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LiteracyFunctional illiteracy
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Reading disabilityDyslexia
English orthography


PhonicsAlphabetic principle
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Languages by writing system
Management of Dyslexia

According to the alphabetic principle, letters and combinations of letters are the symbols used to represent the speech sounds of a language based on systematic and predictable relationships between written letters, symbols, and spoken words. The alphabetic principle is the foundation of any alphabetic writing system, which is one of the more common types of writing systems in use today.

Alphabetic writing systems that use an (in practice) almost perfectly phonemic orthography have a single letter for each individual speech sound and a one-to-one correspondence between sounds and the letters that represent them. Such systems are used, for example, in the modern languages Finnish, Italian, and Spanish. Such languages have a straightforward spelling system, enabling a writer to predict the spelling of a word given its pronunciation and similarly enabling a reader to predict the pronunciation of a word given its spelling. Ancient languages with such almost perfectly phonemic writing systems include Avestic, Latin, Vedic, and Sanskrit (Devanāgarī/Abugida, see also Vyakarana).

The alphabetic principle does not underlie logographic writing systems like Chinese or syllabic writing systems such as Japanese kana.


Latin alphabet

Most orthographies that use the Latin writing system are imperfectly phonological and diverge from that ideal to a greater or lesser extent. This is because the ancient Romans designed the alphabet specifically for Latin. In the Middle Ages, it was adapted to the Romance languages, the direct descendants of Latin, as well as to the Celtic, Germanic, Baltic, and some Slavic languages, and finally to most of the languages of Europe.


English orthography

English orthography is based on the alphabetic principle, but the acquisition of sounds and spellings from a variety of languages has made English spelling patterns confusing. Spelling patterns usually follow certain conventions but nearly every sound can be legitimately spelled with different letters or letter combinations. [1] For example, the letters ee almost always represent /i/, but the sound can also be represented by the letter y.

The spelling systems for some languages, such as Spanish, are relatively simple because they adhere closely to the ideal one-to-one correspondence between sounds and the letter patterns that represent them. For example, in standard Castilian Spanish the letter u always represents the sound /u/. In English the spelling system is more complex and varies considerably in the degree to which it follows the stated pattern. There are several reasons for this, including: first, the alphabet has 26 letters, but the English language has 40 sounds that must be reflected in word spellings; second, English spelling began to be standardized in the 15th century, and most spellings have not been revised to reflect the long-term changes in pronunciation that are typical for all languages; and third, English frequently adopts foreign words without changing the spelling of those words.

Role of the alphabetic principle in beginning reading

Decades of research has resulted in converging evidence that learning the connection between the sounds of speech and print is a critical prerequisite to effective word identification. Understanding that there is a direct relationship between letters and sounds enables a reader to retrieve the pronunciation of an unknown word and associate it with a spoken word. Printed words in a child's vocabulary can be identified by sounding them out. Understanding the relationship of letters and sounds is also the foundation of learning to spell. [2] [3]

Proponents of phonics, a method for teaching one aspect of beginning reading, argue that this relationship needs to be taught explicitly and learned to automaticity to facilitate rapid word recognition upon which comprehension depends. Proponents of whole language approaches argue that reading should be taught holistically, and that children naturally intuit the relationship between letters and sounds. Focus on individual letters and sounds should be taught to be used only as a last resort, and that any phonics instruction given should be embedded within a holistic approach, that is to say, through mini-lessons in the context of authentic reading and writing tasks.

In Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, renowned researcher Marilyn Jager Adams asserts that the preponderance of evidence demonstrates the importance of learning sound-letter correspondence systematically. However, she hastens to caution all educators and parents that necessary is not the same as sufficient. However critical learning letter-sound correspondence is to beginning reading, it is not enough. Children require much more to become skillful readers. She states that proficient readers also must learn basic concepts about print, phonological awareness, the visual identities of individual letters, to spell, automatic word recognition, vocabulary, and understanding the syntactic and semantic relationships among words in order to achieve reading comprehension. Jager asserts, however, that because of the complexity of constructing meaning from the interaction of words and phrases in print, any hesitation in recognizing a single word causes comprehension to be forfeited. Automatic and speedy word recognition, she asserts, is an essential skill for reading comprehension, and word recognition depends on the reader's knowledge of, and fluency with, letter-to-sound translation and common syllable spelling patterns. [4]


  1. ^ Wren, Sebastian. Exception Words, Southwest Educational Development Laboratory. Retrieved from, September 30, 2007.
  2. ^ Juel, C. (1991). Beginning reading. In R. Barr, M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, & P. D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (pp. 759-788). New York: Longman.
  3. ^ Feitelson (1988). Facts and Fads in Beginning Reading: A Cross-Language Perspective. Ablex. ISBN 0-89391-507-6.  
  4. ^ Adams, Marilyn Jager (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. MIT Press.  

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