What Is The Alphabetic Principle: Everything Parents Need To Know

by | May 28, 2022 | Core Skills

Why is the alphabetic principle so essential?

Multiple studies have shown the importance of early childhood reading in a child’s life. Kids who are read to gain greater general knowledge, become more fluent readers, and expand their vocabulary, to name a few.

But learning to read can often be a complicated process. So, how can you help your child develop this essential skill? You can use the alphabetic principle!

In this article, we’ll dive deep into what it is, some of its benefits, and how to help your child get started in learning this important foundation of reading and writing.

Table of Contents

What Is The Alphabetic Principle?

Mom teaching daughter alphabetic principle

It takes a lot for a child to fully grasp how to read and write, especially as they get older and are exposed to more unfamiliar and complex words.

But no matter how complicated a word can be, if children have a solid alphabetic principle foundation, they will be more likely to read or write words correctly.

In a nutshell, the alphabetic principle is about understanding that letters from the alphabet each have their own sounds, and these sounds help us form words.

In the simplest of terms, a child who understands this concept will know that the written letter “n,” although it’s pronounced on its own as “en,” actually makes a “nn” sound in words.

The alphabetic principle has two key components. Let’s take a look!

1) Alphabetic Understanding

Alphabetic understanding means that kids know that each word in the English language is made up of letters and that these letters represent the sounds of our speech.

Children with an understanding of the alphabet know each letter by sight. They can correctly identify letters by their shape and sound and are beginning to form each letter properly when they write.

2) Phonological Recoding

Phonological recoding is the process of using the systematic relationship between letters and letter-sounds (phonemes) to pronounce or spell unfamiliar words correctly.

While we’re on the subject of letters and the sounds associated with them, let’s talk about two important concepts: phonological awareness and phonemic awareness.

People often confuse the two but, although these concepts are interrelated, there is a notable difference between them.

Phonemic awareness — a subset of phonological awareness — refers to a child’s (or adult’s) ability to segment, blend, detect, and manipulate individual sounds from and in words.

On the other hand, phonological awareness is a bit broader, as it refers to an individual’s ability to both identify and manipulate units of sounds. Children with strong phonological awareness can rhyme, blend syllables into words, divide words into syllables, and more.

This skill of understanding letters, the sounds they make, how to form words with them, and how to manipulate these sounds is really the foundation of early childhood reading and writing.

And it all starts with the alphabetic principle!

Why Is The Alphabetic Principle Important?

Mom reading to young daughter

The alphabetic principle is an essential learning skill, especially for the English language.

For instance, in Chinese writing, the characters represent syllables as well as whole words or ideas. For the most part, ancient Egyptian writing used pictures to write their ideas.

Written English, though, relies on the alphabetic system. In English, there are 44 different sounds used to form every word we speak. Each sound is represented by a letter or combination of letters.

This is the heart of the alphabetic system. Without understanding and using the alphabetic system (or code), it is very difficult to read and write fluently.

What about learning words by heart so you can read them automatically? Well, this would be a rather challenging task, especially since there are currently over a million words in the English dictionary, and around 170,000 are in use.

Since memorization isn’t a reasonable option, helping kids understand the alphabetic principle is the best way to set them off on the right path to literacy success.

When children encounter words they don’t remember or have never seen in print before, they can succeed if they use the alphabetic code. When the code is automatic, children can gain fluency they need to not just say the words but to comprehend what they are reading.

When Is Your Child Ready To Tackle The Alphabetic Principle?

While each child develops at their own pace, here are a few signs that can help let you know that they are ready to start grasping the alphabetic principle:

  • They have begun learning some letters, and they want to learn more.
  • They know that words are made from sounds.
  • They begin to hear or isolate individual sounds in words.

The above are sure signs that your child can start learning this important concept. So, how can you help them get started?

7 Exercises For Teaching The Alphabetic Principle

Only after your child has learned some letters from the alphabet and the sounds associated with those letters will it be possible for them to start piecing together these letters to make meaning with them.

Here are a few exercises to help get them started on the right track.

1) Beginning Or End?

This game helps your child understand where they hear specific sounds in words.

What You’ll Need:

  • Clear sheet
  • Crayon or pen to draw with
  • Letter cards

What To Do:

To get started, create a board game by drawing two lines to make three different columns: first, middle, last (or beginning, middle, end).

Once these columns are complete, it’s time to play! In a nutshell, your child will need to indicate whether they hear certain sounds in the beginning or end of the word.

Here’s an example:

  • Where do you hear the sound “rrr” in “rabbit”?
  • Let’s say “rabbit” out loud together! (Sometimes it’s better for your child to sound out the words so that they can “feel” its sounds in their mouth.)
  • Your child can indicate on the board where they hear the “rrr” sound.
  • Yes! At the beginning!
  • What letter makes the “rrr” sound?
  • Yes! That’s “r.”
  • Now, let’s find “r” (from a group of different letters)
  • Great job! That’s an “r.”

