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The Alphabetic Principle: Connecting Sounds to Letters

Teach letter-sound correspondence to help children learn to read.

The Alphabetic Principle: Connecting Sounds to Letters

The Alphabetic Principle

Imagine preparing for a cross-country road trip. Your bags are packed, you know your destination, and your car is waiting in the driveway. But, when you turn the key, the car won’t start. Whether your car is electric or runs on gasoline, one thing is for sure: without a means of powering your vehicle, it’ll never get you to your destination. 

This same concept can be applied to children who are learning to read. While it’s important for young learners to know all of the letters of the alphabet, true reading power comes from understanding the patterns of spoken language and having the ability to connect sounds to letters on the page. This concept is the foundation of the alphabetic principle. 

Teacher sitting in a yellow chair reading to children sitting on the floor.


What is the alphabetic principle? 

The alphabetic principle is the idea that letters and letter patterns represent the sounds of spoken language. Understanding this notion and applying it to words on a page is a crucial skill for emergent readers. (Note: This specifically applies to learners without visual or hearing impairments.)

To decipher unfamiliar words, readers must be able to identify graphemes (letters and letter combinations) and connect them to their appropriate phonemes (letter sounds), the main skill in phonemic awareness. For example, if a reader comes across the word path, they can break down the word as follows: 

  • The “p” makes a /p/ sound
  • The “a” makes the /a/ sound
  • The “t” and “h” combine to make the /th/ sound

In many ways, understanding letter-sound correspondence is at the heart of the alphabetic principle and is a vital key in decoding words and becoming a successful reader.

The importance of letter-sound correspondence

While there are 26 letters in the English alphabet, there are roughly 44 distinct sounds these letters can make or combine to make. This concept can be especially confusing for young learners, as individual letters on a page can have many different sounds. 

Take the letter “s” for example. While children are typically taught that “s” makes an /s/ sound, like in see or say, it can also sound like: 

  • /z/ — like in the word boys
  • /sh/ — like in the word sure
  • /zh/ — like in the word usual

This is why it’s important for children to learn the connections between the letters of written language and the sounds of spoken language. Understanding that there are predictable relationships between sounds and letters allows children to apply these relationships to both new and familiar words and helps them become more fluent readers. 

So what is the best way to teach the alphabetic principle and connections between letters and sounds? This process can be best explained by Ehri’s phases of word reading

Alphabetic principle stages

Linnea Ehri, a professor of Educational Psychology, developed a four-phase model of how learners develop the ability to read. The phases include the pre-alphabetic, partial-alphabetic, full-alphabetic, and consolidated-alphabetic stages. 

Pre-alphabetic phase

The pre-alphabetic phase occurs prior to any alphabetic knowledge or letter-sound correspondence. While children may possess general print awareness, such as knowing how to hold a book properly and turn the pages, their understanding is made by visual cues or connections. For example, children might see the logo “Oreo” and associate it with the word cookies however, they aren’t actually reading the word. The meaning of the word is derived from experience, not from phonological awareness abilities such as being able to identify and manipulate speech sounds. 

Partial-alphabetic phase

The partial-alphabetic phase occurs when the reader is able to attempt to pronounce words based on some knowledge of alphabetic letters and sounds. Typically, a child will try to sound out the word or focus on the first and last letters to determine its pronunciation. Ehri used the term “phonetic cue reading” to characterize this stage of reading development. 

Full-alphabetic phase

The full-alphabetic phase is where “reading magic” starts to occur. Readers begin to match each letter in a word to its corresponding sound. As they start doing this more quickly, they start to identify “sight words” that they have seen several times and can read new words by blending the combined pronunciations of each individual letter.

Consolidated-alphabetic phase

During the consolidated-alphabetic phase, learners begin to use chunks of letters to form sounds, as opposed to identifying each individual phoneme. For example, instead of breaking down the word chunk into /ch/ > /u/ > /n/ > /k/, they can more quickly break the sounds of the word down as /ch/ and /unk/

How to teach the alphabetic principle

Helping learners strengthen their emergent literacy skills takes time and patience. But, as children begin to associate sounds with letters and letter clusters, they will become much more fluent readers and comprehend the meanings of texts more easily. 

Connect common sounds to letters

Once children know the letters of the alphabet, it’s important to help them connect each letter to its most common sound. Do not worry about irregular sounds at this stage, like “s” making a /z/ sound at the end of words. The goal is to help children make predictable connections between letters and sounds so they can begin to decipher new words and how to pronounce them.

Practice reading using sound knowledge

After children begin to develop a knowledge of letter sounds, they can start to blend the sounds together to read words. For example, children can blend the sounds /c/ /a/ /t together to read the word cat. At this stage, educators can also begin to reach uncommon letter sounds and rules, such as “t” and “h” making a /th/ sound or “e” and “a” making the /ee/ sound. Continuing to help children build on their letter-sound knowledge will help them decode words much more quickly over time. 

Incorporate texts with lots of decodable words

Reading easy books with a high percentage of decodable words while using the rules of the alphabetic principle is the best way for emergent readers to put their letter-sound knowledge to the test. As their fluency improves and the need for sound blending decreases, children can focus on understanding the meaning of the text. Chances are, there will be many “uncommon” word sounds in these texts, like was or of, making this a great time to teach these concepts and increase children’s performance of the alphabetic principle even further.

Letter-sound correspondence activities 

Teaching letter-sound correspondence can be challenging but also lots of fun. Here are a few activities that can make the process easier and more impactful.

Hang an alphabet chart

Alphabet charts are a great visual aid to help children make connections between letters, their sounds, and common words that contain each sound. For example, the letter Aa might be accompanied by a picture of an apple, while the letter Bb might have a ball. The key is to make sure that the pictures used for each letter represent the most common sounds for that letter. 

Break out the flashcards

Card drills offer quick and easy ways to build alphabet knowledge and letter-sound correspondence. You can provide flashcards with individual letters on them and show the children a few letters, like A, B, and C, and ask them what comes next. Or, you can spell out words with a single letter missing, like __at. Ask them what letter would make the word cat or hat and have them sound out the letters to fill in the blank.

Make a sound wall

To make a sound wall, hang pictures on the wall that show mouth shapes forming letter sounds. As children practice each sound, allow them to look into a small mirror as they form their mouth into the correct shape for the sound. 

Promote active learning

The alphabetic principle doesn’t have to be taught with books or flashcards. You can also incorporate other types of literacy activities like alphabet pillow jumping, where you write letters on pieces of paper or cards and attach them to pillows. Spread the pillows around the room and have the children jump from letter to letter. When they land on a letter, have them say its name and sound.

Sing songs and rhymes

Singing songs and rhymes are simple yet powerful pre-reading activities that build children’s memory, help them learn new vocabulary, and develop their language skills. The repetitive nature of most songs and rhymes also lay important groundwork for future reading as children practice their oral language skills. 


Teaching the alphabet is one of the first steps for introducing children to reading. Using the alphabetic principle as a guide and helping learners make connections between letters and their sounds is crucial for developing more fluent and engaged readers. As an educator, you want to be sure to incorporate fun activities with your preschoolers to build on their alphabet knowledge and letter-sound correspondence.

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