What is the alphabetic principle

The Alphabetic Principle | Reading Rockets

Not knowing letter names is related to children's difficulty in learning letter sounds and in recognizing words. Children cannot understand and apply the alphabetic principle (understanding that there are systematic and predictable relationships between written letters and spoken sounds) until they can recognize and name a number of letters.

Children whose alphabetic knowledge is not well developed when they start school need sensibly organized instruction that will help them identify, name, and write letters. Once children are able to identify and name letters with ease, they can begin to learn letter sounds and spellings.

Children appear to acquire alphabetic knowledge in a sequence that begins with letter names, then letter shapes, and finally letter sounds. Children learn letter names by singing songs such as the "Alphabet Song," and by reciting rhymes. They learn letter shapes as they play with blocks, plastic letters, and alphabetic books. Informal but planned instruction in which children have many opportunities to see, play with, and compare letters leads to efficient letter learning. This instruction should include activities in which children learn to identify, name, and write both upper case and lower case versions of each letter.

What is the "alphabetic principle"?

Children's reading development is dependent on their understanding of the alphabetic principle – the idea that letters and letter patterns represent the sounds of spoken language. Learning that there are predictable relationships between sounds and letters allows children to apply these relationships to both familiar and unfamiliar words, and to begin to read with fluency.

The goal of phonics instruction is to help children to learn and be able to use the Alphabetic Principle. The alphabetic principle is the understanding that there are systematic and predictable relationships between written letters and spoken sounds. Phonics instruction helps children learn the relationships between the letters of written language and the sounds of spoken language.

Two issues of importance in instruction in the alphabetic principle are the plan of instruction and the rate of instruction.

The alphabetic principle plan of instruction

  • Teach letter-sound relationships explicitly and in isolation.
  • Provide opportunities for children to practice letter-sound relationships in daily lessons.
  • Provide practice opportunities that include new sound-letter relationships, as well as cumulatively reviewing previously taught relationships.
  • Give children opportunities early and often to apply their expanding knowledge of sound-letter relationships to the reading of phonetically spelled words that are familiar in meaning.

Rate and sequence of instruction

No set rule governs how fast or how slow to introduce letter-sound relationships. One obvious and important factor to consider in determining the rate of introduction is the performance of the group of students with whom the instruction is to be used. Furthermore, there is no agreed upon order in which to introduce the letter-sound relationships. It is generally agreed, however, that the earliest relationships introduced should be those that enable children to begin reading words as soon as possible. That is, the relationships chosen should have high utility. For example, the spellings m, a, t, s, p, and h are high utility, but the spellings x as in box, gh, as in through, ey as in they, and a as in want are of lower utility.

It is also a good idea to begin instruction in sound-letter relationships by choosing consonants such as f, m, n, r, and s, whose sounds can be pronounced in isolation with the least distortion. Stop sounds at the beginning or middle of words are harder for children to blend than are continuous sounds.

Instruction should also separate the introduction of sounds for letters that are auditorily confusing, such as /b/ and /v/ or /i/ and /e/, or visually confusing, such as b and d or p and g.

Instruction might start by introducing two or more single consonants and one or two short vowel sounds. It can then add more single consonants and more short vowel sounds, with perhaps one long vowel sound. It might next add consonant blends, followed by digraphs (for example, th, sh, ch), which permits children to read common words such as this, she, and chair. Introducing single consonants and consonant blends or clusters should be introduced in separate lessons to avoid confusion.

The point is that the order of introduction should be logical and consistent with the rate at which children can learn. Furthermore, the sound-letter relationships chosen for early introduction should permit children to work with words as soon as possible.

Many teachers use a combination of instructional methods rather than just one. Research suggests that explicit, teacher-directed instruction is more effective in teaching the alphabetic principle than is less-explicit and less-direct instruction.