2) Phonemic Awareness With Letters

Dad teaching young son about alphabetic principle

As highlighted above, phonemic awareness is the concept of identifying and manipulating individual sounds (phonemes) in words.

Manipulating these sounds includes stretching, blending, or changing the words completely.

For example, take the word “hat.” If the beginning of the word is changed to an “m,” then you will end up with a new word (mat) with a completely different meaning.

What You’ll Need:

What To Do:

Ask your child to choose the letter they hear at the beginning of a word.

For instance: “If I were reading the word ‘hat,’ which letter would you see at the beginning of that word?” If your child hears the /h/ sound, they would then pull out an “h.”

Once your child is successful with first sounds, try last sounds, which is harder but definitely important.

3) Swapping Letters

young girl playing with stickers to learn letters

This game picks up where the last one left off. As you play, you’ll help your child change one word into another by switching one letter at a time.

What You’ll Need:

  • Magnetic letters or letter cards

What To Do:

For this fun exercise, you can again use magnetic letters, letter cards, or anything else you may have around your home.

Start by spelling out a simple word such as “dog.” Then ask your child to change a letter from “dog” to form a new word.

For example, you can ask them to change one letter in “dog” to form “fog.” They would then have to understand that the change needs to happen at the beginning of the word, and it would require swapping out “d” with “f.”

Here are a few other letter swaps you can have them make by changing the initial letter:

  • Car to jar
  • Rat to cat
  • Nap to lap
  • Hot to not
  • Peg to leg

Once your child has this game figured out, you can adapt it slightly. Instead of asking them to switch the first letter, have them make a new word by swapping the final letter of the word.

Here are some you can use to get started:

  • Bed to beg
  • Mop to mom
  • Man to mat
  • Sit to sip
  • Wag to wax

Feel free to mix things up a bit. Alternate between which letter your child needs to change (the middle sounds, for instance). That way, you can make sure they’re learning to identify which sound is getting changed.

4) Alphabet Race

Familiarity with the alphabet is a crucial part of the alphabetic principle. Therefore, this game encourages your child to find each letter as quickly as possible.

What You’ll Need:

  • 10 index cards
  • A marker

What To Do:

In large printing, write a single letter of the alphabet on each card — five uppercase and five with the lowercase version of the same letters.

When the cards are ready, Hide the lowercase letters and hand your child one uppercase letter at a time to find the match. Don’t put them in order. Instead, mix the letters up a bit and place them randomly.

When they have a match, they win the cards but only if they can say the sound associated with the letter. if not, you re-hide the lowercase letter. When all cards are “owned” by your child, they win!

If you notice your child getting stuck locating a specific letter, make a note. Then, later, you can do some letter identification work on that letter.

On the other hand, if the game is fun and easy for your child, increase it to seven letters, and then 10, and so on.

5) Costume Letters

It might not always look the same when you see a letter in a book or on a computer. For instance, the lowercase “g” can look just like a printed one. However, changing the font makes the letter appear dramatically different, almost like a weird number 8.

While you’ve learned to recognize the “g” no matter how it looks, your child probably hasn’t. That’s where this fun game comes in.

What You’ll Need:

A computer with a word processing program with multiple fonts
A printer (optional)

What To Do:

Tell your child that sometimes letters look like they’re wearing costumes. This makes them harder to recognize, so they will have to look carefully to figure out which letter is which.

Open a new document in your word processing program. Set your font to “Arial.” Then, type a lowercase “g.” Ask your child what letter it is. when you type each variation of a letter, challenge your child — and yourself — to come up with a word that begins with that letter’s sound.

If they identify it correctly, tell them to close their eyes for a second while the “g” puts on a costume. Then, switch the font to “Times New Roman.”

Ask your child to open their eyes and look at the “g” now. Have them point out the differences they notice. For instance, the bottom loop is now closed.

For better comparison, type another “g” so you have one in each font. Your child can now see them side by side.

Next, erase the two letters and type in a lowercase “a.” Change your font to “Comic Sans.” This takes away the top curve on the letter. Ask your child to identify the letter. Then, change to “Arial” or “Times New Roman” and add another one.

Have your child compare the two letters to see what they notice. In addition, when you type each variation of a letter, challenge your child to come up with a word that begins with that letter’s sound so you can work on the sound/symbol connection as well.

To expand this activity, you can move it offline. As you’re reading, point out letters that look different in one book compared to another. Ask your child to be a detective and look through a stack of books to try to find differences.

Being able to recognize letters in any font is an important skill so your child doesn’t stumble when reading a book where the letters look slightly different.

6) Beginning Sound Matching

Kid learning Beginning Sound Matching

When your child plays this game, they learn about the connection between spoken sounds and written letters. This awareness can help them crack the code and understand the alphabetic principle.

