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The alphabetic principle is the understanding that letters are used to represent speech sounds and that there are systematic and predictable relationships between written letters and spoken words. The alphabetic principle is the foundation of any alphabetic writing system, which is the most common type of writing system in use today.

In an (almost) perfectly phonological alphabet like the avestic, vedic and sanskrit one (Devanāgarī/Abugida, see also Vyakarana), there is a single letter for each individual speech sound and a one-to-one correspondence between sounds and the letters that represent them. Such languages have a straight-forward spelling system, enabling a writer to predict the spelling of a word given its pronunciation and a reader to predict the pronunciation of a word given its spelling.

Most alphabetic writing systems are imperfectly phonological and diverge from that ideal to a greater or lesser extent, often because they use alphabets borrowed from other languages. The spelling systems for some languages, such as Spanish, are relatively simple because they adhere closely to the ideal one-to-one correspondence between sounds and the letter patterns that represent them. For example, in standard Castilian Spanish the letter u always represents the sound /u/. In English the spelling systems are more complex and vary considerably in the degree to which they follow the stated pattern. This is mainly due to the (historical) "readiness" of English to adopt vocabulary from several languages and the failure of English writing conventions to adapt to the long-term changes in pronunciation that is typical for all languages.

The alphabetic principle does not underlie logographic writing systems like Chinese or syllabic writing systems such as Japanese kana.

English orthography

Main article: English orthography

In English, spelling patterns usually follow certain conventions but nearly every sound can be legitimately spelled with different letters or letter combinations. [1] For example, the letters ee almost always represent /i/, but the sound can also be represented by the letter y. Similarly, the letter cluster ough represents /ʌf/ as in enough, /oʊ/ as in though, /u/ as in through, /ɔf/ as in cough, and /æɔ/ as in bough.

English orthography is based on the alphabetic principle, but the acquisition of sounds and spellings from a variety of languages has made English spelling patterns appear to be arbitrary. For example, the sound /i/ is represented by nine relatively common graphemes (listed here in approximate order of frequency):

  • e as in meter
  • ee as in meet
  • ea as in meat
  • e_e as in athlete
  • y as in silly
  • ie as in believe
  • ei as in receive
  • ey as in turkey
  • i as in piano

Other examples of English’s famously complex alphabet abound, as in the following poem, often reprinted and anonymously written: [2]

I take it you already know,
Of tough and bough and cough and dough.
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps.

Beware of heard, a dreadful word,
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead - it’s said like bed, not bead,
For goodness’ sake, don’t call it ‘deed’!
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose –
Just look them up – and goose and choose.
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword.

And do and go and thwart and cart –
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!

A dreadful language? Why man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five.

Examples like these are held up by laymen as evidence that the alphabetic principle does not really work in English any more. Linguists argue that while there are, no doubt, some non-alphabetic elements to the language, the principle is very much at work in English. The argument about the value of the alphabetic principle is very closely connected with the argument about the value of teaching phonics to children when they are learning to read.

Role of the alphabetic principle in beginning reading

See also: Phonics

Decades of research has resulted in converging evidence that learning the connection between the sounds of speech and print is a critical prerequisite to effective word identification. Understanding that there is a direct relationship between letters and sounds enables a reader to retrieve the pronunciation of an unknown word and associate it with a spoken word. Printed words in a child's vocabulary can be identified by sounding them out. Understanding the relationship of letters and sounds is also the foundation of learning to spell. [3]

Proponents of phonics, a method for teaching one aspect of beginning reading, argue that this relationship needs to be taught explicitly and learned to automaticity to facilitate rapid word recognition upon which comprehension depends. Proponents of whole language approaches argue that reading should be taught holistically, and that children naturally intuit the relationship between letters and sounds. Focus on individual letters and sounds should be taught to be used only as a last resort, and that any phonics instruction given should be embedded within a holistic approach, that is to say, through mini-lessons in the context of authentic reading and writing tasks.

In Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, renowned researcher Marilyn Jager Adams asserts that the preponderance of evidence demonstrates the importance of learning sound-letter correspondence systematically. However, she hastens to caution all educators and parents that necessary is not the same as sufficient. However critical learning letter-sound correspondence is to beginning reading, it is not enough. Children require much more to become skillful readers. She states that proficient readers also must learn basic concepts about print, phonological awareness, the visual identities of individual letters, to spell, automatic word recognition, vocabulary, and understanding the syntactic and semantic relationships among words in order to achieve reading comprehension. Jager asserts, however, that because of the complexity of constructing meaning from the interaction of words and phrases in print, any hesitation in recognizing a single word causes comprehension to be forfeited. Automatic and speedy word recognition, she asserts, is an essential skill for reading comprehension, and word recognition depends on the reader's knowledge of, and fluency with, letter-to-sound translation and common syllable spelling patterns. [4]


  1. Wren, Sebastian. Exception Words, Southwest Educational Development Laboratory. Retrieved from, September 30, 2007.
  2. From a letter published in the London Sunday Times in 1965, cited by Chomsky (1970). The author was only listed by T.S.W.
  3. Juel, C. (1991). Beginning reading. In R. Barr, M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, & P. D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (pp. 759-788). New York: Longman.
  4. Adams, Marilyn Jager (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, MIT Press.

See also

  • Alphabet
  • English orthography
  • Italian spellingItalian is a well-known example of a language with a spelling that is frequently updated to keep following the alphabetic principle
  • Phonemic orthography
  • Phonetic spelling
  • Phonics
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