Guidelines for rate and sequence of instruction

  • Recognize that children learn sound-letter relationships at different rates.
  • Introduce sound-letter relationships at a reasonable pace, in a range from two to four letter-sound relationships a week.
  • Teach high-utility letter-sound relationships early.
  • Introduce consonants and vowels in a sequence that permits the children to read words quickly.
  • Avoid the simultaneous introduction of auditorily or visually similar sounds and letters.
  • Introduce single consonant sounds and consonant blends/clusters in separate lessons.
  • Provide blending instruction with words that contain the letter-sound relationships that children have learned.

The Alphabetic Principle: From Phonological Awareness to Reading Words

What Is The Alphabetic Principle?

Connecting letters with their sounds to read and write is called the “alphabetic principle.”  For example, a child who knows that the written letter “m” makes the /mmm/ sound is demonstrating the alphabetic principle.

Letters in words tell us how to correctly “sound out” (i.e., read) and write words. To master the alphabetic principle, readers must have phonological awareness skills and be able to recognize individual sounds in spoken words. Learning to read and write becomes easier when sounds associated with letters are recognized automatically.

The alphabetic principle has two parts:

  1. Alphabetic understanding is knowing that words are made up of letters that represent the sounds of speech.
  2. Phonological recoding is knowing how to translate the letters in printed words into the sounds they make to read and pronounce the words accurately.

The alphabetic principle is critical in reading and understanding the meaning of text. In typical reading development, children learn to use the alphabetic principle fluently and automatically. This allows them to focus their attention on understanding the meaning of the text, which is the primary purpose of reading.

Learning and applying the alphabetic principle takes time and is difficult for most children. There are many letters to learn the sounds of, and there are many ways to arrange the letters to produce the vast number of different words used in print. Also, in English, the same letter can represent more than one sound, depending on the word (e.g., the /a/ sounds are different in the words “mat” and “mate”). In Spanish, by contrast, which also includes the vowel “a” in its alphabet, the /a/ sound is always pronounced the same way (e.g., the /a/ in “casa”) regardless what word it is in.

Irregular Words

Some words, called irregular words, cannot be read accurately using the alphabetic principle to “sound them out” (e.g., the words “was,” “is,” and “know” are not accurately pronounced using phonics rules). Irregular words require a different teaching approach than teaching how to read words that follow a rule-based, letter-sound structure.

Despite the presence of irregular words, learning the alphabetic principle thoroughly and using it to read unfamiliar words, is a much better strategy than trying to memorize how to accurately read each word as a whole word, or guessing what the word might be based on its first letter and the words before or after it in the text.

Explicit Phonics Instruction

Explicit phonics instruction—i.e., how the alphabetic principle works, step by step—and extensive practice enables most children to learn the alphabetic principle. Below are effective strategies for teaching the alphabetic principle. These same strategies can be used with children who struggle learning to read, including children with reading disabilities or dyslexia. For students who struggle, highly systematic and explicit instruction plus lots of accuracy practice will be necessary for them to learn the alphabetic principle thoroughly.

All alphabetic languages can be taught using phonics and the alphabetic principle to guide instruction. However, alphabetic languages—English, Spanish, French, Turkish, Vietnamese, and many others—differ dramatically in their alphabetic principle complexity. For example, English is quite complex—there are many rules and exceptions to those rules that need to be learned to read and write correctly. Spanish is much less complex. Letters typically make only one sound regardless of the word they are in and rule exceptions are very few compared to English. For example, Spanish vowels only make one sound. In some cases, the vowel is silent as the letter “u” is in the word, “que.”

Teach Students To Connect Letters To Their Most Common Sound Or Sounds

All 26 letters in English make at least one predictable or common sound depending on the other letters in the word. For example, each of the three letters in the word “mat” makes its most common sound. In the word “meat” the “m” and “t” make the same sound as they do in “mat” and the “ea” letter combination makes its most common sound when these letters are together in a word. Notice that in the word “meat,” there is only one sound for “ea” even though there are two letters. Teachers can sequence and deliver instruction in a way that helps students efficiently learn the “rules” for the different sounds that letters and letter combinations make.