What You’ll Need:

  • Your letter cards from a previous game
  • Small objects that begin with different letters (use what you have – see ideas below)

What To Do

Each time you play this game, you can focus on different letters.

The first time you play, start with the letters “m” and “s.” These two sounds are distinct from each other and easier for beginners.

Pull out your “M” letter card and your “S” one. Set them a bit apart from each other on the table. Then, set out some objects that begin with either letter. You want to pick items your child is familiar with so they don’t have to try to identify new things while playing.

You can use whatever you have in your home, making each game different. Here are a few ideas for each letter to help you brainstorm others:

  • Marshmallow
  • Measuring cup
  • Mouse (either from a computer or a toy one)
  • Magnet
  • Mirror (a small one from a compact or something similar)
  • Spoon
  • Sock
  • Spaghetti noodle
  • Stamp
  • Soap

Once you have about five objects for each letter, spread them out in front of you. Then, ask your child to pick one up. Have them say the name of the object.

Next, point to the letter cards. Ask your child, “Does this start with “mmmm” or “ssss?” Emphasize the sounds to help them hear the differences.

If your child knows which letter the object starts with, have them set the item down underneath the letter card. Then, move on to another item.

If your child is having trouble, offer assistance. Repeat the name of the item they’re holding and emphasize the first sound. For example, say, “Did you hear an ‘m’ or an ‘s?’”

Continue playing until your child has sorted all the objects.

Choose different letters the next time you play. As your child gets better, you can also move on to sorting by ending sounds.

7) What Word Am I Saying?

This game lets your child practice blending letters and segmenting words. Since it doesn’t require any materials, it’s the perfect game to play while in the car or a waiting room. You can practice the alphabetic principle on the go!

What You’ll Need:

  • Nothing!

What To Do

Ask your child to listen as you say some sounds. Then, have them tell you what word you were trying to say.

Here’s an example: “Mmmmm, aaaaaaaa, ttttttt” = mat

You want to stretch each letter sound as you say it so your child can hear it clearly. If they’re having trouble, repeat the word more slowly. This gives their brain a chance to process what they’re hearing.

Once they’re getting most of your words correct, ask them to segment words of their own for you to guess. This gives them the chance to practice segmenting words into different sounds.

Note: Some kids pick this skill up right away, but others require more practice. Don’t worry if your child doesn’t get it at first. Just keep practicing and playing when you have a few moments. The repetition will help.

Other Tips To Practice The Alphabetic Principle

In addition to the above activities, what else can you do to help your child develop the alphabetic principle? Here are some ideas!

1) Read To Your Child Every Day

Mom reading to child in a fort

As parents, we already understand the importance of reading to our kids from an early age. But research has highlighted the incredible benefits of reading every day, not just occasionally.

While reading to your child, remember to highlight new words that they may be unfamiliar with. Say them out loud and enunciate them so that your child will familiarize themselves with the word’s letters and the sounds associated with them.

2) Sing The Alphabet Song

How can your child learn to read and write without knowing the alphabet? Help them grasp all 26 letters in a fun and engaging way, like singing the alphabet song!

This can be especially great for younger children as you begin introducing them to different letters.

To get your child moving, have them sing the alphabet slowly while trying to make their body into the letter shapes. How many can they do? For added fun, wiggle your body into the different letters with them!

3) Teach Your Child Both Uppercase And Lowercase Letters

Young girl using a chalkboard to write letters

As mentioned earlier, letters don’t always look the same. If your child only learns “e” when it’s written in lowercase, it will be a little confusing for them when they learn to write to understand why “e” now looks like “E.”

Expose your child to both uppercase and lowercase letters so they understand that, while the two symbols may look different, they are actually the same letter.

To help with this, you can create another set of alphabet cards on index cards. If you used uppercase letters last time, make this set lowercase. Then, you can play matching games with the two sets.

You can also have your child use the HOMER Learn & Grow app. As they play engaging games, they’ll be exposed to the alphabet and learn to recognize capital letters.

Master The Alphabetic Principle One Day At A Time

Mom reading to young daughter

Reading can be a complicated process for young learners, especially in the beginning! All those letters, the sounds they make, and how the same letters can sound different (e.g., “c” sounds different in “cake” and “dice”) can be confusing.

Remember to be patient with your child as they try to make sense of all this. Start with a few letters and build from there. You can also use HOMER’s Explore Letters Kit to help make this process both educational and enjoyable for you both!

Finally, remember to have fun, be lighthearted, and animate your facial expressions as you enunciate the different words.

Soon, your child will grasp the alphabetic principle and be on the right track to early childhood reading and writing success!


  • Begin Learning Team

    Parents hear so much noise about what matters–it’s hard to know where to begin. That’s where we come in. We are early learning experts & PhDs helping you focus on what matters most for your child.

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Begin Learning Team
Begin Learning Team

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Parents hear so much noise about what matters–it’s hard to know where to begin. That’s where we come in. We are early learning experts & PhDs helping you focus on what matters most for your child.