new words.

By JessicaLynn — On Jan 16, 2012

Wow! It sounds like English is really a difficult language to teach, especially to people who are learning it as a second language. Imagine having to try to come up with a phonics lesson plan when so many letters have more than one sound. And imagine coming from one language where each letter only has one sound to a language where a letter can represent several different sounds!

In my opinion, singular orthography sounds like a much easier system. If each letter only had one possible sound, I imagine learning English would be much, much easier. Instead, you have to learn several different ways to pronounce the same letter. It just seems unnecessarily complex to me!

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