Teach Students To Read Words Using What They Know About The Sounds That Letters And Letter Combinations Make

In using the alphabetic principle, students “blend” the sounds made by individual letters into a whole word. For example, the sounds /m/ /a/ /t/ made by the letters “m,” “a,” and “t” are blended together seamlessly to make the word “mat.” Students should begin learning to read by producing the individual sounds in words and blending the sounds together quickly to produce the whole word with simple CVC words (consonant-vowel-consonant) before progressing to more complex word types that follow other important phonics rules. During instruction, teachers can use a strategy such as “I Do, We Do, You Do” to show students what to do (how to blend), practice with them (students do it with the teacher), and then the students do it on their own to show their teacher they know how to do it. Teaching several of the most common sounds for a few individual letters allows students to read many different words depending on letter order. Teaching other rule types (e.g., letter combinations such as “ea” and “th,” the “Bossy E” rule when “e” comes at the end of a CVC word, and so forth) enables students to accurately read a vast number of words they have never encountered in text.

Have Students Begin Reading Texts That Contain A High Percentage Of Decodable Words

Early in learning to read, students can begin reading simple books that contain words they can read on their own using the rules of the alphabetic principle. These decodable texts have a high percentage of words that follow common alphabetic principle rules. Students can practice reading these books to build their reading fluency, which helps them focus their attention on understanding the meaning of the text.

Many common words such as “was,” “said” and “of” are irregular words—i.e., they do not follow common alphabetic principle rules. The most common irregular words should be taught early in reading development so that students will be able to read more expanded and interesting texts that are otherwise highly decodable.


Suggested Citation

Baker, S.K., Santiago, R.T., Masser, J., Nelson, N.J., & Turtura, J. (2018). The Alphabetic Principle: From Phonological Awareness to Reading Words. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Office of Special Education Programs, National Center on Improving Literacy. Retrieved from http://improvingliteracy.org.


Carnine, D., Silbert, J., & Kame’enui, E. J. (1997). Direct instruction reading. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Ehri, L. C. (1991). Development of the ability to read words. In R. Barr, M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, & P. D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Vol. 2), 383–417. New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Harn, B., Simmons, D. C., & Kame’enui, E. J. (2003). Institute on Beginning Reading II: Enhancing alphabetic principle instruction in core reading instruction [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from http://oregonreadingfirst.uoregon.edu/downloads/instruction/big_five/enh...

Liberman, I. Y., & Liberman, A. M. (1990). Whole language vs. code emphasis: Underlying assumptions and their implications for reading instruction. Annals of Dyslexia, 40(1), 51–76. doi:10.1007/bf02648140

National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Retrieved from http://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/nrp/smallbook.htm

Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21(4), 360–407. doi:10.1598/rrq.21.4.1

Wagner, R. K., & Torgesen, J. K. (1987). The nature of phonological processing and its causal role in the acquisition of reading skills. Psychological Bulletin, 101(2), 192–212. doi:10.1037//0033-2909.101.2.192

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Aleksakhin A.N.

The creation of the alphabet and spelling of the words of the Mandarin Chinese language is an epoch-making event in the history of Chinese civilization. It breathed new life into ancient Chinese characters. The great "mute" - the Chinese character - for the first time since 1958 for the whole world spoke with the sounds of Beijing speech. Today, two types of writing of the Chinese language Putonghua, traditional ideographic and innovative phonographic, effectively interacting, ensure the linguocultural unity of the Chinese society and the scientific and technological progress of the PRC. Millions of people in China and beyond are learning Chinese using the Mandarin Chinese sound-letter standard. Letter spellings of Chinese words provide tele-Internet communication for hundreds of millions of Chinese. On the basis of the theory of the phonological system of the Chinese language, developed in line with Russian Sinology, the technology of translating the phonological system of the Chinese language into the alphabet and spellings of the words of the Chinese language Putonghua is disclosed for the first time. The Chineseized alphabet, created on the basis of Latin letters, and the alphabetic spelling of Chinese words are a huge scientific achievement of Chinese linguists. The brilliant Chinese linguist Zhou Yuguang (1906-2011), who is called in China the "father of pinyin zimu" or the Chinese alphabet.

