Alphabetic Principle

The alphabetic principle is composed of two parts:

  • Alphabetic Understanding: Words are composed of letters that represent sounds.
  • Phonological Recoding: Using systematic relationships between letters and phonemes (letter-sound correspondence) to retrieve the pronunciation of an unknown printed string or to spell words. Phonological recoding consists of:

Regular Word Reading

A regular word is a word in which all the letters represent their most common sounds. Regular words are words that can be decoded (phonologically recoded).

Because our language is alphabetic, decoding is an essential and primary means of recognizing words. There are simply too many words in the English language to rely on memorization as a primary word identification strategy (Bay Area Reading Task Force, 1997, see References).

Beginning decoding ("phonological recoding") is the ability to:

  • read from left to right, simple, unfamiliar regular words.
  • generate the sounds for all letters.
  • blend sounds into recognizable words.

Progression of Regular Word Reading

Sounding Out
(saying each individual sound out loud)
Right Arrow Saying the Whole Word
(saying each individual sound and pronouncing the whole word)
Right Arrow Sight Word Reading
(sounding out the word in your head, if necessary, and saying the whole word)
Right Arrow Automatic Word Reading
(reading the word without sounding it out)

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Irregular Word Reading

Although decoding is a highly reliable strategy for a majority of words, some irregular words in the English language do not conform to word-analysis instruction (e.g., the, was, night). Those words are referred to as irregular words.

Irregular Word: A word that cannot be decoded because either (a) the sounds of the letters are unique to that word or a few words, or (b) the student has not yet learned the letter-sound correspondences in the word (Carnine, Silbert & Kame'enui, 1997; see References).

  • In beginning reading there will be passages that contain words that are "decodable" yet the letter sound correspondences in those words may not yet be familiar to students. In this case, we also teach these words as irregular words.
  • To strengthen students' reliance on the decoding strategy and communicate the utility of that strategy, we recommend not introducing irregular words until students can reliably decode words at a rate of one letter-sound per second. At this point, irregular words may be introduced, but on a limited scale.
  • The key to irregular word recognition is not how to teach them. The teaching procedure is simple. The critical design considerations are how many to introduce and how many to review.

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Advanced Word Analysis

Advanced word analysis involves being skilled at phonological processing (recognizing and producing the speech sounds in words) and having an awareness of letter-sound correspondences in words.

Advanced word analysis skills include:

  • Knowledge of common letter combinations and the sounds they make
  • Identification of VCe pattern words and their derivatives
  • Knowledge of prefixes, suffixes, and roots, and how to use them to "chunk" word parts within a larger word to gain access to meaning.

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Alphabetic Principle Instruction

Examples of Tasks Illustrating Alphabetic Understanding

  • Letter-sound associations: What is the sound of this letter?
  • Soundblending: Blend the sounds of these letters to make a word /mmm aaa nnn/.
  • Segmenting: What sounds do you hear in this word?
  • Manipulating letter-sound correspondences in words: What word would you have if you change the /n/ in /nap/ to /l/?
  • Reading pseudowords: What is this word, mip?
  • Word identification: What is this word, map?

Teaching Tips: Letter-Sound Correspondence

Conspicuous Strategies

  • Teacher actions should make the task explicit. Use consistent and brief wording.

Mediated Scaffolding

  • Separate auditorily and visually similar letters.
  • Introduce some continuous sounds early.
  • Introduce letters that can be used to build many words.
  • Introduce lower case letters first unless upper case letters are similar in configuration.

Strategic Integration - Simple Before Complex

  1. Once students can identify the sound of the letter on two successive trials, include the new letter-sound correspondence with 6-8 other letter sounds.
  2. When students can identify 4-6 letter-sound correspondences in 2 seconds each, include these letters in single-syllable, CVC, decodable words.

Review Cumulatively and Judiciously

Use a distributed review cycle to build retention:

N = new sound; K = known sound
Example (r = new sound; m, s, t, i, f, a = known sounds): r m r s t r r i f a m r

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Video Clip: First Grade: Decoding

Specific Skill: Decoding words with consonant blends and letter combinations using a word list

Skills taught prior to this clip were:

  • Letter-sound correspondences with high instructional utility
  • Producing sounds of common letter combinations

Things to look for in this clip:

What the teacher does:

  • Uses finger to point to each sound
  • Requires students to say sounds out continuously between sounds
  • Prompts students to sound out in their heads and then read out loud

What the student does:

  • Waits for teacher cue to provide target word
  • Answers with highly accurate responses in group and individually

Video Clip: First Grade: Decoding

The next instructional objectives for this group:

  • Using advanced phonic elements to recognize words

Instructional Materials used in this clip:
Engelmann, S., & Bruner, E. (1995). Reading Mastery II. New York, NY: SRA / McGraw-Hill Co.

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Alphabetic Principle skills, including knowledge of letter-sound correspondences and sounding out words, can be assessed with two DIBELS measures:

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TIP: For more information about the Alphabetic Principle, including additional teaching strategies and video clip examples of instruction, visit the Big Ideas in Beginning Reading website.