Phonics Instruction and the Alphabetic Principle

Phonics instruction is a method of literacy teaching that helps children understand that words are made up of letters, and that letters represent sounds.  This is the alphabetic principle – the understanding that there are systematic and predictable relationships between written letters and spoken sounds.

To master the alphabetic principle, readers need phonological awareness – the ability to notice, think about, and manipulate the individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. Phonics instruction develops phonological awareness and consequently helps children learn the relationships between the letters of written language and the sounds of spoken language. It links oral language with reading, writing, and spelling.

Whole-Word Teaching, Phonics Instruction, and Decoding

Despite comments in the media and the reported trend toward ‘whole-word’ or ‘whole-language’ teaching in recent years, most teachers know that phonics instruction and decoding strategies are still essential tools for literacy learning – especially for struggling young readers. ‘Whole-language’ teaching, on its own, is not enough to help most young literacy learners.

Spelling is usually more problematic for students than reading because there are numerous options for spelling a word. On the other hand, if a student can spell a word, it is virtually guaranteed that they can read it.

If students lack the ability to hear that words are made up of parts, they will not make that connection when they spell words. This will lead students to spell using only ‘whole-word’/whole-language’ strategies (trying to remember the words they encounter, or guessing by using picture clues) instead of understanding the fundamentals of the spelling patterns that form these words. If students rely on memorization alone, they must memorize every new word they meet.  Whereas, if they have a knowledge of phonics and develop phonological awareness, they will be able to spell new words more readily and automatically. If they can recognize previously encountered whole words too, that is a bonus.

Structured Literacy Teaching and the Better Start Literacy Approach.

A phonics-based approach is a now key part of Structured Literacy Teaching and integral to the Better Start Literacy Approach (BSLA) as advocated by The New Zealand Ministry of Education.  “BSLA focuses on the link between spoken and written language, systematically supporting children’s phonological and phonic awareness, letter-sound knowledge and oral language.” (

One New Zealand school describes clearly how BSLA and Structured Literacy Teaching provide solid foundations for their students’ literacy success “We start off with looking at phonological awareness and that gives us our broad skills for identifying and manipulating units of oral language. Then we work through the alphabetic principle, and that’s understanding direct letter to sound correspondence – spelling patterns and irregular spelling patterns. Then we go through to fluency and onto vocabulary and comprehension.” (By Education Gazette editors ISSUE: VOLUME 101, NUMBER 3)

How do Learn to Spell Resources support BSLA and a Phonics Based Approach?

The ‘Practise with Puzzles – Phonics and Spelling’ series is a ready-made resource for busy educators that can support Phonics instruction and Structured Literacy Teaching. The seven books (Bk R, through to Bk6) reflect the progressive spelling requirements of students aged 4 to 11+. With ample practice material, Practise with Puzzles books provide an ideal mixture of fun puzzle activities to consolidate and support phonics, word-building, spelling and vocabulary. The exercises and examples in the series are also carefully designed to build and reinforce understanding of spelling rules and patterns.

In addition, the four ‘Cross Spell Crosswords – Phonics and Spelling’ books effectively complement ‘Practise with Puzzles – Phonics and Spelling’.  The Cross Spell puzzles also support a phonics based approach by providing additional fun ways to practise, and improve spelling whilst extending vocabulary too.  

Across the eleven books, in the two series, tasks with graded difficulty-levels enable differentiated teaching and learning. Consequently, both series can be used flexibly (for learning support or extension) with students of different ages within and beyond primary school – including adult learners.