Teaching the Alphabetic Principle – Avoid These 5 Big Mistakes

Text says: Teaching the Alphabetic Principle - Avoid These 5 Mistakes, with an image of an array of letter magnets.

Are you confident about teaching alphabetic principle? It’s the foundation to learning how to read and write. Students must understand the alphabetic principle in order to decode and solve words. Read this blog post to set your students up for success!

What does teaching the alphabetic principle include?

The alphabetic principle is the understanding that the sounds in our spoken language are represented by specific letters. In other words, the letters we use in our written language connect to the sounds in our speech.

The alphabetic principle incorporates:

  • Phonemic Awareness: the ability to hear and identify the individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. As students develop phonemic awareness skills, they can segment, blend, and manipulate the sounds in words.
  • Alphabetic Understanding: the understanding that the written letters represent the sounds in words. Sometimes sounds are represented by one letter (such as /b/ = b); other sound are represented by specific letter combinations (such as /sh/ = sh or /ī/ = igh)

These understandings are necessary in order to develop phonics skills – the ability to apply the connections between written letters and sounds in order to read and spell words.

Now that you are familiar with what it is, let’s talk about mistakes teachers make when teaching students about the alphabetic principle.

Mistake #1: Neglecting Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness (PA) is the ability to hear and manipulate the individual sounds in words.

Blending and segmenting are two key phonemic awareness skills. 

Blending is the ability to hear the sounds from words and blend them together. 

For instance, the ability to blend the sounds /f/ /i/ /sh/ together to make the word fish. As you might guess, blending helps readers “sound out” words.

Segmenting refers to the ability to break a word into its sounds. 

For example, after hearing “rug,” breaking it into the sounds /r/ /u/ /g/. This skill is closely linked to being able spell words.

If you notice students struggling to read or write words with 2-4 sounds, check to see how they do with segmenting and blending orally (when you say the sounds/word). That might be the hold-up!

One fun game to practice blending is “Guess My Word.” Say the sounds in a word, and encourage students to figure out the word by blending the sounds together. Act amazed when they figure it out!

Practice segmenting by playing “Robot Talk.” Name a word and have students break the word into parts, talking like a robot. If you told them the word “can,” they would say /c/ /a/ /n/ (the sounds, not letter names).

Make it easier: 

  • break words into the first sound (onset) and the rest (rime) – ex: /f/ – ish
  • break compound words into parts – ex: cup-cake, rain-bow

These tasks allow students to practice using larger word parts, which are easier for beginners to hear than each isolated sound.

Take it up a notch:

Once kids can segment and blend short words in isolation, start pulling in letters. Phonemic awareness develops more rapidly when it is connected to the visual component of letters.

You can do this with a white board or letter magnets. Show students a word, help them say the sounds for the word, then blend it together to read the word. Blending in action!

Find more phonemic awareness activities in this blog post.

Mistake #2: Overemphasizing Letter Names

Letters are a key part of teaching the alphabetic principle – they are what makes up the alphabet, after all!

But, this one is a bit tricky. There’s a lot of research about the role of rapid naming, using letter names, as a predictor for reading success. But, it’s letter sounds that help with reading.

So, it’s critical that students learn letter sounds, not just names.

And, in kindergarten, it’s essential that they learn letter names AND sounds quickly and efficiently.

Long ago, kindergarten teachers often taught students the letter of the week, allowing them to introduce all letters by the end of the year. 

But, more recent research shows that teaching 3-5 letters per week is more effective.

Twitter image from Heidi Anne Mesmer that emphasizes the importance of teaching 3-5 letters/week in kindergarten.

Photo: Heidi Anne Mesmer, posted on X (formerly Twitter)

And, that includes introducing the letter sounds alongside the letter names.

One way to do this is to introduce a key word with each letter name. Introduce the letter name, the word, and the sound. 

