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According to the alphabetic principle, letters and combinations of letters are the symbols used to represent the speech sounds of a language based on systematic and predictable relationships between written letters, symbols, and spoken words. The alphabetic principle is the foundation of any alphabetic writing system (such as English), which is one of the more common types of writing systems in use today.
Alphabetic writing systems that use an (in practice) almost perfectly phonemic orthography have a single letter for each individual speech sound and a one-to-one correspondence between sounds and the letters that represent them. Such systems are used, for example, in the modern languages Estonian, Finnish, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian and Turkish. Such languages have a straightforward spelling system, enabling a writer to predict the spelling of a word given its pronunciation and similarly enabling a reader to predict the pronunciation of a word given its spelling. Ancient languages with such almost perfectly phonemic writing systems include Avestic, Latin, Tamil, Vedic, and Sanskrit (Devanāgarī/Abugida, see also Vyakarana). On the other hand, French and English have a strong difference between sounds and symbols.
The alphabetic principle does not underlie logographic writing systems like Chinese or syllabic writing systems such as Japanese kana. Korean, along with Chinese and Japanese is a member of the CJK group and shares origins for many of the symbols, with South Korean people even regularly using Chinese characters for numerals. Whilst it appears to outsiders to be logographic, as Chinese or Japanese is, it is actually strongly alphabetic.
Most orthographies that use the Latin writing system are imperfectly phonological and diverge from that ideal to a greater or lesser extent. This is because the ancient Romans designed the alphabet specifically for Latin. In the Middle Ages, it was adapted to the Romance languages, the direct descendants of Latin, as well as to the Celtic, Germanic, Baltic, and some Slavic languages, and finally to most of the languages of Europe.
English Language is based on the alphabetic principle, but the acquisition of sounds and spellings from a variety of languages has made English spelling patterns confusing. Spelling patterns usually follow certain conventions but nearly every sound can be legitimately spelled with different letters or letter combinations. For example, the letters ee almost always represent /i/, but the sound can also be represented by the letter y.
The spelling systems for some languages, such as Spanish, are relatively simple because they adhere closely to the ideal one-to-one correspondence between sounds and the letter patterns that represent them. For example, in standard Castilian Spanish the letter u always represents the sound /u/. In English the spelling system is more complex and varies considerably in the degree to which it follows the stated pattern. There are several reasons for this, including: first, the alphabet has 26 letters, but the English language has 40 sounds that must be reflected in word spellings; second, English spelling began to be standardized in the 15th century, and most spellings have not been revised to reflect the long-term changes in pronunciation that are typical for all languages; and third, English frequently adopts foreign words without changing the spelling of those words.
Decades of research has resulted in converging evidence that learning the connection between the sounds of speech and print is a critical prerequisite to effective word identification. Understanding that there is a direct relationship between letters and sounds enables a reader to retrieve the pronunciation of an unknown word and associate it with a spoken word. Printed words in a child's vocabulary can be identified by sounding them out. Understanding the relationship of letters and sounds is also the foundation of learning to spell.
Two contrasting beliefs for teaching this aspect of beginning reading exist. Proponents of phonics argue that this relationship needs to be taught explicitly and learned to automaticity in order to facilitate rapid word recognition upon which comprehension depends. Proponents of whole language approaches argue that reading should be taught holistically, and that children naturally intuit the relationship between letters and sounds. Focus on individual letters and sounds should be taught to be used only as a last resort, and that any phonics instruction given should be embedded within a holistic approach, that is to say, through mini-lessons in the context of authentic reading and writing tasks.
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