The Alphabetic Principle: Every Child Needs This Insight to be Able to Read

I used to think reading was a pretty basic activity. I was wrong. Reading is actually a fairly complicated skill set, with lots of abilities that have to work together. A skilled reader makes this process look easy, but it usually takes years of study and practice to become that proficient.

Sally Shaywitz, M.D. is a co-director for the Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention. Her 2003 book, Overcoming Dyslexia, describes the process of learning to read as one where a child needs to solve two parts of the reading puzzle. The first is to "…understand that spoken words come apart and that they are made up of very small bits of language…called phonemes…" (Shaywitz, 2003, Overcoming dyslexia, 176)

The next step is to understand "how printed letters link to these sounds..." English has 26 letters and 44 phonemes. These are not learned all at once, but they all need to be learned. Once children understand that printed letters link to sounds, most learn which letters and combinations of letters make which sounds (decoding). Next, children break a word apart into its sounds and then put it back together again (blending). The concept behind these two steps is called the alphabetic principle, and everyone needs this insight to be able to read English. (Shaywitz, 2003, Overcoming dyslexia, 176)

Most children grasp this insight sometime in preschool and/or early elementary school. Some have more difficulty with it than others. Assuming no learning disabilities, the "ah-ha moment" is typically preceded by exposures to rich language experiences through conversations, stories, rhymes, alliterations, etc. These types of opportunities demonstrate the types of sounds that make up speech and illustrate how these sounds can be manipulated to make a vast number of words.

Reading science researchers, including David Kilpatrick, Ph.D., are also discovering that children continue learning how to manipulate sounds past first and second grade. This information is important, because most schools stop teaching it and testing for it around the end of first grade. Current research shows that children actually continue refining that skill well into fourth grade (Kilpatrick, 2015, Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties, 85). We see that in our day-to-day interactions with children. Many first graders are able to hear and say the word "meat," and then remove the /m/ to get "eat." But fewer can hear and say the word "smack," remove the /m/ and get "sack." Third graders are much better with that type of exercise.

Here are some quick and easy tips for things we can do to help children solve the reading puzzle and grasp the alphabetic principle.

  1. Play sound and word games. These sites have some good ideas for effective activities that don’t take long and can be done anywhere and anytime:
  2. Read aloud daily. The books don’t need to be long. Start with nursery rhymes and short rhyming books like Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. Chapter books can be read a chapter or two at a time. Children become involved in the story and look forward to the next "installment."
  3. Plan ahead and use small pieces of time for playing sound and word games. Many of these activities can be done while driving in the car or waiting for an appointment
  4. Fit reading activities into your daily schedule. Consistency is important. It is better to spend 10 – 15 minutes a day on these types of activities, most days of the week then to spend 45 – 60 minutes once or twice a week.
  5. Know when it is time to move on. There are varying levels of difficulty with phonemic awareness activities. Most children find it easier to remove or change an initial sound than a final one. Medial sounds are the most difficult to change. These skills build upon each other, so when a child demonstrates proficiency with a given skill phonemic awareness skill, it is fine to move on to a more challenging activity.