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The Alphabetic Principle: Key Step to Reading


Learning to read progresses in a set of steps that is fairly predictable. One of the earliest steps, establishing phonemic awareness, comes from the child listening to and producing sounds and sound patterns that are associated with the roughly 44 phonemes contained in the English language. As mentioned in an earlier post, reading to children is of high importance in order to establish phonemic awareness; a skill that, like all things, is very easy for some kids and quite challenging for others.

The next major step following the development of phonemic awareness is developing what is called the alphabetic principle. The alphabetic principle is the idea that letters (and later, letter patterns) represent spoken sounds and sound patterns (i.e., phonemes), called graphemes, than can be used to decipher and produce meaning (read and write). When kids learn that there is a predictable pattern between the written letters and spoken sounds, early reading begins.

Phonics then, which is often confused with phonemic awareness, is the direct instruction to try to facilitate, or help along, the learning of the correspondence of the visual letters and letter combinations with the spoken sounds those letters and letter patterns make. Whew…that’s a mouthful, but essentially, phonics instruction attempts to bridge the gap between the child developing phonemic awareness and learning the alphabetic principle.

Kids who have difficulties learning to read are often bogged down somewhere in this process. And kids who have significant difficulties in this area may have dyslexia.

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