What’s the best way to teach the Alphabetic Principle?
Alphabetic principle is the idea that letters, and groups of letters, match individual sounds in words. The ability to apply these predictable relationships to familiar and unfamiliar words is crucial to reading.
Letter-sound correspondence, or the relationship of the letters in the alphabet to the sounds they produce, is a key component of the alphabetic principle and learning to read. To teach letter sound correspondence, work with a few sounds at a time by teaching each letter of the alphabet and its corresponding sound. For each letter-sound relationship, instruction should include naming the letter or letters that represent the sound and it should associate a picture cue of an object with the target sound to help students remember the relationship between the letter and the sound (i.e., an image of a pig, the printed letter p, and the teacher orally stating the sound for /p/).
Additionally, incorporating a short story that incorporates the sound and has a picture of an object with the target sound and letter helps students remember the picture and the sound when they encounter the letter in print. For example, if students are learning the letter and sound for ‘p’ with an image of a pig as the picture cue, the accompanying story may be “Polly Pig likes to eat pizza and play with her pals.” When teaching the relationship between each letter and its corresponding sound, introduce the letter in uppercase and lowercase. Multiple practice opportunities with letter-sound relationships should be provided daily to teach new letter-sound relationships and to review letters and sounds previously taught.
There is no specific agreed upon instructional sequence for introducing letter-sound relationships; however, relationships that enable students to begin reading words as quickly as possible should be introduced earliest in instruction. When teaching new letter-sound relationships, begin with letter-sound relationships of high utility (such as m, a, and s) so students can begin working with words as soon as possible. Stagger letter-sound relationships that are auditorily confusing (such as b and v) or visually similar (such as b and d) to promote mastery of one before introducing the confusing counterpart to students. After students master sounds spelled with one letter, more complex letter-sound relationships such as ‘sh’ for /sh/, ‘a_e’ for /a/, and ‘igh’ for /i/ can be introduced.
Once students have learned a few letter-sound relationships, they can begin to read regular words, or words that follow the phonetic rules and can be sounded out (e.g.; cat, box, bet), containing the letters and sounds they have learned. Irregular words, or words that do not follow phonic rules, such as “said” and “was,” would not be taught using blending strategies. Instead students would be taught to read those words as whole words, or by sight, rather than using a “sound it out” approach. Strategies for blending or, reading words from left to right by linking each letter or group of letters to their sounds, can be taught to help students decode regular words. One such strategy is encouraging students to read words without stopping between sounds. Students can be encouraged to “keep their motor running” (keep their voices on) or to “not stop between sounds” as they say the sounds in a word to read the word. After students have blended the sounds together to read the word, they should read the word the “fast” way, or in a fluent voice without holding each sound. As students become more fluent, they should do the blending work in their heads without saying sounds aloud and only read the word aloud in a quick, fluent voice.
Continuous and stop sounds contribute to the difficulty of the blending task. Continuous sounds are sounds that can be held without being distorted (e.g., /n/, /s/ and /f/), so they are easier to hold and blend together when students are first learning to blend sounds and read words. Stop sounds are made with quick puffs of air and cannot be held without becoming distorted (e.g, /b/, /p/, and /k/.) Most students are successful with blending words containing both continuous and stop sounds. Some students may struggle with blending words with a mix of continuous and stop sounds. To support students who struggle with blending words with both continuous and stop sounds, the following sequence explains the progression of blending from easiest (1) to most difficult (4). Using only words in one level and checking for student mastery before moving to the next level in the sequence will provide scaffolding for students who need additional support with blending sounds to read words.
- Words that follow the consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) pattern and contain all continuous sounds (e.g.; man, run, rim, win);
- Words that follow the CVC pattern with a stop sound at the end of the word (e.g.; sap, mat, fit, lot);
- Words that follow the CVC pattern with a stop sound at the beginning of the word (e.g.; top, pan, big, ten);
- Words that follow the consonant-vowel-consonant-consonant (CCVC) pattern with a blend at the beginning that includes a stop sound (e.g.; step, skit, spot, spun)
After students have mastered blending words that follow CVC and CCVC spelling patterns, words with more advanced spelling patterns, such as vowel-consonant-silent e (e.g.; a_e, o_e) and vowel sounds spelled with more than one letter (e.g.; ai, igh), can be introduced. As more complex spelling patterns and words are taught, teach students to recognize the vowel pattern and corresponding sound in the word to assist with decoding the word.
To build awareness of how letters and their sounds are connected to spelling and pronunciation, word-building activities such as word ladders (Figure 1.1) and sound boxes (Figure 1.2) should be integrated into literacy instruction. As word building activities are embedded into instruction, begin with words that contain simple patterns such as VC (e.g. am) and CVC spelling patterns. After students master simple spelling patterns, gradually incorporate more advanced words as students learn more advanced spelling patterns (e.g.; vowel-consonant-silent e, vowel patterns spelled with more than one letter.)
When students understand the alphabetic principle and are able to apply what they know about letter-sound correspondence to translate printed letters and letter combinations into the sounds they make, they are able to accurately read a vast number of words-including words they have never encountered in text.
Words that Follow the CVC Spelling Pattern*
Words that Follow the CCVC Spelling Pattern
All Continuous Sounds
Stop Sound at the End
Stop Sound at the Beginning
Beginning Blend Includes a Stop Sound
* Note: The lists above do not include all words for each level in the blending sequence, rather they are examples of some words for each level of the blending sequence. There are additional words that fit the spelling patterns and sound placements in the chart above that can be used in blending instruction. Words selected for blending instruction should be contingent upon the spelling pattern of the word (CVC/CCVC), type of sounds (stop and/or continuous) the word includes, placement of those sounds within the word, letters-sound relationships students have learned, and the student’s current level of knowledge within the blending sequence.
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...
Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, What Works Clearinghouse.
Jess Surles is a Professional Development Coach for reading instruction at the Center on Teaching and Learning at the University of Oregon.