The alphabetic principle states that there are individual letters, or combinations of letters, to represent all of the regular sounds of speech. Under it, the patterns are predictable so that a native speaker of the language can read or speak words that are otherwise unfamiliar to him. The alphabetic principle is the basis for the written words of many languages, including English.
The system of writing with alphabets has been in place since ancient times. Latin and Sanskrit are among some of the most well-known dead languages to use the alphabetic principle for writing. Modern English uses the Latin alphabet, which was created by the Romans and designed specifically for use with the Latin language. It was later adapted to suit the Romantic and other European languages.
A language's orthography is the set of rules to follow when putting together written words and pronunciations. Some languages have a singular orthography, which means that there is only one sound for each letter of the alphabet. English has a more complex system, and requires many letters to have several possible pronunciations based on the combinations of letters around them. These complications arise from a combination of factors, including "leftover" letters in words from time-altered pronunciations; the adoption of foreign language words without spelling alterations; and the fact that there are 40 possible sounds within the language and only 26 letters to express them.
The alphabetic principle is discussed most frequently in relation to early reading instruction. Phonics teaches children to recognize the relationships between letters and sounds. Repetition, consistency, and a solid plan are essential for teaching children to work within an alphabetic system with ease.
Debates are ongoing over the most effective ways to use the alphabetic principle when teaching children to read, as the field of reading education expands and is studied. The majority of reading specialists would agree that it is most effective to begin by introducing children to those letters and sounds that are the least confusing, and have the highest rate of regular usage. Letters such as "m," "s," "t," "f," "n," and "r" are among those studied first. They are high-usage letters that can often be pronounced in isolation and without much distortion.
Once children are comfortable with the simpler letters, more complex letters and combinations can be introduced without confusing the students. Visually difficult letters like "d," "p," and "b" typically come next. Among those that come later are letters like "x," and combinations like "th," "sh," and "gh."