Key words: alphabet, spelling of a word, Chinese language, ideographic writing, phonographic writing, phoneme, consonant, vowel, matrix, phonetic law.


A. N. Aleksakhin

It breathes new life into ancient Chinese characters. Great “dumb” − the Chinese character − for the first time since 1958 has become known to the whole world by sounds of Beijing speech. Today the two types of writing − Chinese Mandarin traditional ideographic and innovative phonographic writing, in their unity, provide the linguocultural unity of the Chinese society and the progress of science and technology of China. Millions of people in China and beyond are studying the Chinese language based on the sound letter standard of the words of Chinese Putonghua. Letter orthogramms of Chinese words provide tele- and Internet communication of hundreds of millions of Chinese. Based on the theory of Chinese phonological system elaborated within the frames of Russian Chinese studies, the technology of phonological system of Chinese in the alphabet and orthogramms of words of Chinese Putonghua is considered for the first time. Chinese alphabet, based on Latin letters and letter-spelling forms of Putonghua words are a huge scientific achievement of Chinese linguists. Outstanding contribution to the creation of the alphabet and letter words of Chinese Mandarin was made by a brilliant Chinese linguist Zhou Youguang (1906-2011), called the "father of pinyin zimu" or Chinese alphabet in China.

Key words : alphabet, word spelling, Chinese language, phoneme, ideographic writing, phonographic writing, consonant, vowel, matrix, phonetic law.

Aleksakhin A.N. Linguistic principles of creating the alphabet and spelling of words in the Chinese language Putonghua // Philological Sciences at MGIMO. 2020.23(3). pp. 5-15.

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Aleksakhin Alexey Nikolaevich

Doctor of Philology, professor, professor at MGIMO (2004-2011), in 2011-2019 - head of the department of Chinese, Vietnamese, Lao and Thai languages. Graduate of the Military Institute of Foreign Languages ​​(VIIA, 1970). Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Associate Professor, Senior Researcher, Professor of All-Russian Institute of Foreign Languages ​​(since 1970), Military Red Banner Institute, Military Academy of Economics, Finance and Law, Military University (until 1997). Senior Research Fellow, IL RAS (1994-96). Employee of the USSR Embassy in China (1970-71), employee of the Trade Mission of the Russian Federation in China (1998-2002). More than 100 scientific and educational works have been published. Participant of All-Union, All-Russian and international scientific conferences, has many years of experience in translation work at negotiations at various levels, including governmental ones. Colonel of the reserve, civil service adviser 2nd class, awarded with medals of the USSR. In 2015, by order of the Ministry of Education and Science of Russia, he was awarded the title "Honorary Worker of Higher Professional Education of the Russian Federation" for merits in the field of education. The scientific monographs "Hakka dialect (Chinese)" (2013) and "Chinese phonological systems in the intercivilizational contact of East and West" (2015) became the winner of the All-Russian competition for the best scientific book in the category "Humanities" education.

Categories Philology and linguistics, Phonetics and phonologyTags Chinese language, Chinese phonetics, Chinese language, Chinese phonetics

ALPHABET • Great Russian Encyclopedia

Authors: Vyach. Sun. Ivanov

ALPHABET [Greek ἀλφάβητος, from the name of the first two letters of the Greek. A. - ἄλφα "alpha" and βῆτα "beta" (New Greek "vita")], a system of written signs that convey the sound image of the words of the language through symbols depicting individual sound elements. A.'s invention made it possible to record texts without referring to their meaning (unlike writing systems using ideograms and logograms), which made it possible to record, store and transmit a wide variety of texts in any languages, contributed to the spread of literacy and other achievements of Europe. civilization. All known alphabets are characterized by the presence of rules for designating phonemes in words and by a set of signs known to all who use them in a strictly defined sequence. The principle of ordering according to A. plays an important role in all modern. means of storing and searching for information (in dictionaries, other reference books, catalogs, etc.).