So you would show the letter card and chant A (name) – apple – /a/ (sound). This helps students link the letter name and sound with an image/item. 

Plus, they can practice the phonemic awareness skill of segmenting the first sound of the word (a pre-cursor for segmenting the full word.)

Mistake #3: Focusing on Letters in Isolation

It’s easy to fall into the habit of focusing solely on the letters – that’s a lot to learn!

But, why do we want kids to learn letters (and their related sounds)? To read and write!

So, we need to help kids see that connection. 

How do you do that? By connecting letters and sounds to actual reading and writing.

Engage students in some interactive writing activities, where you work together to write a sentence. This helps kids see WHY you have been teaching the alphabetic principle – there’s an actual application!

As for connecting letters to reading, here are a few ideas:

  • connect your letter learning to students’ names
  • once students know some letter sounds and can blend, have them read some words in isolation (this is why the letters s, a, t, p, i, n are frequently introduced early – lots of word possibilities)
  • Combine short CVC words to create short, meaningful sentences, such as Tim sat. or Max ran.

Sometimes children need to know the purpose of what they are learning, before it starts to click. This purpose (actual reading and writing) can increase motivation and engagement, which impact learning.

Mistake #4: Misusing Decodable Texts

Decodable texts are recommended for beginning readers, but they have their limitations, just like any other text.

First, be sure that your decodable texts match the phonics skills your students have learned or are currently practicing. If your students only know the short vowel sounds for a and i, provide them with a book containing only those vowel patterns.

It’s helpful to think of the decodable book as they way to practice and apply your phonics lesson.

However, just because decodable texts are best for very beginning readers, it doesn’t mean students should only read decodable texts. 

Decodable texts can be laborious for students to read. 

Plus, some of them sound like nonsense.

While we don’t want students to think that reading is simply memorizing a text pattern, we also don’t want them thinking that reading is drudgery – or meaningless.

So be sure to incorporate some other texts to work on print concepts, high frequency words, and focus on meaning.

And remember that it is important to transition students to other texts, in the same way you transition a child away from training wheels when riding a bike.

See this blog post for more tips about using decodable books with beginning readers.

Mistake #5: Lack of Differentiation

We all know students knowledge of skills vary. And that curriculum often assumes that all students know the same things.

How can you differentiate when teaching the alphabetic principle?

Like any differentiation, assess what students know. Blending and segmenting. Letters. Sounds. CVC words. More advanced words. (This will vary by grade.)

Check both reading and spelling.

Find which skills most students have under control. (Maybe most kids know the letters and sounds for s, a, x, o, t, m, p, b. Or maybe most can read and write CVC words with /a/, /o/ and /i/.)

Then, look at your scope and sequence. Skip those lessons with your whole group instruction. Start with the skills/patterns that most of your students need next.

Be sure to build in some review on the known skills. Sometimes “known” is only partially known. Sometimes it’s thrown off by new learning. (I’m looking at you, short vowels!)

Next, find your students who need more support than the rest of the class. 

Provide that support during a brief small group lesson at a different time in the day, in addition to the whole group instruction.

Focus the differentiated instruction on precisely the skills they are missing. You can even use your whole group curriculum and just back up to the appropriate spot.

Do the same with your students who need a challenge.

But remember to keep it manageable for you. Even some small group differentiation a few times a week can make a difference.

Final Thoughts

Whew!

That was a lot to take in. As a reminder, these are 5 big mistakes to avoid when teaching the alphabetic principle:

  • Neglecting phonemic awareness
  • Overemphasizing letter names
  • Focusing on letters in isolation
  • Misusing decodable texts
  • Failing to differentiate

It’s a tall order. But, an important one.

When teaching little ones to read, we want to get it right. Reading is the foundation of future success – in school and beyond.

Want to learn more about beginning reading instruction?

Check out these blog posts:

Text says: The Alphabetic Principle - Avoid These 5 Big Mistakes, with an image of an array of letter magnets.

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