Breaking the Alphabet Code — The Key to Reading, Spelling, and Writing

Is your child struggling with spelling? Are there problems reading new words? Does writing seem to be next to impossible? Here’s how to break the code – literally.

Alphabets are symbolic representations of the sounds in a language. Over history many attempts have been made in various countries, at various times, to make symbols that represented whole words. It didn’t work. Interestingly, each time these systems reached around 2,000 word symbols the attempt was abandoned as too cumbersome. All languages have a much smaller set of sounds (called phonemes) than words. Successful alphabets have a symbol which corresponds to a distinct sound. These ‘rules of sound’ make the task of learning how to decode the symbols into the language easier. So why is English so difficult to spell? And why do people have difficulty reading and writing English?

Part of the problem arises because English is a living language which adopts words from other languages. In the process of bringing in new words (called transliteration), the ‘rules of sound’ are applied. Other languages use sounds which do not occur in English. So the transliteration must use a combination of symbols created to represent English sounds to approximate the sounds of the other language. This results in unusual and non-phonetic spellings. Additionally, much of the difficulty comes from the ways reading, spelling, and writing are taught. Many parents (and teachers) do not know how to teach a young child how to decode (read) and encode (write) the alphabet. Here are some insights, tips, and resources which will help.

Hear first, see later. Children are born with the ability to distinguish between fine variations of sound. Listening to the speakers around them is essential for developing their ability to understand the language being spoken. These first insights into language all come from sound – not sight. As the brain continues to develop and more of its parts are, literally, wired up, the capability for understanding abstract concepts begins to emerge. At around the age of four and a half, the child’s brain is ready to start connecting the sounds it has been processing to the symbols we use to read and write. Teaching needs to go from the known to the unknown. So, in the case of learning the alphabet, the need is to go from the sound to the symbolic representation we call a letter. Make the sound, and then show the letter. Only after the child knows the basic sounds associated with each letter should the letter combinations representing the rest of the phonemes be presented (i.e. /sh/ and /ch/).

Pronunciation is important. In the English language, spelling a word phonetically will often be correct or at least close enough for a reader to determine the intended word. Phonetic spelling requires clear pronunciation and a firm grip on the basic alphabetic code. Many of us are sloppy in our pronunciation and this adds to the confusion of a beginning speller. Say the word slowly and clearly. Have your child say the word back to you so you can be sure they are using the correct sounds. Then have them associate each sound with a letter or letter combination, as appropriate.

How to study spelling. When children are studying their vocabulary lists for their spelling lessons, have them follow the process described here.

a. Look at the word closely. Create a mind image of the word. The brain retains the image and will match it to what one writes down later. If it does not look right, it probably is not. This also means it is important to see the word spelled correctly. If your child spells the word incorrectly, make sure he sees the word’s correct spelling several times. As in any learning process, repetition is helpful.
b. Think about the word. If the word has syllables, examine each one carefully. Are the syllables spelled the way they sound? If not, what is different?
c. Cover the word. No peeking!
d. Write the word on another piece of paper. Does it look right? Are all the syllables there?
e. Check the spelling against the original. Are there any differences? If so, what is the correct letter sequence?

Latin, anyone? It is worth the effort to learn Latin and Greek roots, prefixes, and suffixes since these two languages are the primary foreign language contributors to the huge English vocabulary of roughly one million words.

Resources. Learning the spelling rules will help tremendously in using the alphabet. Here are three resources which can help you and your child. The “Spelling It Right” website is full of advice and exercises. The Scripps National Spelling Bee website has study tips, a “Dictionary of Prefixes, Suffixes, and Combining Forms”, and more. The Pilinut Press website offers articles, a chart of the basic alphabet code, and worksheets to improve spelling and other reading-related skills.

Your child can learn to read, spell, and write. You can help. Follow the tips above to give your child a solid foundation of literacy skills. Happy code breaking!

Other Articles of Interest

Visit our Reference Desk page for a complete listing of articles and worksheets.