Learners who have grasped the alphabetic principle understand that spoken words consist of sounds and that sounds are represented in written text as letters. To reach this understanding, a level of phonemic awareness is necessary (see phonological awareness). The alphabetic principle is sometimes referred to as the ‘cornerstone’ on which decoding (sounding out words) is built.
To become a proficient reader, the learner must learn how to ‘crack the code’ (decode). Learning to decode relies on the learner’s ability to match letters to sounds, so it is essential to learn common letter–sound relationships.
For example, to decode the word bed, learners need to know that the written letter b makes a /b/ sound,e makes an /e/ sound and d makes a /d/ sound. For learners, knowing letter–sound relationships is not always helpful; words such as cough, one, come and have need to be learnt as sight words, or worked out by analogy (likening the new word to one the learner knows already) if the learner knows other, similar words. As an example, learners who know the word sight can use this knowledge when they come across the unknown word bright.
A learner who is unable to recognise the different letters of the alphabet will have difficulty in learning the sounds that the letters represent.39 It is difficult for learners to understand that words consist of a sequence of letters until learners know the names of letters.
To acquire this knowledge, learners need to be able to explain the differences between letters, for example, to know and explain what makes the letter h and the letter b different, or how b is different to p.
Learners have to be able to recognise letters in different forms, for example, in upper and lower cases, in different fonts, sizes and spacing (see also ‘Letter formation').