Connecting Oral Language to Literacy: The Alphabetic Principle

Humans are born with minds and bodies equipped for learning oral language. Most of us are born with the ability to hear and the capacity to talk. It mostly just takes time for that capacity to mature. As soon as we’re born, our brains get busy building the connections that make it happen. Over time, we build a network of nerve connections that stores everything we need for listening and speaking.

But we need something else, too—our brains need something to work with. We have to interact with adults (and older children) who talk and use language in different ways. Without listening to their example, children will never learn language. We know this because, throughout history, a few children have actually grown up without any language in their environments.

Interestingly, any of us can learn any language as babies. Later on, nothing so complicated will ever be so easy to learn! But interaction with adult caregivers is crucial.

The process is pretty straightforward. When children make sounds and later begin to form words, adult caregivers should respond positively. Soon, the adults will start helping children recognize words and phrases.

For example, if adults hear a baby say “ba, ba, ba, ba,” they might give the baby a bottle. If the adults keep doing this, the baby will see a connection and say “ba-ba” to get milk in a bottle. Eventually the baby will use “ba-ba” to mean “give me a bottle.”

Whatever the language might be—English, Spanish, Chinese—the process works the same way naturally. And the steps—from recognizing words, to saying word-like sounds, to saying words clearly, and to using phrases and sentences—are the same for almost everyone. The process takes longer or follows a somewhat different pathway for some individuals, such as children who are born deaf or those (e.g., refugees) who do not have continuous exposure to the same language.

Spoken language is the foundation for reading and writing (that is, literacy). But humans aren’t hard-wired for reading or writing. As with learning oral language, however, most of us are born with another natural ability that helps us read: sight. Literacy in English relies on building a connection between the areas of the brain that process what we hear (spoken language) and the areas that process what we see (vision). This connection doesn’t develop naturally: These skills must be taught.

The English language is made up of 44 individual sounds or phonemes. Every word is a combination of these 44 sounds. But the English alphabet contains only 26 letters. These letters combine in hundreds of possible ways to produce the 44 phonemes we hear. For example, the “f” in “fun” represents the same sound as the “ph” in “phone” and even the “gh” in “enough.”

When we teach reading, we’re teaching the connection between what we see and what we hear. This is known as the alphabetic principle, or the concept that the letters on the page (what we see) are a code that corresponds to spoken language (what we hear).