When it comes to learning how to read, a child’s familiarity with letters can make all the difference! Connecting letters with their sounds to read and write is called the alphabetic principle, ant it’s strongly contributes to ease of learning to read.
This post is going to break down all the important details about what the alphabetic principle is in preschool literacy and how to teach it.
What Preschool Teachers Need to Know About the Alphabetic Principle
Who doesn’t love hearing a preschooler proudly sing the alphabet song where they slur the letters “lmnop” into a single letter? It is such an accomplishment for them, like correctly recognizing their printed name for the first time.
To gain a solid grasp of the English language, children must learn to recognize and name letters in order to comprehend how written symbols correspond with spoken sounds. Knowing this alphabetic principle is key for building strong literacy skills!
It is an important stepping stone in helping children understand, comprehend and apply the alphabetic principle so they can learn to read.
And it’s more than simply knowing the the alphabet or being able to recite letters rotely — but that is part of it! So let’s get down to the nitty gritty about the importance of alphabet knowledge in early childhood!
* Daily Lessons in Preschool Literacy CurriculumProduct on sale
About the “Big Four” of Preschool Literacy Instruction
There are four major components in preschool literacy instruction that, when woven together in systematic and explicit literacy instruction, create successful future readers. These components have been identified by researchers and continue to be solidified as crucial to early literacy development.
The “Big Four” of preschool literacy instruction are as follows:
What is the Alphabetic Principle?
Alphabetic principle refers to a child’s knowledge of the alphabet and their understanding that written language is made up of symbols that correlate directly to speech sounds. It is the knowledge and understanding that:
- speech sounds of language are systematic
- speech sounds are predictable
- letter combinations have sound relationships
Most simply put, the alphabetic principle refers to how words are made up of sounds that are represented by letters.
The Alphabetic Principle Has Two Parts
- Words are made of letters that represent sounds of speech.
- Phonological recoding.
- This is the ability to translate the letters in printed words into the sounds they make to read words correctly.
The alphabetic principle is critical in reading and understanding the meaning of text. Not knowing letter names is related to children’s difficulty in learning letter sounds and in recognizing words.
Other Terms for the Alphabetic Principle
To be effective in teaching preschool, it’s important to really understand the alphabetic principle and all that it entails.
The term “alphabetic principle” is an umbrella term that encompasses the greater components of how language is represented by letter symbols. Other terms hanging under the umbrella term that are related are:
- alphabet knowledge
- alphabet recognition
- letter recognition
- letter identification
Alphabet knowledge is the most closely related to the formal alphabetic principle term. the remaining three terms are all and of the same – they reference the ability to name letters and sounds. They are only one part of the alphabetic principle.
What is the Importance of Alphabet Knowledge in Preschool?
Like other pre-reading skills, the alphabetic principle relates directly to how a child will achieve in reading. Why is this?
Knowing letter names as well as sounds is strongly related to the ability to remember that the form of written words is made up of a specific sequence of letters. Not knowing letter names is related to children’s difficulty in learning letter sounds and in recognizing words.
Part of having wide and deep letter knowledge is the ability to identify letter names and sounds. In typical reading development, children learn to use the alphabetic principle fluently and automatically. This automaticity allows children to focus their attention on reading comprehension and not decoding text.
Children who are weak in alphabetic knowledge will struggle in learning to read and will require systematic intervention in elementary school, at least until mastery of letter names and sounds has been achieved.
Only after children have mastered all four threads of letter recognition can they begin to piece together letter sets and combinations to learn actual words and spellings.
How Much Time Should be Spent Teaching Alphabetic Knowledge?
The short answer is: longer than you think!
Remember, the alphabetic principle is more than simply reciting letter names and sounds. It’s an encompassing umbrella term for how language is represented by letter symbols. Learning and applying the alphabetic principle takes time and is difficult for most children.
Children can start learning letter recognition skills as early as three years, and systematic letter-sound instruction should continue through third grade.
Rate of Alphabet Knowledge Instruction
There is no set rule for how fast or slow teachers should teach the letters of the alphabet and share knowledge of letter sounds. The most important factor when considering pace is the performance of the students. Teachers should use letter recognition assessments to gauge progress and drive future skill instruction.
However, since research has sited multiple times the importance of letter-sound mastery before decoding, pacing should be based on mastery letters and letter sounds.
How is Alphabet Knowledge Developed?
Children begin to acquire alphabetic knowledge in a generally predictable sequence like the following:
- letter names
- letter shapes (practice in written letters)
- letter sounds
However now research is supporting using a multisensory approach to teaching the alphabetic principle, which allows all three to be taught simultaneously. Read about that here and here.
Here are some other guidelines for teaching alphabet knowledge.
Teach Explicit and Systematic Phonics
The greatest success in teaching letter recognition and sound knowledge to preschoolers is going to be met when using a systematic phonics curriculum that is designed specifically for preschoolers. This curriculum should offer explicit skill instruction to teach alphabet recognition.
While letter recognition can be supported by whole language activities, it should never be in lieu of explicit and systematic instruction.
Don’t Skip Phonological Awareness
Phonological awareness refers to the ability to recognize the variety of sound units that make up words. It’s hearing sounds.
Phonological awareness is important to early literacy development in that is prepares children for other components of reading, such as acquiring skills in alphabetic knowledge. It also helps children understand relationships between spoken words and written text. Phonological awareness and phonemic awareness are precursors to preparing children for decoding, just like alphabetic knowledge is.
Develop Oral Language Skills
Oral language development not just about listening and speaking, but also about written language. Oral language supports not only reading and speaking skills but is also a determining factor in writing development.
Research has shown that oral language—the foundations of which are developed during the early learning years—has a critical impact on children’s readiness for kindergarten as well as their reading and writing success throughout their academic career. Oral language skills provide the foundation for fluency and comprehension.
Like all other components of early literacy, oral language should be taught systematically and explicitly.
Activities to Develop Alphabet Knowledge
With everything we now know about the importance of alphabet knowledge, as teachers we have to be vigilant in using fun, but effective, alphabet activities in the classroom.
Ways to help a preschool-aged child develop alphabetic knowledge and learning the alphabet are endless, but below are a sample of activities that parents, caregivers and teachers can encourage that are beneficial.
Name Recognition Activities
Printable Alphabet Activities
Multisensory Letter Recognition Activities
Alphabet Books for Developing Alphabetic Knowledge
Having the right books can be a powerful teaching tool ins teaching students the alphabetic principle. Here are some of our favorite alphabet books for teaching letter recognition and sounds.
I’m Sarah, an educator turned stay-at-home-mama of five! I’m the owner and creator of Stay At Home Educator, a website about intentional teaching and purposeful learning in the early childhood years. I’ve taught a range of levels, from preschool to college and a little bit of everything in between. Right now my focus is teaching my children and running a preschool from my home. Credentials include: Bachelors in Art, Masters in Curriculum and Instruction.
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