Why the Alphabet Is So Much More Than A, B, C

It’s Dyslexia Awareness Month and the perfect time to consider why the alphabet is so much more than A, B, C. Each October, Dyslexia Awareness Month generates awareness about the 1 in 5 people who have difficulty decoding words because of a challenge at the most basic level in connecting sounds to letters and then mapping those words to print.

Learning to read is a complicated process, and the first step toward understanding where we’ve taken a wrong turn is to look at the alphabet. Here’s why it’s worth a second look.

The alphabet is a series of symbols or letters that work together to create words. The words work together to form sentences. That’s how most of us learn to read—me included. Why this process sets us down a squirrely path is because we take the alphabet at face value with minimal thought to the many sounds and patterns that work together to form words. The alphabet becomes nothing more than the alphabet song that we all learned when we were starting to read.

an image of the text from the Dick and Jane books
Is there more to Dick and Jane than just whole words?

We’re Reading and Guessing!

Once we get the letters down and have some basic sense of how they dance around and create words we’re off and running. If we’re not sure of a word, we guess. In theory, we’re reading! It’s like jumping out of a nest or as Nike says, “Just do it!” It works for some of us, but for many people, it makes no sense at all.

The reason for the confusion is that not all of us learn to read so quickly. For many readers, especially kids with dyslexia, teaching the alphabet and providing a bit of history on the letter and pronunciation means nothing. Words don’t rhyme, and a struggling reader may not be able to recognize that the first sound in cat is /c/.

Without connecting letters to sounds, kids with dyslexia won’t make it out of the nest, and the result is that reading becomes a complicated, frustrating, and painful process that prevents brilliant kids from meeting their potentials. Many recent reports, specifically the American Public Media report entitled “Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read?” explain how kids can be successful when they are taught to read in a way that is backed up with science rather than playing a guessing game. The good news is that if we start to go back to A, B, C, and look at the alphabet as letters filled with sounds and patterns we have solutions.

Turn Up the Volume

At the start of our journey, I expected that the reading specialist and special education teachers would know what to do so that our daughter could learn to read. I didn’t think to ask the teachers about sounds/phonemic awareness, phonological awareness—or even if any of the teachers knew how many phonemes there are. I didn’t know.

Despite an induction into Sigma Tau Theta, The International English Honor Society and a career in publishing, unbeknownst to me, I didn’t understand the alphabet, and I had never even heard of phonemes. I may have analyzed Shakespeare in old English, and DH Lawrence as he relates to the English Romantics, but I had never thought about how we learn to read or the sounds that each letter or letter combination made. I took the alphabet at face value.

Letters are Nothing Alone

To look at the alphabet correctly, we need to understand that letters are not in charge. If we don’t realize what letters are supposed to symbolize, then they have no meaning except as interesting shapes. Sounds are what it’s all about. There may be 26 letters, but the letters create approximately 44 sounds or phonemes as they are known. The phonemes are the lifeblood of the alphabet, and whether individually or coupled with a friend or foe, known as a digraph, they tell us how to pronounce the tiniest piece of a word part. Who knew!

For people who are dyslexic, understanding how these tiny sounds connect to letters, and letters connect to words, and words connect to print is an ongoing challenge. Connecting letters to sounds, and then mapping them to print even affects people who read Braille! People with dyslexia or language disabilities need multi-sensory, structured and explicit instruction on phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, and it starts with re-evaluating the way we perceive the alphabet.

In her book “Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at any Level,” Sally Shaywitz makes the following statement about “breaking the code:”

“The very first discovery a child makes on his way to reading is the realization that spoken words have parts. Suddenly a child appreciates that the word he hears comes apart into smaller pieces of sounds; he has developed phonemic awareness.” (Shaywitz, 2003)

For our daughter and trillions of other people like her, phonemic awareness is the first step towards learning to read. The meaningless letters that elude struggling readers start to have sounds and the sounds work together to create words. The alphabet comes alive!

If I could go back in time to our daughter’s pre-school years, I would forget about the alphabet as I knew it. I have a terrible voice so I would sing less, and talk more, exaggerating the sounds within the words. I would act out sounds, make more games of sounds, and stress the tiny sounds that comprise the small words in her rhyming books. Had I known then what I know now, I would have read my all-time favorite kid’s book, “Sheep in a Jeep,” nightly.

Let’s Re-think the Alphabet

The bottom line is that the alphabet is not as benign as it seems, and it’s the perfect place for us to start if we want more of our kids to read. If you know the Jackson 5 song “A, B, C,” you shouldn’t believe the lyrics. There’s nothing simple about A, B, C or even 1,2,3.  What do you think about the alphabet or how our kids learn to read?


Shaywitz (2003). Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at any Level. Vintage Books. New York, New York.

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