The A principle was invented by the West Semitic peoples (see West Semitic letter ). All R. 3rd millennium BC e. Western Semitic (ancient Canaanite) scribes in the city of Ebla (modern Tel Mardikh, Northern Syria) created such a classification of cuneiform syllables borrowed from Mesopotamia, which they used to record the local Eblaite language. and the Mesopotamian Sumerian language, in which the signs were ordered according to the nature of the vowels with the same consonants: ma, mi, mu (in the Semitic languages ​​there were only 3 vowels - a, i, u). Apparently, thanks to the use of the experience of cuneiform and Egyptian writing, app. Semites not later than the 1st half. 2nd millennium BC e. created such an initial type of consonant-syllabic writing, where there were signs for conveying consonants (for example, w) in combination with any vowel (syllables like wa, wi, wu, written not with different signs, as in cuneiform, but with one). Once in the set of all letters. signs were included and signs for vowels, A. finally took shape as an ordered set of letters. phoneme designations.

Ancient alphabets.

The most ancient was A. of the city-state of Ugarit, known from the middle. 2nd millennium BC e. (see Ugarit letter). The order of characters in it in the main. corresponds to the order of signs in other West-Semitic alphabets, known since the last centuries of the 2nd millennium BC. e .: in Phoenician (see Phoenician letter), other Hebrew and some others.

Approximately at the turn of the 2nd-1st millennium BC. e. (perhaps a little earlier) the Phoenician A. of 22 letters was borrowed by the Greeks (see Greek letter), who significantly transformed it, turning it into other Greek. A. into a complete system. The correspondence between the letters A. and phonemes became one-to-one: all A. signs were used to record the phonemes to which they corresponded, and each phoneme corresponded to a certain letter A. The Etruscan A., closely related to other Greek (possibly brought by the Etruscans to Italy) has the same features. , where they moved at the end of the 2nd millennium BC by sea from Asia Minor) and the Asia Minor alphabets in Asia Minor of ancient times that have common features with it. The chronology of the creation and development of all a. turn of the 2nd-1st millennium BC. e. remains debatable. Later Greek. A. serves as a model for creating means. a number of other systems: Latin and other ancient Italic (those that experienced Etruscan influence), Armenian, Georgian, Gothic, Old Church Slavonic, and other alphabetic systems, where the order, names, and form of signs correspond exactly or with certain changes to Greek. The further spread of alphabetic language to record new languages ​​was carried out on the basis of already created alphabetic characters, primarily Latin alphabetic (see Latin writing), Cyrillic, and others. In the 1st millennium BC. e. South Arabian A., which are an early offshoot of the Western Semitic systems, are attested.

In all known alphabetic systems, each letter has its own name. Names of letters in are stored in relatives. systems and when borrowing from one system to another (from Western Semitic to Greek). Names of letters in plural Western-Semitic traditions, except for Ugaritic (obviously, for the convenience of memorization and learning), were formed from words denoting objects that begin with the corresponding phonemes (“alef” 'bull', 'bet' 'house', etc.) .

The signs of the oldest known A., in particular Ugaritic, were not used to designate numbers. Later, in Western-Semitic A. of the 1st millennium BC. e. and in Greek A. the first letter in order [e.g., Greek. α (alpha)] can be a sign for the first whole number of the natural series after zero (i.e. α meant the number 1), the second - for the second (β meant the number 2), etc. This principle was preserved in the plural.

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